Sometimes, you can tell that people aren’t cut out to follow in their parent’s footsteps. It’s something we’ve talked about now and again. Both people who fought their family and went into show business and people who tried to buck their family to avoid show business, as in Ida Lupino. And I suppose it’s always possible, when the person you’re dealing with is young, that they will give up their interest in something or shape up or whatever you want to call it. However, when you are hoping your child will follow in your footsteps and become a lawyer, you might want to consider that dicing on the steps of your church is an indicator that you’re just out of luck.
I can understand the wish. Cabell Calloway, Jr., became a lawyer in 1898; his son, Cabell Calloway, III, was born on Christmas 1907. When he was eleven, his father died. So he was the son of a black lawyer in those days, and his family wanted him to carry on that family tradition. I get that. However, he routinely skipped school to earn money. Even after a stint in his uncle’s reform school, he wasn’t interested—that’s when the dicing incident happened. He seems to have actually graduated from high school, but he certainly didn’t finish college.
It is quite clear that music was his passion, because that is a place he was organized and determined. He managed to get his mother and stepfather to pay for voice training. Despite his teachers’ and family’s dislike of jazz, he performed in nightclubs—and, well, became Cab Calloway. He was taught to scat by none other than Louis Armstrong. Yes, a band of his failed dismally, but he was asked to lead a different band almost immediately.
And that before he became truly famous. That band would become the replacement for Duke Ellington’s at the Cotton Club when he was on tour, by which point their name had been changed to simply “Cab Calloway and His Orchestra.” He was the first black person to have a nationally syndicated radio show, the first black person to sell a million records of a single song. He was earning $50,000 a year in 1930. All of this at 23. And unlike quite a lot of other people, he kept going.
In 1945, he was beaten by a police officer for “intoxication and resisting arrest,” for trying to visit a black bandleader at a whites-only club in Kansas City, Missouri. Because Calloway’s career was very much from a time where quite a lot of black musicians were performing for white people in clubs where black people couldn’t go. Still, the effects of Calloway’s style are still felt today. Not just in Wayne Brady’s delightful Calloway-inspired cover of “Thriller” for Postmodern Jukebox but in tone, in attitude, in style, in movement. There has never been anyone quite like Cab Calloway, but that didn’t prevent people from trying.