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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 166

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This is the grave of Cab Calloway.

Born in 1907 in Rochester to a fairly well-off family, Calloway grew up in Baltimore. His parents saw their son’s talent early on and paid for voice lessons. They did not like the new jazz scene of the 1920s, but Cab sure did and he began frequenting jazz clubs and playing in local bands. He was packed off to college to become an attorney, following his father, but that college was in Chicago and that was a center of the new music. Cab had a lot more interest in music than his studies and dropped out, much to his parents’ disapproval.

It worked out pretty well for him. In the 1930s, he became one of the biggest musical stars in the nation. In 1931, the usual house band for the Cotton Club in Harlem, a little band called the Duke Ellington Orchestra that is totally unremembered today (wonder what happened to that guy?) was on tour and Calloway’s band was hired as the substitutes. They were huge hits, were raised to co-house band status with Ellington, got a ton of radio play, and started going on tour. “Minnie the Moocher” came that year and would remain his signature song. He got his first film role in 1936, with Al Jolson in The Singing Kid. He remained hugely popular for the rest of the decade. He also once got into a fight with his young trumpter on stage. That kid was named Dizzy Gillespie, who stabbed Calloway in the leg with a knife. And when he wasn’t playing, Calloway had his own barnstorming basketball and baseball team made up of jazz musicians that included Gillespie before the stabbing, Milt Hinton, and others.

When musical styles changed during and after World War II, Calloway didn’t really change with it. He became an old-timer, doing the old tunes, but stayed a relatively popular performer, even if he wasn’t charting anymore, because those tunes were so classic. He appeared on various TV shows over the years, on Broadway, and in occasional films, including most famously in The Blues Brothers in 1980. He worked with students in the arts, performed with his band in the U.S. and Europe and lived the life of an elder statesman of American music. He died in 1994 after a stroke.

Cab Calloway is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.

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