The Calloway Siblings
Blanche Calloway was a jazz singer, composer, bandleader, and older sister of Cab Calloway. A successful singer before her brother, she was the first woman to leads an all-male orchestra. Born February 9, 1902 in Rochester, NY, her family moved to Baltimore, MD around 1912. In 1921, Calloway left home to tour with cabaret troops, and she made her professional debut in Baltimore in 1921 in the Josephine Baker-led musical ‘Shuffle Along.’ In 1923 she went on the national tour for Plantation Days, which featured her idol, Florence Mills, and after the show ended in 1927 in Chicago, Calloway decided to stay there. Her brother, Cab Calloway, soon followed, gaining fame in his own right as a singer and performer. The two often performed as a brother and sister act, yet Blanche became much more popular than her brother in the Chicago entertainment scene, making around two to three hundred dollars a week, and began to tour nationally. In 1925, she recorded two blues songs, one of which featured Louis Armstrong; after performing with her brother’s band, she began to work with an orchestra called the Clouds of Joy in 1931. Led by Andy Kirk, Blanche recorded three songs with the Clouds of Joy , including a song which later became her trademark: “I Need Lovin”. While working with Kirk, Blanche learned extensively about music management. After leaving the Clouds of Joy, she formed her own big band: Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys. This made her the first woman to lead an all-male jazz orchestra. The band performed and recorded from 1931 to 1935, releasing recordings on RCA Victor under the name ‘Blanche Calloway and Her Orchestra.‘ In 1933, the Pittsburgh Courier called Calloway and her orchestra one of the top ten outstanding Black American orchestras. Despite her success, Blanche struggled in the racially segregated and male-dominated music industry of the period. As a Black American performer, she and her band had to frequently play to segregated audiences, and while on tour in 1936, she was arrested and jailed after using a white-only woman’s bathroom at a gas station in Mississippi. Blanche was also known as an lively and dramatic entertainer whose style heavily influenced her brother Cab, but her provocative lyrics and flamboyant style were seen as inappropriate for a woman. By the mid-1930s, her career had stalled while her brother grew in popularity. In 1938, she declared bankruptcy and broke up her orchestra. She moved to Philadelphia in the mid-1940s becoming well known as a socialite and getting into local politics as a Democratic committeewoman. In the early 1950s, Calloway moved to Washington, D.C., where she managed the nightclub Crystal Caverns. In the late 50s, Calloway moved to Florida and became a dj in Miami Beach, working her way up to becoming program director of the station where she worked for 20 years. While in Miami, Blanche became the first Black American precinct voting clerk, and the first Black American woman to vote in Florida in 1958. She was an active member of the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality, also serving on the board of the National Urban League. Around 1968, she formed Afram House, a mail-order cosmetics company for Black Americans. In the 70s, Blanche retired from radio and moved back to Baltimore, where she married her high school sweetheart. She died from breast cancer on December 16, 1978, at the age of 76.
Calloway was born in Rochester, New York, on Christmas Day in 1907 to an African American family. His mother, Martha Eulalia Reed, was a Morgan State College graduate, teacher, and church organist. His father, Cabell Calloway Jr., graduated from Lincoln University of Pennsylvania in 1898, and worked as a lawyer and in real estate. The family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, when Calloway was 11.
Cabell Calloway III (December 25, 1907 – November 18, 1994) was an American jazz singer, songwriter, dancer, bandleader, conductor and actor. He was associated with the Cotton Club in Harlem, where he was a regular performer and became a popular vocalist of the swing era. His niche of mixing jazz and vaudeville won him acclaim during a career that spanned over 65 years.
Calloway was a master of energetic scat singing and led one of the most popular dance bands in the United States from the early 1930s to the late 1940s. His band included trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Jonah Jones, and Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham, saxophonists Ben Webster and Leon “Chu” Berry, guitarist Danny Barker, bassist Milt Hinton, and drummer Cozy Cole.
Calloway had several hit records in the 1930s and 1940s, becoming known as the “Hi-de-ho” man of jazz for his most famous song, “Minnie the Moocher“, originally recorded in 1931. He reached the Billboard charts in five consecutive decades (1930s–1970s). Calloway also made several stage, film, and television appearances until his death in 1994 at the age of 86. He had roles in Stormy Weather (1943), Porgy and Bess (1953), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and Hello Dolly! (1967). His career saw renewed interest when he appeared in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers.
Calloway was the first African-American musician to sell a million records from a single and to have a nationally syndicated radio show. In 1993, Calloway received the National Medal of Arts from the United States Congress. He posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. His song “Minnie the Moocher” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and added to the Library of Congress‘ National Recording Registry in 2019. He is also inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame and the International Jazz Hall of Fame.