Thursday, March 28, 2024

Blanche, The Original Calloway

One more Women's History Month post: 

I was surprised to learn of late that Cab "Reefer Man" Calloway had an older sister Blanche, who was also a musician and a big influence on him. 

"Before swing-era singer, actor, and bandleader Cab Calloway was a household name, he wasn’t even the biggest name in his household. That distinction went to Blanche Calloway, his vocalist older sister and the first woman to lead an all-male jazz orchestra," begins a 2022 article Harvard Magazine

"Blanche was known to be an incredible, charismatic performer, with a big personality. Her style and flair onstage was a huge inspiration for her younger brother, Cab Calloway, and she paved the way in show business for Cab," says an article in Opera Baltimore about the Baltimore-raised performer.  

Blanche Calloway and her younger brother Cab

In 1921, Blanche quit school at Morgan College, and toured around the country with cabaret groups, including the Smarter Set Co. In that same year, she made her professional debut in the first all-Black musical hit on Broadway, “Shuffle Along” written by Noble Sissle and fellow Baltimorean Eubie Blake, where she joined an all-star cast including Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, among others. 

In 1923, Blanche joined the cast of “Plantation Days,” a popular black musical revue, a gig that lead her to put her younger brother on stage for his first performance. By 1924, she was a mainstay at the Sunset Cafe, a nexus of the Chicago jazz scene that hosted stars like Adelaide Hall, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong—who played trumpet on her album the following year. 

"With a smooth alto voice that could modulate to jazzy growls or brass-like staccato, Calloway headlined across Chicago and in venues like the Harlem Opera House and the Apollo Theatre in New York," the Harvard Magazine article continues. 

In 1931, she launched her own touring and recording big band, Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys. The band recorded “Just a Crazy Song (Hi, Hi, Hi)" in March of 1931 with the call and response refrain “Hi, de, Ho,” the same month that Cab Calloway recorded his chart-topping single "Minnie the Moocher," which contains the same iconic refrain. She also composed and recorded “Growling Dan,” a song containing Minnie the Moocher in the lyrics.


In a scrapbook she curated of her career between 1934 and 1938—now held in the Harvard Theatre Collection at Houghton Library—Blanche documented a month of performances in December 1935 that included just one day off.

Harvard Magazine says:

But in a male-dominated and segregated industry, Blanche faced stubborn resistance. “I hope you’ll forgive this question,” a Boston radio interviewer asked her in 1937, “but I know it’s one that every listener would like to ask, just because you are a woman. Do you really rehearse your orchestra, and make them work, or do you leave that up to a man in the group?” Blanche wrote a faint note in the transcript’s margins: “I do the work.” 

The racial discrimination was worse. That same year, she was arrested and jailed after she used a whites-only women’s restroom while on tour in Yazoo, Mississippi; her husband was beaten with a revolver by police. She declared bankruptcy and disbanded her orchestra the next year. 

Blanche with the Joy Boys. Photo: The Harvard Theater Collection

In the following decades, Blanche went on to become a Democratic Committee Person in Philadelphia, and was the first African American voting clerk and first African American woman to vote in Florida in 1958.  She also worked as a nightclub manager Washington, D.C., and was the musical agent to Ruth Brown, often referred to as “the Queen of R&B,” who credits Blanche with discovering her and getting her signed with Atlantic Records. 

In the 1950s, Blanche worked as DJ for WMBM in Florida, which "was considered another first for a woman in the South," wrote the New York Times. She was a program director for the same station — a job she held for 20 years before she moved back to Baltimore and started her own cosmetics company serving African Americans. 

Before her death in 1978 at the age of 76, Blanche was active in Civil Rights organizations such as the NAACP, Congress for Racial Equality, and the National Urban League. In 1964, she and about forty other African American women protested with the NATO Women's Peace Force at The Hague.

Meanwhile, Blanche's brother Cab went on to much success. His 1976 memoir, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me, acknowledges his sister’s influence, describing Blanche as “vivacious, lovely, personality plus and a hell of a singer and dancer…fabulous, happy and extroverted.” 

The song "Minnie the Moocher" was popularized in part by a 1932 Betty Boop cartoon in which Cab appears. That same year, Fleischer Studios was sued by singer Helen Kane, who charged that Betty was a caricature of her. Indeed, the physical resemblance is striking, and Kane's singing style was almost identical to Betty's, including her signature rif, "Boop, Boop, Ba Doo." 

It was claimed in court that Kane based her style in part on Baby Esther, a child African American dancer and entertainer of the late 1920s. The Fleischers used as defense a film of Baby Esther, supposedly made in 1928, featuring her singing three songs that were popularized by Kane. However, Jazz Studies scholar Robert O'Meally has stated this evidence might very well have been fabricated by the Fleischers to discredit Kane. Before his death, cartoonist Grim Natwick admitted he had designed Betty based upon a photo of Kane. 

So, at the time, it was common practice for men to steal women's work and call it their own?

ADDENDUM: A bit of justice for Helen Kane comes in the Woody Allen movie "Zelig" where a faux record sung by Mae Questel, voice of Betty Boop, is attributed to Kane. 

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