In the PBS documentary “Cab Calloway: Sketches,” the scat-jazz singer and bandleader is given proper stature alongside Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Calloway is “the Hi De Ho Man” — and “Sketches,” airing on KUED Ch. 7 on Monday, Feb. 27, at 9 p.m., is a highly entertaining but brief introduction to the national craze he began.
Calloway’s moniker came after “Minnie the Moocher,” his first hit recording that broke every existing record for all-black band audiences and has sold in the millions. The song is so wildly popular, with its “Hi de hi de hi de ho!” chorus, that Calloway even sang a version of it on “Sesame Street.” If you find the clip on YouTube, you’ll agree that it’s a scream.
His vocal style is a unique blend of hot scat singing and improvisation coupled with traditional vaudeville-like singing.
The charismatic music and dance pioneer of the Swing Era will always have a warm place in my heart for welcoming Johnny Whitaker to heaven in the Hallmark-NBC production of “The Littlest Angel.” The completely charming musical is available on DVD and my family enjoys viewing it at least once a year. (If you also treasure the 1969 TV show, sing along to the bouncy lyrics: “Welcome, Little Angel/Gabriel’s my name/On behalf of all of us/I’m mighty glad you came ”)
Calloway had two high-profile movies: 1943’s “Stormy Weather,” opposite Lena Horne, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Fats Waller, and he caused a sensation during a live performance in director John Landis’ “The Blues Brothers” nearly 40 years later.
In "Sketches," Landis is one of the experts on Calloway’s career interviewed, along with his daughters, Cecelia Calloway and Camay Calloway Brooks, and grandson Chris “Calloway” Brooks, who continues the legacy with the Cab Calloway Orchestra.
Clips of his onstage “theatrical craziness” of be-bopping dance moves while leading his band are a highlight of “Sketches.” Calloway is shown at the famed Cotton Club, a highly popular Harlem club where blacks were the featured performers but weren’t able to enter through the front door. In a voiceover, he also introduces an animated map of nightspots that included the Savoy and the Yeah Man, along with a restaurant recommendation with Harlem’s best fried chicken. “Man, is it good,” Calloway says.
“Sketches” includes reference to a gliding backstep dance move Calloway performed that he called “the buzz” but was a precursor to Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk.”
Of course, a one-hour documentary cannot contain a prolific performer’s entire list of credits, but it’s interesting to note that Calloway co-starred opposite Pearl Bailey on Broadway in the all-black cast in “Hello, Dolly!” and a 1953 production of “Porgy and Bess” as Sportin’ Life — a role George Gershwin reputedly based on Calloway.
Calloway also invented his own lingo, with phrases still in use today, that he defined in his Hepster Dictionary that accompanied publication of his sheet music in 1940.
“Sketches” airs as part of PBS’ American Masters, and according to Susan Lacy, the series executive producer, the documentary is designed as “a reprise of a timeless virtuoso.” And “Sketches” is just that — a tantalizing glimpse of the energetic showman.
Content advisory: single reference to marijuana.