Continuing its celebration of Black History Month, PBS premieres American Masters' documentary Cab Calloway: Sketches on the 27th of February. Born in 1907 Calloway was to become one of the best known entertainers of the thirties and the big band era. His vocal gymnastics combined with his gyrating dancing and flamboyant personality made him unique not only among the black superstars of the period, but among all performers regardless of race. Filmmaker Gail Levin has created an important study that is less concerned with the details of his life than it is with trying to understand his success in the context of the socio-cultural environment of the time.
The film traces his career from his initial failure as a bandleader at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, where he and his band were let go after two weeks, to his successes at the famed Cotton Club and in films like Stormy Weather, his stint as Sporting Life, a role that was modeled on him by the Gershwins in Porgy and Bess, and his introduction to a new generation in John Landis' 1980 film The Blues Brothers.
He comes to New York at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. It was a period when African American artists in all genres were demanding recognition beyond the stereotypes common in the segregated white society. New York City's Harlem, a center of Black migration north, was quickly becoming the black cultural capital of the country. It was there one could find writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and leaders like W. E. B. DuBois. It was there one could find musical giants like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and Calloway was to emerge as a giant in his own right.
Archival footage demonstrates his dynamic performances; this was an artist who knew how to take the stage and command attention. Whether in a tuxedo or a zoot suit, this was a man who exuded confidence and assurance. His voice was his instrument, and he played it with virtuoso style and energy. "Minnie the Moocher," the song that is identified with his name was one of the earliest black performances to go mainstream, and this despite the dark nature of its subject matter. "Hi de hi de hi de ho" was to become a tagline that followed him for the whole of his life.