Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cab Calloway: Sketches (PBS, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards PBS showed a one-hour American Masters on Cab Calloway, called “Cab Calloway: Sketches,” which was an interesting program but could have been better if the director, Gail Davis, had trusted her material more. “This film is not just another biopic in the sense of interviews and recollections, but a reinvigoration of the whole Calloway presence – a reprise of a timeless virtuoso,” Davis said in an interview on the PBS Web site, which meant in practice that the film was tied together by a sketch artist doing a life-size drawing of Calloway in action, and though there were some interesting interviews (two of his daughters and his grandson Cab Calloway Brooks, who leads a Calloway revival band and contributed a fascinating little demonstration of the Calloway sound — according to Brooks, Calloway had his bass player play just ahead of the beat, his drummer right on it and his saxes lag behind a bit) some of the talking heads were almost unbearably pretentious — notably jazz historian Gary Giddins and especially self-proclaimed “hanging judge” Stanley Crouch, a Right-wing African-American with a really pompous and supercilious manner who made the point that aside from Louis Armstrong, every Black performer who’s crossed over to the white audience has been light-skinned. (He’s not quite right — does the name Nat “King” Cole mean anything to him? Or Ella Fitzgerald? —  but he has a point; he suggested that the relatively light complexions of Duke Ellington and Calloway echoed through the ages until they ended up in Michael Jackson’s physical transformation, and tried to extrapolate from that the idea that white audiences like their Black entertainers as “white” as possible: Ellington, Calloway, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and those chorines at the Cotton Club who had to pass the so-called “brown paper bag” test: they couldn’t have skin darker than a brown paper grocery bag — though Armstrong’s last wife Lucille broke the color line at the Cotton Club and Louis was proud of her for that!) I rued all the stupid talking heads for taking time away when we could have been watching Calloway — who was filmed quite often (probably more than any of the other great Black crossover artists of his generation) because his act was so spectacularly visual: he was both a great singer and a fabulous dancer.

The show also made me more curious about Cab’s sister, Blanche Calloway, who led a band of her own called “Blanche Calloway’s Joy Boys” and really did do a woman’s version of Cab’s act — though apparently it was Blanche who blazed the trail and Cab who followed: the show includes a record she made for the cheapie Melotone label called “Growlin’ Dan” that apparently contained most of the lyrics of “Minnie the Moocher,” the song that launched Calloway to mega-stardom and is, as the show pointed out, a quite dark number about mercenary sex and drugs that probably passed muster with the censors in the record and movie businesses just because the white censors were too naïve to realize what it was about. (The show includes a bit of Cab’s performance in the film The Big Broadcast, in which he did “Kickin’ the Gong Around,” one of the follow-ups he did to “Minnie” and an even more explicitly drug-oriented song — but, alas, it left out the astonishing gesture in which Cab puts the sleeve of his jacket to his nose and sniffs it, making visually clear what the lyrics are about!) Cab Calloway: Sketches is a bit of a missed opportunity — maybe this sort of documentary might be appropriate for a subject like Charlie Parker, of whom very little film exists, but for someone who was filmed as often as Calloway, and as spectacularly (in everything from Betty Boop cartoons to band shorts for Paramount and Warners and full-length features — The Big Broadcast and International House at Paramount and The Singing Kid at Warners — preserving some of his astonishing specialties at a time when he was in both his physical and musical prime — as well as some early-1940’s “Soundies” that preserve his best band, the one with Dizzy Gillespie, Chu Berry, Milt Hinton and Cozy Cole), the documentary should have presented as many clips as possible, at full length (a particular bête noire with me and music documentaries: instead of slicing filmed performances into little snippets and/or having people talk over them, why not show complete songs, start to finish, and give the neophytes a fair chance to appreciate just how great these people were?), with minimal interviews and commentaries to narrate the performer’s life story and put the clips in context.

The show got better later on when in fact it did just that: Levin interviewed John Landis, director of The Blues Brothers, about how Calloway came to be in that movie and to do a revival version of “Minnie the Moocher,” and his accounts (and those of the famous musicians who appeared in that movie, including guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn — both white, by the way) of how Calloway’s number went down were marvelous. It seems that Landis and his musicians took great pains to obtain the original charts for Calloway’s 1931 record of “Minnie,” only when Cab came to the studio to record the song he said, “What’s this old shit?” It turned out that the year before he had recorded a disco remake of “Minnie” and he wanted to do that version in the film to promote his new record — and Landis had to talk him out of it as politely as possible and say the whole point of his appearance was to evoke the glory days of the 1930’s. Calloway relented and let the band cut “Minnie” with the old arrangement — they were using the standard modern technique of recording the backing first and adding the vocal later — and when Calloway went into the vocal booth they did about six takes and Landis said of the last one, “It’s good,” but he made it clear that “good” wasn’t good enough for what he wanted — and a pissed-off Cab went back into the booth and recorded the superb version that’s in the movie (which I recall in toto as an atrocious movie made watchable only by the superb Black guest stars: Calloway, James Brown, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin).