Cotton Club Revue Season #1: 1957, from Miami to New York and Las Vegas

In the Fifties, Miami became the place to be: hotels and resorts, nightclubs, beaches, the city was magic. Before retirees, tourists were the main source of income. It made sense for entrepreneurs to try their luck with an ambitious revue. Glamour, chorus girls, tap dance and entertainment were on the menu. And if you add Cab Calloway as the main course, you’re headed for success. So they say. And so it happened... well, at the beginning.

 

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An ambitious producer’s project

Early on, the Cotton Club Revue in Miami is a project planned with big ambition. It must be said that it was growing in Murray WEINGER’s brain for a long time. The "real" Cotton Club in Downtown Manhattan closed in 1940 (see our article) and this young Miami cabaret owner - who until now has had more downs than ups - is determined to resurrect the prestigious nightclub. Weinger negotiates for the use of the name "Cotton Club" but wants to build on his ambition.

 

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Clarence ROBINSON (1900-1975) rehearsing with chorus girls in Miami.

Secretly, he gets in touch with Clarence ROBINSON (1900-1975). The latter has already produced revues at the original Cotton Club and the Apollo, and even choreographed the movie Stormy Weather. This is a man of experience, besides being married to Hyacinth Curtis, a former Cotton Club chorus girl.

 

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Benny DAVIS (1895-1979)

They strengthen their team with writer-director Benny DAVIS (1895-1979), and work in secret during for 6 months. Benny Davis also has great expertise in the field since the success of Eddie Cantor with "Margie" and wrote the lyrics for many songs of the Cotton Club revues, such as "Doin ‘The Suzy-Q "," Frisco Flo ", "Hi De Ho Miracle Man”, “Hi De Ho Romeo”, “I’m Madly In Love With You”, “Miss Brown Hallelujah”, etc. (See Songwriters Hall Of Fame). Fans of Cab Calloway are obviously familiar with that songbook.

Listen to those tunes by Cab on Spotify

 

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A troupe of 48 artists

From the beginning of October 1956, the press announces that Clarence Robinson has casted Cab Calloway as the top attraction for his forthcoming project in Miami. According to The New York Age, Mercer ELLINGTON (Duke’s son) and his orchestra would take care of the musical part (Oct. 6, 1956). The castings are held in New York, as are the two-week rehearsals. Then come three weeks of rehearsals in Miami where the troupe was transported by special coach.

And in November 1956 the press describes the cast of the upcoming review of the Cotton Club of Miami. Already announced around Cab Calloway are the likes of Sally BLAIR, George KIRBY, Willie GAINES and the dance troupe of Norma MILLER. There is already in the talks talk of a probable "segment on nation-wide TV"...

The cost of production is estimated at $ 100,000 and includes an orchestra of 14 musicians, 8 dancers, 4 show girls, and other attractions, for a total of 48 people.

 

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READ OUR FULL-LENGTH ARTICLE ABOUT THE 1957 CAST

 

Curtain up at the Beachcomber

The Cotton Club Revue of 1957 lifts the curtain at the end of December 1956 at the “Cotton Club” – the former location of the “Beachcomber” (1,100 seats). The show lasts 90 minutes. “It’s truly a great show and if this cannot beat television, then nothing can.” (- Al Dunmore in Pittsburgh Courier, January 5, 1957).

The food and drink minimum is just $ 3.50 per person (single menu with fried chicken or spare ribs), a price quite reasonable considering the “quantity” and quality of the artists.

 

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The engagement barely started, when George WEINGER (manager of the place and Murray’s brother) and Jerry HIRSCH (stage manager) are robbed by two guys who steal $ 40,000 (including $6,000 of Cab’s that was in a vault)!

A week later, Murray WEINGER dies of a heart attack at only 39 years old. He had was just been trying to manage the transfer of the show from the “Beachcomber” to “Copa City”, a much bigger venue (capacity 3,000 people!). His widow Rusty then takes over the management.

 

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Norma MILLER and Cab Calloway doing their Shakespearian routine "Romeo and Juliet"

Immediate success

The success of the revue is immediate. Some acts attract more attention than others, including one where Cab is dressed as Shakespeare with a guitar and does a duet number with Norma Miller on the theme of Romeo and Juliet, a genuine parody of Elvis’s rock then in vogue. Here's an excerpt:

Cab (Romeo): When I climb her balcony, it stays climbed.

Norma Miller (Juliet) arrives and requests to hear some Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Cab: I’m not Elvis the Pelvis.

Norma: No, you’re not even his brother Eenis.

Cab pleads with her to flee with him across yon causeway where they’ll find a motel.

Cab: A motel is a hotel with the honor system. No house detectives.

Then Cab sings the Rock ‘n’ Roll Romeo, “probably the funniest number to be sung in a club show in the past 15 years”

(Dialogs and quote from Cabaret, August 1957)

 

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The delightful Sallie BLAIR

But it’s Sallie BLAIR (see our article) who mainly attracts attention; especially with her 9-mn medley with Hold 'Em Joe and That Old Black Magic which "automatically makes the word sex more exciting than respectable but no less than petit-point.” (Cabaret, Aug 1957).

Within just 10 days, 30,000 people attend the show! And to cope with the influx, a third show is scheduled every night. A first in Miami since 1941! To the point that it gives ideas to the William Morris Agency who asks Timmie Rogers to create a show in the style of the Cotton Club for the Elegante Theatre in Brooklyn the following March. NBC even considers televising the Miami show. Unfulfilled.

The rather good business for Cab gives him the opportunity for a quick trip to New York where he takes the keys to his new home in Westchester, early February 1957.

 

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Cab Calloway's home in Weschester on Knollwood Road (2008)

 

A big band with some old pals

Ultimately, Mercer Ellington and his orchestra are not part of the adventure. Rather it’s saxophonist Eddie BAREFIELD to whom is entrusted the musical direction of the revue and who leads the big band.

 

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Cab Calloway and Eddie BAREFIELD preparing the show in 1957.

Barefield is far from being an unknown to Cab. He is indeed an old Cab Calloway companion having entered Cab’s orchestra in 1933 where he shined with his solo on Moonglow (1933). He had left the band after filming The Singing Kid in 1936 and moved to the West Coast, with bassist Al Morgan to found his own orchestra. From 1951 and the sporadic reformation of his large band (especially for tours in South America and Cuba), Cab hired Eddie Barefield again. The latter remains his music director until the late ’70s, alternating with pianist Danny Holgate.

At the time of the tour, Eddie Barefield is also a studio musician, especially for NBC-TV; he runs a Broadway pit orchestra (for A Streetcar named Desire); and he also gives saxophone lessons.

 

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Cab Calloway rehearsing the band for the Cotton Club Revue in Miami (Eddie Barefield is on far left)

Naturally, Cab’s former partners are found on the bandstand, such as trumpeter Lammar WRIGHT (read our article). On the Gone album to be released in March 1958 (and we're talking about it in detail here), the list of former band members includes:

Lammar WRIGHT, tp

• Johnny LETMAN, tp

Eddie BAREFIELD, as

Chauncey HAUGHTON, as.

For the stage orchestra, the dancer Deedee Lynn COTTON remembers Michael SILVER on drums and Frank ORANGE on piano. Later he’ll become Sammy DAVIS Jr.’s drummer.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find other details in my research. Via a press clip from August 1957 to mark Cab’s umpteenth ticket for speeding, we learn that he was then with one of his musicians, Chester SMITH whom I could not identify more precisely.

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The Royal Nevada in April 1957

A few weeks in Las Vegas

In April 1957, thanks to its success on the East Coast, the Cotton Club Revue moves to the Royal Nevada Hotel in Las Vegas. This time the troupe crosses the continent together in the same plane. Everyone is excited to the point that the pilot has to speak announce on the microphone: “Look, you guys gonna have to stop that singin’ and dancin’.”

The opening night in Las Vegas, Variety reports that “most of the town’s headliners were at the Royal Nevada late show Friday night to see Cab Calloway and The Cotton Club Revue. Biggest yocks came from Pearl Bailey, when George Kirby DID His impresh of her.” (Variety, April 22, 1957).

 

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Local advertisement for the Cotton Club Revue at the Royal Nevada (from Joan Myers Brown's book)

 

Competition is stiff in the city of all sins: the musical “Can-Can” is at the Hacienda, but thanks to its excellent reviews, the Cotton Club Revue works particularly well. All the performers are recognized for their talents.

Show times are at 8:15 and midnight with a third show on Friday and Saturday at 2:30A.M...

 

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Cab Calloway's ID for the segregated Miami (1957)

Segregation in Miami as in Las Vegas

Important point: whether in Miami or Las Vegas, black artists – whatever their role including featured chorus girls – were not allowed to stay in any hotel on the Strip where they were playing.

Moreover, dancer Norma MILLER says in her memoirs, “We were to be the first all-black show to play the Beachcomber in Miami Beach. During rehearsal, racial tensions surfaced. The day of our big dress rehearsal there were headlines in the Miami Sun telling Murray Weinger that they didn’t want his colored show on the beach.” (in Stompin’ At The Savoy, page 212).

Deedee LYNN-COTTON in her 1998 interview specifies that every black artist had to have on him a special ID card issued by the sheriff. After the show, all were back in the reserved area, the Biscayne, at the Sir John Hotel. The same occurred in Las Vegas where the band lived on the Westside. But each star had a personal trailer to use as their changing room. She noted that, nevertheless, they were allowed to dine there.

In 1988, when the Coppola’s movie The Cotton Club starring Gregory HINES was released, the great dancer’s tap dance evokes the segregation experienced during its his participation in the review of Miami revue (we will talk about him in the 1958 Season 2):

"The Club was in the white section of town, off of Miami Beach, and we had to live in the Carver Hotel in the Black section. We had to get police cards, get fingerprinted, and carry the cards with us. When a cop stopped us and asked what we were doing there, we had to show the cards. I was 11 years old, and growing up in New York, my parents hesitated in telling me what the real deal was. So, I was in line in Miami and they had the « Colored » water fountain and the ‘White’ water fountain. I didn’t want any water that was ‘colored, red, blue, etc.’ I went toward the White fountain, and when I got about 3 feet from it, about 10 people from the cast ran over to me and tried to stop me. Then, I figured the whole thing out. It was painful. My parents were trying to shield me from racism. They didn’t know how to bring it up.”

(In Ebony, November 1988, p. 178).

 

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In New York in a theater in the middle of Central Park

The tour step stop in New York is supposed to happen at the famous and coveted Palace Theatre on Broadway. It eventually takes place at Theatre Under The Sky in Central Park. Staged at the Wollman Memorial (usually a place for skating in winter), in a 3000-seat wooden arena near 65th street, it offers fantastic views of the buildings surrounding Central Park.

Naturally, when it rains at night, the show has more difficulties lasting through until the end.  July 9, moreover, on opening night when all the press is there, Cab must stop the show before the end, most of the audience having left to a find dry shelter.

For this series of performances, the cast has changed a bit. Admittedly Sallie Blair raised the enthusiasm of many fans and not only for her vocal talents. Her first album released by Bethlehem entitled "Squeeze Me" – something that many will want to do. And some even got the opportunity to accomplish just that, like Sammy DAVIS Jr.

 

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Cab Calloway and Abbey LINCOLN (1930-2010)
(newspaper clip from Daniel Richard's collection)

Sallie is replaced by the young Abbey LINCOLN (1930-2010). At the time, she is a nightclub singer in the Big Apple. The critics think that she still lacks a bit of strength to front the revue’s big band. Her songs in the show include “The Battle of Jericho”.

The revue has a mixed critical and public welcome. But how to full fill 3000 outdoor seats– the outdoor location undoubtedly affecting a lot of the music’s punch... and the jokes and numbers that work in Miami are sometimes snubbed by the New York critics.

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A rare color picture of the Cotton Club Revue under the stars in New York in July 1957.
Abbey Lincoln and George Kirby are surrounded by the Norma Miller dancers (photo: Robert Parent)

Besides, Charles McHarry in the New York Daily News writes “Ho-Hum, No Hi-De-Ho Park In New Theatre.” As a result, there are apparently a lot of empty seats every evening.

Only Cab Calloway is spared, notably in Variety July 17, 1957:

“Calloway, of course, who is a genuine holdover of the Cotton Club era, is a true spark plug in this venture. He batons with spirit, sings and romps and shows all-round excellence in every department.”

This does not prevent the production from imagining Sugar Ray ROBINSON as headliner for the considered European version... Nothing results again.

 

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George Kirby and Abbey Lincoln waiting for the sun...

I have not found any other performance dates before the winter season in Miami, except in September 1957. On the 17th, the revue settles for a week in Buffalo, in upstate New York. Succeeding Sammy DAVIS Jr. at the Town Casino, Cab Calloway gives a lighter version of the Cotton Club Revue. Only Norma MILLER and her dancers remain in the troupe. The Romeo and Juliet rock duo is preserved but Cab sings solo most of the show, in particular, Right Time, That Old Black Magic, Taking a Chance On Love, St James Infirmary and of course, Minnie The Moocher. Besides, the show does not bear the name “Cotton Club Revue.”

 

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Still, it seems that Cab is very busy outside nightclubs.

 

TV and filming with Nat King Cole

On August 16, 1957 he begins a week at the Club Bolero in Wildwood, NJ before appearing on TV on August 18 on the famous Ed SULLIVAN Show on CBS: there he sings It Ain’t Necessarily So and Blues In The Night, two titles not included in the revue, but some of his earlier successes. Cab, however, appears in his then traditional purple tailcoat.

 

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In its September 26, 1957 edition, TV Guide says “Cab Calloway quits Hallmark’s Green Pastures production, when he learned they had been keeping him on the string, while the role was being offered to four others. Cab remembered a previous movie commitment”. This is indeed the St. Louis Blues movie, biopic of W.C. HANDY.

 

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Nat King COLE and Cab Calloway duetting on the set of St Louis Blues.
They'll appear and sing together later on Nat's TV show.

Filming takes place in October and on the 22nd of that month, Cab Calloway is the guest of his movie partner Nat King Cole on his television program, The Nat King Cole Show. Both sing in turns and duets, including a wonderful “Don’t Fence Me In”. Some day, The Hi De Ho Blog will tell you all about this fabulous program where you can see Cab Calloway dressed as cowboy and complaining of the arrival of Rock ‘n’ Roll! (Meanwhile, you can watch the video on our Facebook page...)

In late November, pending the resumption of the revue, Cab sings at Stage Coach Inn at Hackensack, NJ.

Soon, the Cotton Club revue will resume in Miami, for the good… and the bad.

 

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Cab Calloway in front of the Cotton Club in Miami, 1957

 

> Discover the second season:

"1958: Under the palm trees and the rain in Miami"

 


References:

 

Many thanks to Keller WHALEN for his continuous support , proviving documents and advice, and help on translation.

 

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