The name “Calloway” was a huge path to success. Before Cab, of course, there was Blanche, the elder sister (born in 1903) who started out with Louis Armstrong before having her own orchestra in 1931. But what few of us know is that Cab had a younger brother who also happened to lead his own orchestra. But to find out more about Elmer Calloway, you have to search and search and search. But don’t try searching at Cab’s house.
(Rochester, NY, July 14, 1912 – Atlanta, GA, April 2, 1979)
First, a sports guy!
Milton Elmer Calloway was born in Rochester, NY, like his siblings Blanche and Cabell III, from his mother Eulalia REED and father Cabell CALLOWAY II (who died 15 months later).
Elmer probably had the same musical education as his sister and brother, but we have no other details. He was certainly influenced by the budding musical career of her sister and the sports ability of his brother.
The first known (but not confirmed) occurrence of Elmer in newspapers is dated 1925. He may appear in a photo of Grace Boy’s basketball team from Baltimore, as the “mascot” (seated, holding the ball). This could make sense since at this time, his brother Cab was playing for the Douglass basketball team and was later recruited by the Baltimore Athenians in 1925.
Another sports connection is tennis: there’s an Elmer Calloway who plays in the junior league Tennis (in 1925) and who had his collar bone broken in 1929 while playing basketball at high school. This had probably ended his sports career…
According to the April 1930 Census (kindly provided by Steve Bowie), Elmer then lived at his uncle’s house, 1316 Carey Street in Baltimore. Milton REED (younger brother of Eulalia Reed, Elmer’s mother) was 29 and teacher at the Public School. They have a radio set at home where they can listen to the young stars of the family, Blanche and Cabell…
Entering the show business with a war between bands…
Elmer Calloway didn’t play any instruments, but a promoter had the idea of taking advantage of his fashionable name.
On March 2, 1931 – Minnie The Moocher hasn’t been recorded yet but Cab’s success has been growing fast within the last year – there’s already a battle of bands organized at Baltimore’s New Albert Hall, billing Elmer as Cab’s brother (Cab had just played there with the Missourians on January 29 and was then replacing Duke ELLINGTON at Harlem’s Cotton Club).
“Negro Junior Bandsmen Tune Up For Big Contest” headlines The Evening Sun (February 25, 1931) and talks about “the first annual junior band war” organized as a 30-minute performance for each orchestra, then 15-minute rebuttals. “The winning orchestra will be picked by a committee of judges and by the crowd”. No mention of Elmer appears and probably the promoter Louise REIN (“colored impresario”) added his name to Turk’s Manhattans. I found no other information about this young band. I don’t know if it was turned into the Elmer Calloway’s orchestra after or if it vanished as fast as it blossomed… Only one advertisement shows Elmer’s name.
The three other battling bands remain unknown or so. Jack MOULTON (appearing with 9 musicians) became a local radio orchestra.
Joe BAILEY’s Cloud of Joy stayed… in the cloud! But eventually, Joe became Elmer’s pianist in his orchestra a few weeks later.
Banjo BERNIE and his orchestra
Only Banjo BERNIE was already playing as early as 1928, in New York as the “Lenox Avenue Club orchestra”. In 1930, his “Alabamians” came from the Juiler Hotel and played the Club Alabam in Baltimore. He was still active in 1933 in Harlem and on the East Coast, as “Banjo Bernie and his Hot Poppas”, touring with his own bus and later named his band “the Cottonaires” from a “Cotton Club fame” that has never been confirmed! Amusingly, he was once billed as “Banjo Bernie and his Stepin-Fetchit Orchestra” for a dance organized by the American Legion in Fort Lauderdale, FL. He got the money but failed to appear. He was arrested and sentenced to 85 days in jail… Never mess with the American Legion! Last ad with his name appears in June 1944.
Coincidentally, Robert WOODLEN who played trumpet in Elmer’s orchestra also worked previously in Banjo Bernie’s band. He tells of the way Bernie managed his troupe and his music:
“Now, it is a funny thing, but we youngsters loved to play with Banjo Bernie. You would go out and spend a couple of days out on the road with him and many times he’d never pay you. Mostly, we’d do this in the summertime, and we just could not get the money out of him. He was a wonderful musician, he played trumpet and banjo — of course, banjo was his instrument. He also used to arrange things and he was famous for re-writing the melody. For instance, in the case of the trumpets, he would put the melody in one key for one trumpet and in another for the other. Therefore, you had a very unusual sound. It was good for those days but I don’t know how it would be for today.” (in Storyville N°85).
The Baltimore Sun dated March 3, 1931 states that neither the jury nor the crowd has been able to pick the winner. Police stopped the event at midnight. Elmer Calloway isn’t even mentionned in the review of the evening.
At the sports dance of the New Jersey Tennis Country Club at the end of July 1931, Elmer is seen leading and singing in front of the Percy GLASCOE’s Plantation Orchestra, a trained local band led by a clarinetist that got its start in 1925.
An all-new orchestra set up for its brand new leader
Later in 1931, an orchestra with Elmer Calloway’s name on top was created in Washington, DC.
According to Fred NORMAN (1910-1993), trombone and arranger in Elmer’s band interviewed by Stanley DANCE for The World of Swing, “it was a good band based in Washington, although some of the musicians were imported from Baltimore. None of them was well known, but one of the trumpet players is big in the Latin field in New York, now.” The trumpet is Robert ‘Bobby’ WOODLEN. Another musician in the orchestra, Val VALENTINE (trumpet) said in a 1988 interview that “most of the men in this band were students at Howard University, playing at night to earn their tuition” (The Indianapolis Recorder, May 7, 1988). Fred and Val’s memories are not totally accurate since drummer Percy JOHNSON for instance had a long and wide experience of the stage and the life in an orchestra, having toured Europe with Josephine BAKER, Russia and South America with Sam WOODING in 1925-26 (see below, musicians’ biography).
“Elmer Calloway, the younger brother of the now famous Cab and Blanche Calloway, has a feverish orchestra of younger players that really turn out some red-hot music that clings.” (Pittsburgh Courier, January 9, 1932).
Club Prudhom, the Cotton Club of the South
The orchestra played for two seasons in a venue located in the Black district of Washington, Club Prudhom, at the intersection of 11th Avenue and the famous U Street. Fred Norman adds: “A lot of white people came from downtown, and the idea was to have like a Cotton Club in Washington.”
Published November 5, 1931 in Hilltop, the Howard University newspaper
The week beginning November 7 1931, Blanche Calloway and her orchestra played at the Howard Theatre in Washington and were even broadcast over local radio WJSV. Coincidentally, Club Prudhom opened in November 1931, on the site of the former Chinese restaurant “Bamboo Inn”, which opened in September 1929. The place belonged to Asian entrepreneur Lee P. Fong, and was already a place appreciated by students who could dance under the music of an 8-musician orchestra. When it closed in April 1931, all its furniture and material was sold at a public auction. After remodeling the place, the new owners published this ad above at the opening, to inform their student patrons that 1918, 10th Avenue-U Street was still the place to be. And notice that Elmer’s name is already in the advertisement.
A large electric sign outside, located inside the Masonic Temple Building, Club Prudhom was considered the “first venture of its kind in the District of Columbia”. The “night club offering a floor show and has patronage of all races. It employs 60 people and has a payroll of more than $1,000 a week. Almost nightly it is filled to capacity and crowds line the street waiting to get in.” (Afro American, December 26, 1931).
Columnist Floyd G. SNELSON, Jr. in Pittsburgh Courier dated January 9, 1932 is enthusiastic about Club Prudhom: “It contains and embodies a true bohemian atmosphere and a coy night life spirit that is seldom found away from the metropolis. It was surprising that such fascinating surroundings and amicable black-and-tan association could be found on the borders of the Mason and Dixon line.”
Its direct concurrent was Crystal Caverns, located on the other side of the street.
In “The Capital After Yawning”, Jolly FORSYTHE explains in a long article the mood in and out of Club Prudhom:
“All may seem quiet on the Potomac to the casual observer, who in passing, sees nothing glittering and attractive from the outside life of the Washingtonians, but there is lots behind the scenes that most of us never know nor even hear about. Just for a little of the Bohemian or Scandinavian choose one or both, we will take in a few of the brighter spots of the town. Washington boasts two of the best neat clubs of the Eastern Coast… Prudhom and Crystal Caverns, both of them black and tan resorts… and both of them lean slightly, or rather specifically both of them possess more of the tan than of the black… but especially over weekends the colored populace is conspicuous… for the most part you’ll find the yawning depots crammed to the brim with local white college students… Maryland, Georgetown, George Washington, Catholic U, and any number of colleges in the neighborhood are well represented, and to park your car near either of the clubs after midnite is a game… Then there is the sprinkling of business men, you know... the tired business men… ho-hum… diplomats and sundry others… and on celebrity nite you’ll find there, possibly, Jimmy Dunn, James Cagney, Kate Smith, or Ziegfield’s entire salvo of startling American beauties… chief of the police force, Glaseford has even been among the smiling guests at the Prudhom and listened attentively as Bea Foote sings and shakes… while the brother of the one and only Cab Calloway leads the bands… Blondina Sterns is the other leading at the Klub Prudhom, but we just must remember the charming sweet-voiced Helen Stewart… the food here is good and music is good… even the colored collegians find that they can stand it once in a while… cover charge has been lifted and the average spender could spare $3 or $3.50 per couple and not feel stripped… which of course does not include the tip for the waiter… two or three or maybe more of your favorite entertainers and then the check room girl and tie cigarette girl… all of this is part of the routine, and you fall in just to be conventional. Mixed parties are taboo, and the proverbial ‘floater’ [slang for a person of either race at the club who moves indiscriminately between a table of white patrons and a table of black patrons] is blacklisted and the management permits no ‘stags’ [slang for any man who comes to an event alone without a date]… even though we are just below the brink of the Mason Dixon line the whites usually crane their necks till they are most near black and blue when a light complexioned colored party comes in, but the colored party never blinks an eye or even gives them a glance… colored patrons, though few in number, come from either the society school teacher group or from the other extreme, the ‘small fry racketeer,’ with lots of grandiose display, the former group including the college students and the upper crust of the district society… there are two floor shows, one at 12:30 and the last one at 3:00… Just one last word about tipping, it would be almost a ‘crying shame’ not to tip the nattily togged out ‘pan carriers’ down here at the Prudhom, for they really are gorgeously dressed and above all they know it… the entire color scheme at the Prudhom seems to be Green and Gold, and the last thing that I remember when leaving the club is the big fellow who is doorman, and whom I asked where the ‘juice joint’ was and he looked no surprised.”
(Pittsburgh Courier, February 2, 1932).
In January 1932, journalist Trezzvant W. ANDERSON from Baltimore Afro-American explains:
“Entering the Club Prudhom was the first ‘big’ assignment of young Calloway, and whether he relished any misgivings about the chances of success or not, I could tell you, but won’t. But he took his band in there and, supported by the already famous name of the Calloway clan, the slender lad began his work under the able ministrations of Bill Prather, Rhody McCoy, John Dykes, and Lonnie Collins, all makers of celebrities.”
Indeed, John Dykes for instance was one of the owner of the new Pilots black baseball team.
Club Prudhom “is a night club offering a floor show and has both white and colored patronage.” (Pittsburgh Courier, January 2, 1932). At the end of 1931 though, rumors said that Afro-American investors did not own the place and that “colored patronage” was not wanted. The Club reacted: “A visit to the club on any night will prove this to the satisfaction of anyone. There has never been and never will be any discrimination against any colored patron, unless conduct on his part requires action in the protection of our own rights, and this rules applies equally to all in attendance.” Nevertheless, the advancing of price, the membership plan may have made it prohibitive to the black community. The article says later “The club offers two floor shows every night, and the statement points out that if prices on a particular night are heavy there are other nights when the same entertainment may be enjoyed without the additional cost of week-end and holiday nights.”
Well... the year after this rumor, the ads for the Club Prudhom inscribed on top: “For White patrons” (March 1933) and the title of the show “Three Shades of Tan” left no ambiguity as to the audience it was targeting.
“Officially”, there were no segregation laws in Washington DC at the time, therefore a black-and-tan club was theoretically not a problem; but in reality few white people would tolerate it; also any particular organization would be allowed to prohibit Afro-Americans if they wanted to. City officials, in spite of not having a segregation law, could shut down mixed clubs on the pretense of the club flouting the prohibition laws (which they were probably doing anyway). No segregation doesn’t mean no bigotry!
Addison SCURLOCK, photograph of the Washington life
Local studio photographer Addison SCURLOCK (1883-1964) who captured the life of the Black community in Washington made wonderful shots of the Prudhom Club at the time Elmer played there. You can spot the classy set of the club, the dancers and chorus girls and the waiters. All his work is archived at the Smithsonian Institute and is an incredible testimony of the nightlife in Washington. All the pictures of the orchestras shown in this article come from those impressive archives.
“They have a floor show that is quite convincing,” write Floyd G. Snelson, Jr. (Pittsburgh Courier dated January 9, 1932), staged by Bea Foote and Blondina Stern. In the show we find Helen Stewart and Jazzbo Hilliard, well-known entertainers from New York, who add genuine spice and pep to the performance.”
Describing the New Year’s Eve in its January 9, 1932 edition, Pittsburgh Courier tells:
“Club Prudhom, the hoity-toity nite club at Tenth and You streets, was the scene of unparalleled gayety. With just as many tables as space would permit, filled with bejeweled women and correctly groomed men with a floor show moving as fast as the eye could take it in – with Elmer Calloway dispensing music that drew even the rheumatic to the floor – that was an optimistic welcome to the year.”
Unfortunately, in April, the Club was found guilty of evading taxes (failing to pay a license tax on floor shows, of allowing performance on Sunday at other than the regulated hours, and conducting an entertainment to which admission was charged without license) = $40 + $500 + $500 fines + 6 months in jail… “The defendants claimed the establishment was a ‘bona fide’ club wherein private entertainment was had for the benefit of its members.” (Evening Star, April 21, 1932). That kind of trouble, and IRS issues, will lead the Manhattan Cotton Club to shut down. Nevertheless, in October the same year, the delegation of Black Republicans during their visit to President Hoover at the White House, had its banquet at the Club Prudhom, celebrating their meeting with the POTUS.
In December 1933, Fletcher HENDERSON and his orchestra with the BERRY Brothers came to the Club Prudhom and met great success.
I have found no further information about Club Prudhom after 1933, except that in the eighties, the place was torn down to make room for a massive supermarket.
Growing popularity on the ether waves
Elmer Calloway’s band enjoyed some fair local fame – with Bernie’s Banjo Alabamians as replacement at the Club Prudhom when they played private parties – by having their show broadcast on the radio on Mondays and Thursdays on the WOL station as early as November 1931. On one day, you can even see in the same listing Elmer and his brother Cab, broadcasting from Washington or Harlem!
Which of her brothers Blanche Calloway is listening to on the radio? (1934)
In Baltimore Afro-American from January 1932, Anderson writes:
“Broadcasting was a much considered idea in the heads of the operators of the growing little club, which was regarded curiously at first as an experiment, until the owners began to show the Capital that they meant business.
Facing this psychological atmosphere, Elmer swung into his work with all the enthusiasm of youth… and results began to come. Patronage at the Prudhom began to pick up; crowds grew each night, the popularity of the hot spot of Washington’s Harlem became a certainty; and before long Prather and his associates knew that broadcasting and further expansions would be worthwhile, and so they inaugurated that program…”
In Pittsburgh Courier, March 5, 1932 you can read:
“Elmer Calloway’s Klub Prudhom Band [sic] is gaining in popularity here. He might well call his band the Social Favorites, for the best of the Washington social clubs have taken to the night club band, and their most recent job was the most elaborate and most exclusive dance of the winter social season, the Saps.”
More and more gigs in town and on tour
The Gayety theatre in Washington, DC offers “The Black and White Revue” for a week in March 1932 where Elmer Calloway and his Orchestra with chorus girls and dancers (Bea Foote, Blake, Simmonds and James) from Club Prudhom entertain as “35 colored stars” while the “white review” consists in 35 burlesque stars, of white complexion, headed by comedian Billy FIELDS, assisted by Chuck Callahan, Frank Du Frane, Eloise Dwan, Wanda De Von, Jesse Mack, Jean Lee, Larry Clark, Bimbo Davis and Joy St. Claire…
Another gig of local importance was the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity spring dance at the Masonic Temple (in the same building as Club Prudhom!), in May 1932. On a set depicting “a night in Egypt”, Elmer’s orchestra and Hardy Brothers’ orchestra furnished the music. Interesting to know is that 6 months later, Coleridge DAVIS, producer of the Hardy Brothers’ Orchestra, married HARRIET Calloway, and turned the band into his spouse’s. She then toured the US as a supposed sister or cousin of Cab (see our article).
June 9, 1932 in Cumberland, MD
Next June (27), Elmer and his band travel to North Carolina to play the annual June German in Rocky Mount at Mangums warehouse. 1,000 attend and hundreds dance.
Elmer’s career runs to another peak when, like Banjo Bernie did also, he accompanies Stepin FETCHIT, the famous movie actor, during a tour that lands on July 21 in Richmond, Virginia. In a special revue where the comedian is the star, attractions include Willie and Smoke (who later toured with Harriet Calloway) Rudolph Craid and Mabel White.
A dance at Rosemont on July 26, Elmer’s band is billed as “direct from Club Prudhom, the Cotton Club of the South”.
The ‘Cab for Elmer’ Savoy incident
In August 1932, Elmer Calloway’s band was invited for the first time to play in New York in a battle of bands at the Savoy Club.
On the way, the Monday morning August 1, the special bus carrying everyone stopped near New Brunswick, PA, and while the musicians and their conductor were stretching their legs, and – according to a witness – tossing stones, Elmer got hit by a car while coming around in front of the bus. Transported to hospital and suffering an injured spine (probably with reminiscence from his teen accident), Elmer had to forfeit.
The entire orchestra still made it to New York City... Luckily for him, the Savoy Club was only a stone’s throw away from the Cotton Club...
You can imagine what happened next: Cab subbed for his little brother Elmer at the last minute, accompanied by his bassist Al Morgan and the “original” Elmer Calloway orchestra. They obviously won the battle and left for Washington.
The story doesn’t say if Elmer Calloway was able to honor the performance on August 7 at the Whalom Park Ballroom, in Lunnenberg, MA.
Nevertheless, the press took advantage of the incident to add oil on the fire, as Ralph MATTHEWS in Afro-American, August 13, 1932:
“He’s lying in a hospital somewhere in New Jersey. His back is broken, one of his eyes is reported gone. How much these reports are exaggerated, I cannot say. I hope they are. He was a game kid who fought the toughest battle a kid ever faced and his struggles seemed a paradox. His name his Elmer Calloway and he is the brother of the famous Cab, but this relationship proved more of a hindrance than a help.
When he started his band at the Club Prudhom in D.C., even his friends turned up their noses and said, ‘He’s just trying to ape his brother, Cab.’ When he tried to sing they said the same and his dancing got the same disdainful brand. But Elmer was Elmer, not Cab. In spite of this he spent a whole season in the club.
He turned down the offer of the Mills organization to come into the Cotton Club and just hang around to keep his name from conflicting with that of his famous brother. He wanted to make it on his own. So they froze him out of New York. Cab turned against him and the feeling between the brothers was coldness itself. Elmer determined to fight it out. Last week, he got his big break. At last New York was calling. From Asbury Park he headed toward his metropolis in a big Pullman bus with his band. Up in New Jersey, almost in the shadow of Gotham skyscrapers, the vehicle sopped. The boys got out to stretch their limbs. A speeding auto struck Elmer, dragged him several feet, crushed his dancing legs – but is the Calloway spirit broken? We shall see!”
A couple of weeks later, in its September 10, 1932 edition, Elmer’s reply to the theatrical editor is printed:
“As a friend of the Calloway family you have put some very nice untrue statements in the paper which you work for.
The friendship between my brother, Cab, and myself is the best that brothers could have. He has been looking out for me ever since he was able. He has always helped me in my work and was forever offering praise to me.
I think it is very unfair that you should say such things about him, and I am quite sure that the family is surprised at your doing it.
Cab is one of the greatest fellows that I would know, and for him to be on top makes me feel still greater of his success.
There is nothing true that you have written. First, I am out of the hospital – I am at home with my mother visiting – and have only a few scars on my face, which are nearly gone [in fact, Elmer kept a scar on the right side of his face as indicated on his 1940 draft card]. My engagement that I was to play in the Savoy, N.Y. City, was gotten for me by my brother. He also worked in my place after I was hurt. So how can you say something about a guy that is as good as my brother?
Well, Mr. Matthews, as a personal friend of yours, kindly correct these statements and let’s remain good friends.”
To what the editor replied below: “OK, Pal. But you’d better put detectives on that guy who is impersonating you, telling bad stories to naughty newspapermen.”
Too many Calloways!
Was Cab irritated by Elmer’s trend to local success? I don’t know. But coincidentally (as we also explained in our article “So many Calloways, but there’s only one Cab!”, the Calloway fame got its own development only based on his name.
In its February 20, 1932 edition, Billboard magazine titles: “‘Name’ Abuse Causes Grief”:
“An epidemic of infringements on “name” bands, impersonations and billing of similar sounding attractions has irked several well-known organizations to the point where they are seeking relief by court action. The name most abused appears to be that of Cab Calloway, who, while he has numerous relations entitled to use the name ‘Calloway,’ also has run into the fact that one band has been going thru Baltimore billing itself as ‘the renowned Calloway, direct from Harlem.’ Cab’s sister, Blanche, is using her own name in vaudeville, while he also has relatives called Gene [Jean], Elmer, Walter [never heard of this one!) and others. Just what action to take has been a headache to Mills Dance Orchestras, Inc., who never know where the infringers are apt to pop up next. By the time action is contemplated in one town, the band in question has moved to parts unknown.”
End of a short musical career
Anyway, in October 1932, Tommy MYLES and his orchestra replace Elmer (like they did previously in April that year), Joe BROWN being the master of ceremonies.
Elmer remained active as a bandleader with his own orchestra until 1933. A last stint occurs in September 1936 in Wilmington, Delaware, and after this date, I’ve been unable to locate any other gig.
Teacher at a technical high school
Elmer then left the music business for good and enrolled at Cheyney State College in Pennsylvania. By the way, a joke had been circulating in the press in early Thirties that Cab would pay his little brother’s tuition if he decided to come home!
On November 30, 1934, Elmer, then student at Cheyney, married Gladys Elizabeth STEPHENS who was born in Mississippi in 1912 like her spouse. At that time, the “official” residence was in Manhattan, 300 W 117th Street, close to Morningside Park. Elmer was a member of the Omega Phi Psi fraternity. Gladys and Elmer later separated in early 1941.
After graduation, Elmer moved to Atlanta (371 Gartrell Street, SE) where he became a teacher at a technical high school, The David T. Howard (then located 551 Houston Street, today John Wesley Dobbs Avenue), where he later took over as headmaster.
In a 2003 interview by Steve Cushing for his book Blues Before Sunrise, R&B singer and author of the classic “Honky Tonk” and future producer of Gladys Knight, Tommy BROWN remembers: “When I was a dancer [in 1937-1938], Cab Calloway’s brother, Elmer Calloway, was teaching at the school. And so he was doing the show for the school. (…) And he had his show at the Royal Theater on a Saturday morning for the school. And I got on that show as a dancer.” This demonstrates that Elmer had kept his baton, even as a teacher, far from the bandstand.
September 1940, the draft was first instituted in the U.S.: all men age 21 to 45 were required to register. Coincidentally, Cab and Elmer have the same date on their draft cards (October 16, 1940), while one is in New York and the other is in Atlanta.
I haven’t been able to learn when or where Elmer joined the war effort. When, in September 1944, Eulalia Reed dies in Philadelphia, his son Elmer is a Seaman Third Class, manual training instructor in the Navy. Which probably means that he was in a military school on a base within the U.S. somewhere, and extremely unlikely that he would be overseas.
On February 13, 1949, Elmer married Alma Lewis BREWER, another teacher. Elmer’s siblings, Blanche and Bernice came to Atlanta. Elmer and Alma had together a daughter, Carol.
Carol Calloway married Raymond BAUGH, a West Point military (later Lieutenant Colonel), on June 10, 1959. The Calloways (with or without Cab?) were there, since Cabella, younger Cab’s daughter appears on the photo.
Elmer Calloway in his later days
“I Hope to Live and Never Die”
On August 27, 1962, a copyright is entered for a song (word and music) by Milton Elmer Calloway, “I Hope to Live and Never Die”. His wish lasted 17 years.
Elmer died suddenly at the age of 67 in Atlanta, Georgia, in April 1979.
His wife Alma passed away less than a year after, on March 9, 1980. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to reach his daughter Carol Baugh.
Since I don’t have access to the Calloway family archives, I can’t tell you anything more about Elmer Calloway. What is certain is that, given his almost complete absence in Cab’s autobiography, it is easy to imagine that the older brother had little regard for his younger brother’s attempt at the stage...
The musicians in Elmer Calloway’s orchestra
In the picture: William Smith (sax), Ray Forrest (sax), John Harris (sax), John Stewart (bass), Elmer Calloway (leader), Percy Johnson (drums), Joe ‘Lester’ Henry (trumpet), Bobby Woodlen (trumpet), Val Valentine [aka Robert ‘Syd’ Valentine] (trumpet), Henry Bowen (accordion), Fred Norman (trombone), Joe Bailey (piano).
Here’s the information I’ve been able to compile about the musicians who played in the band:
• Fred NORMAN, trombone and arranger (Leesburg, FL, October 5, 1910 – New York, NY, February 19, 1993): His mother Mary was a pianist and gave birth to 7 children. He began trombone at 14, studying at Fessenden Academy in Florida and playing in the school orchestra. He went to Dunbar High School in Baltimore (like Cab!). He even toured with and worked with local bands before moving to Washington, DC. He studied at Howard University. Duke Eglin’s Bell Hops and Booker Coleman’s Band preceded Elmer Calloway’s Orchestra in Fred’s resume.
Although he presented some work to Fletcher Henderson earlier, he started his career as arranger when he was working with Elmer: “We were there a couple of seasons, and that’s where I first started to make arrangements I felt were pretty good. I got to the point where I didn’t have to use a piano, and that was amazing me. I’ll never forget how I went home one night right after work, worked all day on Penthouse Serenade, and brought it into the band that night. As they played it, I put my horn down and listened. There were no mistakes in it, and I had done it all without a piano! Oh, yes, I was amazed!” (in Stanley Dance, op. cit). After this, he spent the next summer arranging for the local radio WSJV in Washington (“not swing, just straight work” he précises in a 1940 interview for Down Beat).
After a year or so with Elmer Calloway, Norman joined Claude Hopkins’ orchestra where he remained until 1938. There he did many arrangements for the band (Minor Mania, Monkey Business, King Porter Stomp, June Night, Church Street Sobbin’ Blues…) and for Rubinoff, Adrian Rollini or Eddie Cantor. From 1938 he was a free-lance arranger-composer for Bunny Berigan, Jimmy Dorsey (“Man, That’s Groovy”), Isham Jones, Glenn Miller (who introduced him to:) Benny Goodman (Smokehouse, Lullaby in Rhythm, Out of Nowhere), Gene Krupa (August 1939-43, with “Drumming Man”, “FOB Chicago”), Lionel Hampton, Artie Shaw (“Solid Man”), Tommy Dorsey (1944, for MGM’s “Thrill of Romance”), Charlie Spivak, Jack Teagarden, Ernestine Anderson and Connie Boswell (10-year collaboration!). In a 1953 New York Age portrait, the article begins with “Musician-Arranger Fred Norman enjoys a unique distinction in the entertainment world. He is liked by everyone!” NBC and CBS networks enjoyed his work as staff arranger.
He married in 1939 to Florence, a social worker, who died in 1944. He remarried to Lucille.
Musical director at MGM for several singers and stars, he worked for Leslie Uggams (Avis Andrew’s niece), Brook Benton, Diahann Carroll, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, etc.
He kept on arranging until the 80s. Fred Norman died of pneumonia at 82 in Manhattan.
• Raymond ‘Syd’ VALENTINE, trumpet (Indianapolis, 1909-September 7, 1993): “studied trumpet as an Indianapolis teenager, got his start in the 20s as a fan and student of bandleader Frank Clay. Soon, he was a member of Paul Stewart’s Orchestra, in Terre Haute. While still in his teens, he established himself as a musical fixture in nightclubs and restaurants in the Indianapolis area, performing in a trio known as the Patent Leather Kids. By 1929, at age 21, he and his fellow ‘Kids’ musicians, pianist ‘Slick’ Helms and banjoist Paul George, were recording for Gennett studios in Richmond.
Milwaukee-based bandleader and trumpet player Bernie Young, after sitting in on the trio’s performance at an Indiana Avenue spot one night invited the young trumpet player to join his band. As member of the Bernie Young Orchestra, he played with many jazz celebrities in Chicago, where he cultivated his art and his reputation. He later played with the Hardy Brothers Orchestra, which provided musical support for stage shows travelling the black vaudeville circuit on the East Coast.
He was also known for his work in the band of Elmer Calloway, brother of jazz legend Cab Calloway [he got the job while the Hardy Brothers orchestra went off on tour without him]. By the late 1930s, Mr. Valentine had returned to Indianapolis, and continued to play here until he retired in the 1960s.” (The Indianapolis News, September 8, 1993). Val was a record collector and friends with Duncan Schiedt, author of “Jazz State of Indiana” and famous photo collector.
• Percy Edward JOHNSON, drums (Washington, DC, 1900 ca – Washington, DC, December 6, 1939): was probably the most professional and trained musician at the time Elmer directed the orchestra. And he was probably one of its main assets.
When he was young he was a friend with Duke Ellington. His nickname was “Brushes” and he’s responsible for playing for the first time a James P. Johnson roll for Duke Ellington. From then on, Duke worked hard on “Carolina Shout” and dared to play it to the piano master when he visited Washington. Duke remained grateful his whole life to Percy Johnson for this.
His professional career as a drummer began with Edward White at the Paradise Cabaret in New York.
In 1925, he had sailed to Europe to back Josephine BAKER in La Revue Nègre in Paris. Claude Hopkins was the pianist and Sidney Bechet was on clarinet. He was stranded in Paris after La Baker had resigned from the cast.
In 1926, he toured in Europe with Sam WOODING and his orchestra and recorded in Berlin. Alto sax Garvin Bushell was also on the bandstand – he’ll play later in Cab’s orchestra. Johnson toured in Berlin, Russia and even South America (Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil).
Garvin Bushell explains that in March 1026, Sam Wooding and the Chocolate Kiddies had to pick up Percy Johnson in the band since former drummer George Howe didn’t want to go to Russia: “So we picked up Percy Johnson in Paris, who had come over with Josephine Baker. Percy was a good show drummer. He used to stand up and drum… he had to, otherwise he’d go to sleep [he got his nickname ‘Sleepy’ after that condition]. He was a clown, and a very nice person. You could call him anything you wanted to, and he’s always smiling. But those are the kind of people you have to watch. Percy wound up killing a guy in Washington who’d taken advantage of him.” (in “On the road with the Chocolate Kiddies in Europe and South America, 1925-1927” by Garvin Bushell as told to Mark Tucker, Storyville, 132, December 1987).
After the break-up of the Chocolate Kiddies Revue in Danzig, Percy, like most of its members, returned straight to New York.
Back in the USA, Percy played and recorded (in January 1930) with Cliff JACKSON and the Crazy Cats at the famous night club, Krazy Kats (where Cab and his Missourians played for a while in 1930). Listen to The Terror, by Cliff Jackson, recorded at Grey Gull Studios, New York, February 27th, 1930.
Probably right before Elmer’s experience, he played with the Hardy Brothers, local orchestra. As you can read, Percy had one of a kind resume, already in 1931!
Later, Percy was drummer in Blanche Calloway’s orchestra in 1935 and recorded her final four tracks on November 6 that year.
Percy Johnson died before he turned 40 after long illness in Washington, DC.
In his obit published in Afro-American, December 23, 1939, the text adds, “his drum equipment was extensive and valuable. He owned more than a hundred drums in addition to other instruments.”
• John STEWART, bass (Baltimore, MD, 1907 – Baltimore, MD, May 6, 1963): “a one-time musician, spent the last 20 years of his life working as a waiter-in-charge on the B and O Railroad. A native of Baltimore, he was educated in the city and in the early part of the thirties turned towards music as a profession. For approximately ten years, Mr. Stewart played bass violin and did arrangements for such big bands as Rivers Chambers, Johnny Christian, Irving C. Miller and Elmer Calloway, Cab Calloway’s brother.
Once he took up his position with the railroad, he gave up his music. The hours of his job would not allow him to seriously pursue it. A member of the Masons, he was associated with St. Mary’s Church.” (Afro American, May 18, 1963)
• George Robert ‘Bobby’ WOODLEN (also later known as Bobby MADERA), trumpet (Baltimore, MD, December 4, 1913 – Gloucester County, VA, August 8, 1998): studied music in Junior High School, then at Douglass High School with Llewellyn Wilson (like Cab!), he studied piano and trombone and later changed to trumpet. There he was first trumpet player and had to choose between a sports career in football or music. In the summer, he went on road around West Virginia with a little band; played with local bands around Baltimore (including Ike Dixon, Percy Glascoe, Reggie Haymer, Harold Steptoe and Banjo Bernie). In 1931, he left Baltimore and went to Washington, DC where he joined Elmer Calloway’s band.
He leaves Elmer in 1932 and return to Baltimore where he joins Bubby Johnson’s band (Chauncey Haughton was in the reeds section). Comes to New York in 1934 and work around with Rex Stewart’s band, then Earle ‘Nappy’ Howard’s Melody Lane house band and after at Remy’s Ballroom. Joins Willie Bryant’s band for 2 months. Does several rehearsals with Jelly Roll Morton at Connie’s Inn, and was supposed to travel to Russia with him but money issues cancelled the tour. Records in numerous studio sessions for Decca’s Race records. In 1938, Bobby joins pianist Maurice Rocco’s band at the Kit Kat Club (he probably backed dancer and singer Dotty Saulters who worked later with Cab Calloway). In this orchestra was the clarinet player Arville ‘Bunky’ Harris, who had previously worked with Cab. In 1939, Woodlen plays in Benny Carter’s orchestra where he recorded his first “legitimate” recordings. Joins a pit band on Broadway for the show entitled “She Gave Him All.” During the summer of 1940, at the Paradise Club in Atlantic City, he works with Bardu Ali and at the end of the summer joins Blanche Calloway’s orchestra in another club in Atlantic City. At that time, Frank Wess was a saxophonist in the band.
After working in New York on various club dates, Bobby joins Eddie Barefield’s band at the Savoy Ballroom and Small’s. After, he joins Machito’s band in 1941 and remains with him until 1955. During this period, he recorded with practically every Latin artist in the business and also recorded under the name of Bobby Madera (LP “Look I’m Doing the Cha-Cha”, ABC-Paramount, 1956). Composer of the famous “Mambo Inn” recorded by Mario Bauza, Count Basie (for his album “April in Paris”, 1956) and numerous Latin bands. He became a music teacher in the fifties and taught both trumpet and trombone in New York until his death.
• Chauncey HAUGHTON, alto sax, clarinet (Chestertown, MD, February 26, 1909 – Tarrytown, NY, July 1, 1989): not in the picture but he’s the only musician who played with the 3 Calloways: Elmer, Blanche and Cab! Born and raised in a musical family (his father and 2 brothers were professional musicians), Chauncey began with piano at 8 and later played clarinet and saxophone in his college band. His first professional gig was in 1926 with Sidney Bechet. In 1927 he’s with Ike Dixon’s Band. He then worked with Elmer (probably in his earliest period) and the White Brothers’ Band (with Harry white who later also played with Cab! – Read our article). Chauncey came to New York in 1932 with Gene Kennedy’s band.
After, he worked with Cab’s sister, Blanche until 1935 or 1936 (according to various sources). His career accelerated when he joined Claude Hopkins, Noble Sissle and Fletcher Henderson, right before being among the Chick Webb’s orchestra. He’s noticed then for his clarinet solo in the Little Chicks, the small group within Webb’s orchestra.
In November 1937, Chauncey replaced Garvin Bushell in Cab’s band and stays there as discrete and efficient as ever until January 1940. He remains with Ella Fitzgerald until 1942 and joins Duke Ellington until he’s drafted in April 1943. USO tours between winter 1945 and September 1946 and tours to Europe with Don Redman’s band. He remains in Europe in 1947 and comes back to USA. Resumes association with Cab Calloway in 1951. He left full-time music business then for only occasional record sessions (another one with Cab for the Gone LP “Cotton Club Revue of 1958”).
• Ray FORREST, saxophone (Pittsburgh, PA, ?-?): he apparently was a bit famous in his native town, Pittsburgh since the Courier in its April 23, 1932 edition announces that he has left his home to play with Elmer at Club Prudhom (which would mean that the picture taken by Scurlock is dated circa April 1932).
Apparently, in 1934 Ray was playing with the Ramblers, a Dutch dance orchestra directed by Theo Uden Masman (Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins recorded with them) and who had in its ranks pianist and vocalist Freddy Johnson. That’s almost all I found about him… Any clue will be appreciated.
• The World of Swing, Stanley Dance, Da Capo Press, 1974
• “Bobby by Woodlen”, Robert Woodlen interviewed by David Griffith, Storyville, n°85, October-November 1979
• National Jazz Archives (UK) for all the articles from Storyville magazine and more
• The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press
• Who’s Who in Jazz, John Chilton, Da Capo Press, 1985
• DC Jazz: Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC, Maurice Jackson, Blair A. Ruben, Georgetown University Press, 2016
• The Man From Harlem Swings, CD booklet
• A holiday extravaganza of black baseball, The Negro League Close Up website
• Various newspapers: Afro American, Pittsburgh Courier, Evening Star, etc.
• Many thanks to Steve BOWIE of famed Ellington Reflections,
for providing me several documents (draft card, census) and information.
• My deepest gratitude to my friend Keller WHALEN •
for his help, support, information, translation, advice and more on this article as on many on this website.