WASHINGTON, Nov. 19 -- Big band legend Cab Calloway, who brought zoot suits to life and 'jitterbug' to the English language as he entertained generations of Americans, has died at the age of 86. Calloway passed away at 9:30 p.m. Friday at the Cokesbury Retirement Village in Hockessin, Del., a few miles north of Wilmington, where he was cared for since suffering a stroke last June, a spokeswoman said. Calloway's frenetic career as a Jazz Era band leader enlivened the radio airwaves and ballrooms of the 1930s and 1940s, inspired George Gershwin and found its way to the Broadway stage. But it hardly stopped there, with performances on into the 1990s. He first shot to fame as a singer and big band leader more than six decades ago, performing in Chicago's jazz joints, New York's Cotton Club and on stage in Broadway's 'Porgy and Bess.' He was established as a household name with the 1931 release of 'Minnie the Moocher.' Calloway died of pneumonia, after suffering a severe stroke last June. Cab Calloway came to be known as 'the Prince of Heigh-de-ho' with his high-spirited performances that dazzled audiences with his white tails-a-flying zoot suit, electric patter and brassy jazz. 'With the reet pleat and the drape shape,' Calloway became one of America's first black entertainment stars. His career stretched from Chicago jazz joints and Harlem's gangster-owned Cotton Club in the early 1930s to 'Porgy & Bess' on Broadway. His movies ranged from the classic black film 'Stormy Weather' in 1943 to the 'Blues Brothers' in 1980.
Calloway built and led one of the top groups of the big band era, which alternated with Duke Ellington's orchestra as the house band at Harlem's famous Cotton Club from 1929 to 1939. At its zeniththe band included such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Chu Berry, Milt Hinton and Cozy Cole. When the popularity of big bands faded, Calloway kept going, working with smaller combos for several years. Calloway became a household name with the release of 'Minnie the Moocher' in 1931. His scatting began shortly after he and agent Irving Mills wrote the tune. One night, Calloway forgot the lyrics in mid- verse. He filled in space with 'Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho' and 'Oodlee- odlyee-oodlee-doo.' The crowd went crazy. The call and response became his trademark. Calloway said he coined the term 'jitterbug' in the title of a song he co-authored and recorded in 1934. His expressions, and the colorful language of other musicians in the early days of jazz, were preserved in collected in 'Hepster's Dictionary,' a collection of jazz slang he published in 1938. Still the standard reference book on the subject, it was updated and reprinted into the 1970s and brought Calloway the honorary title 'Dean of American Jazz' from New York University. After the big band era ended in 1947, Calloway worked with smaller combos for several years, and also ran up huge gambling debts. He was often found at the racetrack, an interest he had since taking a job walking horses at the local racetrack when he was a boy. In 1950, he was asked to play the character 'Sportin' Life' in a Broadway revival of George Gershwin's folk opera, 'Porgy & Bess,' starring Leontyne Price and William Warfield. The role was a natural, for the wild-living Calloway was Gershwin's inspiration. The show ran 3 years, including a year in London. Calloway's rendition of the cynical 'It Ain't Necessarily So' became an instant hit. In 1967, Broadway beckoned again. At age 60, Calloway signed on to play Horace Vandergelder opposite Pearl Bailey in 'Hello, Dolly.' Calloway's movie credits included 'The Singing Kid' with Al Jolson in 1936, 'Big Broadcast of 1933,' and 'The Cincinnati Kid' with Steve McQueen in 1965. His last film was 'The Blues Brothers,' in which Calloway played a Chicago janitor who teaches comedians John Belushi and Dan Akroyd how to sing the blues. Although Calloway was discounted as a jazz performer by some critics and musicians, his voice was described by one critic as exuding 'a joy and festive spirit which moves one to gaiety.' 'I like making people happy -- and that's what I do,' Calloway once said in an interview. Cabell Calloway III was born Dec. 25, 1907, in Rochester, N.Y. He grew up in Baltimore where his hours away from school were filled with hustling newspapers, shining shoes, and cooling down horses at Pimlico Race Track, where he developed a lifelong passion for racing, and betting the horses. Music was not his only pursuit as a teenager. During his senior year at Douglass High School, Calloway played professional basketball for the Baltimore Athenians for $10 a game. Calloway went to Chicago to attend Crane College, intending to become a lawyer, but began appearing at night as a singer and dancer at several black theaters. He also played the saxophone. By 1927, he was the lead vocalist for the Alabamians and took over leadership of the band in 1928. Finding music more promising than law, Calloway soon quit school and moved to New York to lead a band called The Missourians. He soon received an invitation he couldn't refuse. The mob brought Calloway and The Missourians to the Cotton Club as a vacation replacement for the Duke Ellington band. From 1929 through 1939, the two orchestras alternated as house band. Under his leadership for over a decade, Calloway's band rose to fame, noted for its quality musicians, brilliant showmanship and catchy swing spirit, in part because Calloway paid his musicians generous salaries. Among the performances considered classics by jazz enthusiasts today are 'St. James Infirmary Blues,' 'Blue Interlude,' 'Ghost of a Chance' and 'Willow Weep for Me.' Over the years, the unruly shock of hair that flopped down across Calloway's eyes turned a distinguished white. He tried to retire in the 1970s, but the itch to perform was too strong. He returned to work, appearing with symphonies, as a guest artist in varied venues, and hitting the road regularly with daughter Chris and his 12-piece Hi-De-Ho Orchestra. His shows included a vintage repertoire of 'Goodtime Charlie's Got the Blues,' 'You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Loves You),' 'Learnin' the Blues,''Stormy Weather,' 'Old Man River,' and 'It Ain't Necessarily So.' He clowned and growled his way through 'Blues in the Night,' 'Old Man River,' his early theme song, 'St. James Infirmary,' and its successor, 'Minnie the Moocher.' Calloway's Cotton Club band was the first major black orchestra to tour below the Mason-Dixon line. Often, it had to play for separate audiences, or in halls where a rope down the middle of the room separated whites from blacks. He broke another racial barrier in the cinema, appearing in 'The Singing Kid' with Al Jolson in 1931. In October 1987, the Dartmouth Film Society held a Cab Calloway Festival to honor him for outstanding contributions to film. Excerpts from all 14 films Calloway appeared in were followed by a full-length screening of 'Stormy Weather,' the 1943 classic that also starred Lena Horne, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and Fats Waller. In the late 1970s, Calloway published his autobiography, 'Minnie the Moocher and Me,' a nostalgic record of the Big-Band era co-written with New York Times editor Bryant Rollins. In the book, Calloway said he wouldn't mind dying with his boots on. He said he had no retirement plans. 'What am I going to retire from? I don't need the money. I've got all the money I need,' Calloway said. 'I just enjoy working. All I want to do is make people happy.' Calloway said planning was underway to film his life story, with veteran actor Lou Gossett Jr. directing. Married twice, Calloway has five daughters -- Camay, Constance, Chris, Lael and Cabella. He lived with his wife, Nuffie, whom he met in 1942 and married in 1949.