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The Uncrowned Bandleader, Swing & Jazz Legend

The Uncrowned Bandleader, Swing & Jazz Legend.

Cab Calloway once described his sister as vivacious, lovely, personality-plus, and a hell of a singer and dancer, as well.

Blanche Calloway... Does that name ring a bell? She is another spitfire of song and dance! A strikingly gorgeous, talented woman who was extremely important, highly thought of and respected musician who suprisingly been overlooked and omitted from Jazz & Blues History.

Blanche Calloway didn't just open the doors for Blacks- her fight was much harder- she had to prove women could SWING! She help opened the doors for WOMEN of all races.

Blanche Calloway was the first successful woman - black or white - to lead an all male band which became the most popular band in the 1930s. Her band topped ranks with Duke Ellington and her brother Cab Calloway and she worked hand in hand with the top male talents who she earned respect from.

Blanche Calloway was a helluva performer. A bandleader, arranger, songwriter, composer, dancer, singer, and talent scout. It seems Blanche helped everyone to fame with her techniques but it seems she never was taken seriously.

Blanche went against all odds to become a successful bandleader in a man's world. Blanche wasn't only fighting racism from white, she also was fighting discrimination with males within her own race as a female in a man-oriented business. Blanche was a strong-willed person, nothing could her back long. Blanche broke down many barriers which was off limits to females. Blanche Calloway showed a woman can lead a band and put over music as graceful and exuberant as a man. Blanche Calloway was a strong, determined, outspoken woman which was a quality needed in her field of business. She was a woman before her time.

People know her brother Cab Calloway who's a Household name. But many don't know Blanche who taught everything she knew to Cab which made him successful. So when you see Cab, your actually seeing Blanche.

Blanche was the first successful Calloway. Blanche was the ending of the Blues era and the beginning of Jazz. A genre that fit her to perfection. Wherever Blanche performed she got excellent reviews. Since there's no known footage of Blanche Calloway, through Blanche's music you can just close your eyes and imagine what kind of performer she was just by listening to her boombastic approach to her songs. By listening to Blanche's firecracker voice that just grabs you, you can see in your mind's eye how she was in a live performance. She had a voice that makes you stop and listen, and you feel as though she's right in the room with you.

In her time, Blanche Calloway was extremely popular. She was also revered and looked up to by many of her male contemporaries. No one of her time ever forgot her. They tried to get her name alive, so the generation today could know her. But when they died out, her name did as well.

But, we all know if Blanche was a man everyone would know her name.

Here's the story of The Bombshell, The Beauteous, The Bandleader, and
Her Blues

Blanche Calloway was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 9, 1902. Her classy family moved to Rochester, New York when Blanche was four, and back to Baltimore when she was six. Her father, Cabell Calloway, attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and became a lawyer. Two years after the family's return to Baltimore, Cabell died. Blanche's mother, Martha Eulaela Reed Calloway, attended Morgan State College and became a schoolteacher in the local Baltimore schools. Martha Calloway also taught music, and was organist for her church. Some time after Cabell's death, she married John Nelson Fortune and had two children. The Calloway family was active in their church and well respected and prestigious in the Black community. Blanche was the oldest child; her siblings were Cab, Elmer and Bernice. Blanche was unusual even as a child, she had a sense of inspiring others. She was very striking. She had long, black, beautiful hair--it was so long that she could sit on it. She had a natural suntanned skin with high cheekbones.

Her mother wanted her to be a teacher or a nurse but Blanche had other plans. Her childhood idols were Florence Mills and Gertrude Saunders. They had thrilled audiences in the early twenties, and were the inspiration for Blanche to go into show business.

Blanche Calloway was in show business before her brother Cab. Music was a part of the Calloway family. Blanche studied the piano and voice. She also sang in the choir at church.

In the earliest stages of her entertaining career, with the encouragement of her music teacher, Blanche auditioned for Ernest Hamilton Murray. He was a talent scout who gathered "talent" for local shows. Blanche was chosen two years in a row, but because of her father's death and her being oldest in the family, she was hesitant to pursue her career, she had to help her family. She instead studied music at Morgan State College. But her inclination towards performing soon took over, and she dropped out and began to perform in local revues, stage shows, and nightclubs. Her first big "break" came in 1923, when she joined the touring companies of the Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake musical "Shuffle Along." She was also in the James P. Johnson show "Plantation Days." When "Plantation Days" closed in Chicago in 1927, Blanche stayed in Chicago and became very successful as a leading nightclub entertainer than she went on to play leading clubs and theaters in the country, and broke records for attendance in Atlanta for many years.

While living in Chicago, her brother, Cab, came to the windy city to attend Crane College as a pre-law student. Their father being a lawyer, Cab was expected to do the same. But his desire for the spotlight, and his burning talent soon moved him in another direction when Blanche introduced him to show business. Blanche began to groom Cab and teach him how to "entertain." Subsequently, they became an "act" with both of them singing and leading the band. Can you imagine seeing two energetic, jaw-dropping Calloways on stage? Exciting, indeed!

An interesting quote from Earl "Fatha" Hines: "Blanche Calloway, Cab's sister, had a very good way of entertaining. She was wild and wiry in certain things and very sensitive in others...Although Cab may not say this to himself, all of his style was from her. His sister taught him everything he knew about performing."

At the age of 19 years old, he had all of the ingredients necessary to jump off and go out on his own. At the height of Blanche's career and the beginning of his, Cab was known as "Blanche's younger brother" but as Cab became a big star, Blanche became known as Cab's big sister. In the dedication of his autobiography, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me, Cab writes, "To my sister, Blanche, who introduced me to the wonderful world of entertaining."

Blanche was recording as early as 1925. One of her first sessions was with Louis Armstrong on trumpet and Blanche on vocals. She worked at the famous Ciro Club in New York City in the mid-twenties. She then toured extensively. In 1931, Blanche was headliner at the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia, when the world famous Andy Kirk band was also there. As a result of that engagement, where Blanche really showed her "stuff" and impressed Mr. Kirk with her performances, he asked her to join his band as the "featured attraction." They began touring all over the United States. It was a BIG break for Blanche Calloway, because Kirk's band, "The Twelve Clouds of Joy," was one of the MOST popular bands of the 30's. This experience with Kirk's band gave Blanche a bird's eye view of the business of touring and managing a big band. When they returned to the Pearl Theater, some time later a scheme was in the making that would transform Blanche Calloway from "featured vocalist & dancing attraction" to "bandleader."

The manager of the Pearl Theater, a man named Sam Steiffel, had an idea to have Blanche maneuvered into the leadership position of the "Twelve Clouds of Joy." But Andy Kirk, as the leader of one of the most popular bands of the day, was no fool, and he got wind of the scheme. So when the Clouds of Joy were offered a job at Winwood Beach, a resort near Kansas City, he TOOK it and left Blanche behind. Blanche had had an on-going relationship with a trumpet player in Kirk's band named Edgar "Puddin Head" Battle. So when the band left for Winwood Beach, Battle stayed behind. He had an idea of his own. Blanche was HOT_ and the definition of what a bandleader was so why not have her own band? He lured six men from Jap Allen's new band in Kansas City to come east and join with him and Blanche. Among those musicians was the then unknown now legendary Ben Webster. The rest of the band they filled in with musicians from New York and the surrounding areas.

It was at this point that Blanche Calloway became the first woman, first black woman, to direct and lead an all-male orchestra. More trivia: she was the FIRST WOMAN BANDLEADER to "fly" an entire orchestra from Philadelphia to Chicago.

Blanche named her orchestra "Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys." Later she changed the name to "Blanche Calloway and Her Orchestra." Brother Cab said it best about Blanche as a performer, "Blanche was vivacious, lovely, personality plus, and a hell of a singer and dancer as well. She was fabulous, happy, and extroverted." As a performer, she, "really qualified for the wider descriptive term, 'entertainer'."

In 1933, the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper made a survey of 38 outstanding Black Orchestras. Blanche's "Joy Boys" ranked 9th, which was only five behind of Louis Armstrong, but, well AHEAD of the bands of Jimmie Lanceford, Chick Webb, Bennie Moten, and Cluade Hopkins. All of those men went on to become prominent figures in jazz history; but Blanche isn't even considered. But, that ranking was an extraordinary thing for a female in a male-dominated profession at that time in the early 1930's. Blanche came face-to-face with a certain amount of sexism even from her own race. Considering the degree at which these difficulties exist today, it was even worse 60 years ago. I am humbled by the sheer strength, courage, and determination of this exceptional Black Woman.

On January 16, 1932, the Pittsburgh Courier published an article in which the reviewer considered Blanche Calloway "One of the most progressive performers in the profession." She was also acknowledged in this same article for her ownership, management, and directorship of her popular band. Blanche really got involved with everything, the band, the music, and the image of the band. She knew people would try to find anything to criticize because she was a woman leading a male band so she knew she had to work twice as hard to prove people wrong and she did. Because she was a woman, like many female bandleaders would find, she wasn't judged the same as a male bandleader. Blanche was quite sexy and exciting as most female bandleaders were, even though they were doing what the males were doing, they were still women and female bandleaders would be credited for their looks and sex appeal more so then their leading and their band. Blanche tried very hard to show she wasn't just some pretty, sexy woman on stage but a true bandleader with a terrific band. She wouldn't let any man keep her in her place!

Research reveals that Blanche and the "Joy Boys" appeared at New York City's Lafayette Theatre in 1931-32 and 1934; The Harlem Opera House in 1934 and 1935; The Apollo Theater from 1935 through 1938 and 1941. She made a five-band tour with Bennie Moten, Andy Kirk, Chick Webb and Zack Whyt. She recorded extensively with her band for RCA Victor. Her band performed across the United States in the best clubs and theaters before segregated, all-white audiences and all-black audiences in: New York, Baltimore, Boston, Atlantic City, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh. The theme song for "Blanche Calloway and her Joy Boys" was Blanche's sexual innuendo composition, "Growlin Dan." Her best known song was, "I Need Loving."

As much praise and popularity Blanche received, and as good as she was at running her "business," financial difficulties got the best of her, and in September of 1938, she was forced to disband her history-making orchestra. That was "one" story. Another far more "interesting" story goes like this: the mob was controlling the careers of every entertainer in New York and Chicago. They had taken a "liking" to Cab, and felt that he was their choice--there was not going to be TWO Calloways out there performing (not going to be two Calloway bandleaders), and they had chosen Cab. Blanche was "forced to stop."

So it was back to the clubs and theater as a "solo" act. From the late 30's to the mid-40's, Blanche continued to prosper as a "solo." She tried her hand at fronting a band again in 1940. This time, she put together an all female band but her star had risen and fallen and plus she was in her early 40's and in the 1940's, Black images in entertainment had changed, the rough, wild, blues shouter performers was a thing of the past, people were going for silky smooth, elegant singers. So her success was limited to a few jobs in the Club Harlem in Atlantic City and not much else.

By 1944, Blanche had enough--enough of the harsh life of the 'one-nighters' and the racism of segregated hotels, restaurants and public accommodations. Blanche felt she made her mark in entertainment and in life. A publication called International Musician presented in 1950 an article called "Dance Bands That Made History." In it, Blanche Calloway was singled out among seven other female orchestra leaders for recognition. She was THE ONLY black orchestra leader on the list. No Duke Ellington. No Count Basie. No Cab Calloway. No Louis Armstrong.(Wonder why sensational Anna Mae Winburn, leader of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm wasn't mentioned?)

Blanche moved to Tioga, a residential section of Philadelphia, where she lived with her husband and the Chiuauga (Chiwawa) dog named Trigger. Blanche became very active as a political leader. She was elected as a Democratic Committee woman, and she belonged to an incredible number of civic organizations. She used her notoriety as an entertainer to support community organizations and charities. Blanche attacked her responsibilities as a political leader and community spokeswoman with the same energy, pep and spunk and determination as she had as a performer. She was outstanding! To illustrate her sincerity, she was responsible for initiating the neighborhood policy of lighting Christmas trees in front of every house on her block.

Aside from her political activity during the mid-1950's, Blanche still managed to keep in contact with the world of Show Business.

The next "story" about Blanche finds her in Washington D.C. managing an after hours nightclub called The Crystle Caverns. It was the hangout for all of the black acts and touring big bands. The story goes that she met a young singer that had just been left in D.C. by Lucky Millander. A gentleman brought a frightened girl to Blanche thinking she could help her in some way. Blanche indicated that she did not have any room in her regular show, but that she would like to hear her sing. This girl got up in the club and SANG. Blanche loved her and offered to "pass the hat" to help her earn enough money to get back to her home in Virginia. Blanche took her over to the boarding house that she was living in and got her a room. She went to work with Blanche every night until she finally had enough money for her bus fare. Then Blanche asked her if she REALLY wanted to go home. The girl said, "No," she wanted to be a singer. Blanche told her she would help her, but she had to do everything she told her to do. This young, frightened girl turned out to be Miss R&B, legendary Ruth Brown. Blanche took her to New York, and in a few years, they had established a strong and solid reputation and an enthusiastic following. In 1953, Blanche took Ruth to Atlantic Records and she became the first female R&B singer to sign with them. Blanche is also reputed to have owned or partially owned a booking agency in Philadelphia.

During the late 50's, Blanche moved to Miami, Florida. She continued her political and community work. She was one of the first Negro clerks to serve in a voting precinct in Florida. One research source indicated that Blanche "became the first black woman to vote in 1958."

She nevertheless DID, in the 1960's, become the ONLY black female disk jockey on the radio in the Miami market, radio station WMEM, if not in the South. With her vivacious personality and distinct, powerful, melodious voice, Blanche became a celebrity personality all over again through radio. Being very sincerely into Christian Science since 1939, Blanche believed that 'God is Love,' and through that belief, offered her audience love, hope, inspiration and courage. She also organized and participated in community theater projects again bringing her ubelievable style and talents to the 'stage' and to the audience, both of which she loved.

In the 1960's, in her 60's, still going strong and showing no signs of quitting, Blanche was still not finished with being mentioned in the "Firsts" column...She went on to become the founder of the first major black-owned and operated mail order company. It was called AFRAM HOUSE, INC. The company specialized in cosmetics and hair preparations for blacks. Exactly how it came about and how successful it was, it's not known. It also needs to be researched.

And so the story ends. Blanche died of breast cancer in 1978. She was 75 years old. She survived the cancer for 12 years using juices like cabbage, carrot, and the like. She was a testament to her faith and her unflinching belief in the Love Of God. She was a remarkable woman.

Blanche Calloway would have been remembered if she maybe had just settled down to one of her talents like being a band vocalist instead of a Band Leader, she would have became a Legend. If you look at history, the women who are remembered are the ones who had one talent; being a vocalist. Being a vocalist and a vocalist with a male band was considered "female's work...staying in their place."

Obviously, we see how talented she was and her contributions are just as equal as the men, more so, because she stepped outside of her place and excelled in anything she did. She's a woman of "firsts." She truly was a "Brown Bomshell." From the looks of it Blanche Calloway is getting her recognition. People are starting to research early Black Entertainment History and starting to see there are "other" talents who are forgotten who shouldn't be and they have a story to tell.

It could be said Blanche was ahead of her time. She was an unusual, unique person for her era but she fit her time era perfectly. It was an era of firsts, spectacular, wowing personalities. Blanche was apart of the Greatest Era of Black Entertainment and she contributed greatly to that era and lived up to it.

If Blanche was around today, she would be considered an entertainment genius. Well, she was back then also. Wish, there were a Blanche Calloway today. Blanche left behind a lot of great music, which are now being discovered and released for us to enjoy. Her music is in demand. Just sit back, enjoy, and use your imagination.

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