The argument about who created rock ‘n’ roll music and who first recorded it has been rattling on since Trixie Smith released “My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)” in 1922. Whether it was the Boswell Sisters with “Rock and Roll” in 1934, “Rockin’ and Rollin’” by Charlie Gracie in 1952 or Bill Haley and “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955, there have been many shoulders pushing at the boogie woogie wheel – and on December 2nd 1952 one of the greatest early rock pioneers came to Richmond. His name was Cab Calloway – and he was opening a clothes shop.
Ralph Taylor had set up “The Centre For the Well-Dressed Man” at 19 Kew Road, directly opposite Richmond Station. Being a hip kind of guy, Mr Taylor decided that he needed a groovy face to launch his new venture – and the man he chose was the grooviest of them all – U.S band leader, film and recording star and King of the Hi-De-Hi, Mr. Cab Calloway.
Cab was a star and an icon of style. With numerous swing hits behind him like “Minnie the Moocher” and “Reefer Man” Cab was the embodiment of ‘cool’. He sang in the very latest ‘scat’ style, wore stylish ‘zoot’ suits and was the creator of his own Hepsters Jive Talk…
HOW TO SIGNIFY WITH THE JIVE TALK
- A hummer (n.) — exceptionally good. Ex., “Man, that boy is a hummer.”
- Canary (n.) — girl vocalist.
- Co·pa·cet·ic (adj) – fine; completely satisfactory; OK.
- Cut out (v.) — to leave, to depart. Ex., “It’s time to cut out”; “I cut out from the joint in early bright.”
- Gate (n.) — a male person (a salutation), abbr. for “gate-mouth.”
- Line (n.) — cost, price, money. Ex., “What is the line on this drape” (how much does this suit cost)?
- Signify (v.) — to declare yourself, to brag, to boast.
- Togged to the bricks — dressed to kill, from head to toe.
- Zoot suit (n.) — the ultimate in clothes. The only totally and truly American civilian suit .
Cab’s band was hot and he was hotter. He was the star and main attraction at the Cotton Club in Harlem and in December 1952 he was in London at the Stoll Theatre playing ‘Sportin’ Life’ in “Porgie and Bess”, a part specially created for him by the composer George Gershwin. Yep. This guy was so hot he was ultra cool….. You dig? Yet and surprisingly none of the local papers, the ‘Richmond and Twickenham Times’ or the ‘Richmond Herald’ bothered to cover his visit, even though Ralph Taylor had placed a large advertisement the week before publicising the shop opening. Now, surely that ain’t copasetic?
I am certain that a large crowd of local hepcats and chicks came to see Cab and welcome him to Richmond and I am sure that he was happy when he left around lunchtime but it is strange that the local newspapers should choose to ignore him. Maybe the minutes of the local parish council or the news of a wave of bicycle thefts were more important.
That Tuesday evening, December 2nd 1952, Cab was taking a break from “Porgy and Bess” to appear in “Harry Dawson’s Big Rhythm Show of 1952” at the Royal Albert Hall, alongside other jazz and be-bop greats like Mary Lou Williams and the Deep River Boys. Despite the thick fog outside the show was a huge hit and Cab was the star. The music critic with the “Chicago Defender” was very complimentary…
“It is necessary to say that the weather simplified things: a thick fog that was to kill some 160 people in the coming days prevented many of the audience from arriving safely. However it was a true triumph in spite of the elements. Cab Calloway held the attention of the public and the critics. During his performance he sang ‘Minnie the Moocher’, ‘The Hi De Ho Man’ and ‘Stormy Weather’ (very appropriate in the circumstances!)”
That thick fog was the first appearance of the deadly ‘smog’ that over the coming days was to paralyse London and lead eventually to the deaths of around 12,000 people. It was also a portent. On the weekend of the 6th December 1952, just four days after Cab’s visit, under the cover of the smog that was by now blanketing Richmond a gang of thieves broke into Ralph Taylor’s ’Centre for the Well Dressed Man" opposite Richmond Station and stole £100 worth of clothing. The local papers reported that event, along with other fog assisted crimes in the borough:-Isleworth Head Post Office – £692 in cash and £1673 in stock, Lantern Café in Brewers Lane, Richmond – 1200 cigarettes worth £10, Ensor-Richmond Typewriter Co. on Lower George Street – Typewriters worth £60
There is a study called ‘Psychogeography’ which suggests a casual link between places or environments and the events that take place there, as with historical ‘sacred’ sites or places where certain businesses or activities have always been held…and maybe this is the case with the site opposite Richmond Station
About 10 years later, on Sunday 14th April 1963, in the Station Hotel which like Ralph Taylor’s menswear shop was opposite Richmond Station another group of pop pioneers with their shoulders to the rock ‘n’ roll wheel came to visit. On that evening the rising stars of the time, the Beatles, dropped in to see a new group that were beginning to make a mark, They were called the Rolling Stones. Cab Calloway would have loved them.
In later years Cab Calloway became better known in the U.K for his appearances in films such as ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ (1965), with Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson and ‘The Blues Brothers’ (1980). He also featured in the Janet Jackson pop video ‘Alright’ (1990) and a TV Commercial for ‘Hula Hoops’. Cab died on November 18th 1994 aged 87, signifying to the very end.
Cab Calloway and “Minnie the Moocher”
— from Martyn Day