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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 29, 2003 edition of U.S.
1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Chris Calloway: More than Cab’s Daughter
Chris Calloway has been proving that she not only has
what it takes to be the daughter of a legend, but also that she has
what it takes to portray a legend. If her father, the unique band
leader and singer and "King of the Cotton Club" Cab Calloway,
was renowned for the skatty style of flamboyant jazz that he brought
to the big band era, Chris has gained recognition in her own right
as an actor, singer, and writer. At the moment, she is portraying
jazz legend Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and
Grill," the Lanie Robertson music-filled play, now at the Bristol
About the way she plays Holiday, Chris says, "It is the emotional
baggage that Holiday carried around with her that made her singing
memorable. She didn’t have much of a voice, very little range and
toward the end, her life style took a toll on it," says her interpreter
about whom the Washington Post has said "every bit as capable
of carrying on the family tradition of supercharged performance smoldering
Calloway believes that the appeal of Holiday, especially with young
audiences, is that she wore her emotions on her sleeve, something
that she says is rare to see in performers in the 21st century. "It’s
extraordinary to experience this woman whose feelings were so in your
face," says Calloway about the role she has been playing on and
off for the past 10 years. "This play is especially important
to me this time around because I lost my only son on September 5th
this past year from complications from drug addiction. He was a drug
addict off and on for the past 15 years," she says, revealing
how the show is now part of her own healing process. "He needs
to speak through me. Artists do their job by healing the audience
as well," she says talking about all the people who have opened
up to her about their own loss.
Chris’ spiritually-based philosophy, which she says helped her confront
a recurrence of breast cancer, is based on "focusing on how I
live as a human being and as an artist. I’m not here for a long time,
but I’m here for a good time. As an actor, it is my job to give Holiday
an inner life," she says paraphrasing Stanislavsky. "The more
I color the aspects of Holiday’s inner life the more that effects
the way my voice comes out and how Billie can speak through me. I’m
not trying to sound like Holiday but assume her emotional life and
We share candidly our opinions of other artists who have portrayed
Holiday with more voice than verity. "You can’t see me through
the phone," she says, "but I am a red-haired, light-skinned
black woman and I don’t look a bloody thing like Holiday. My job is
not to look like her or even look good up there but to portray her
as the crass, hard, gut-bucket woman who had had her ass kicked."
The Holiday that Calloway brings us is the tragic singer at the end
of the line. The place is Emerson’s Bar & Grill in Philadelphia at
midnight on a Friday in March 1959, four months before Holiday’s death.
It is in this evocative dump that we hear Holiday’s story, a blend
of stream-of-consciousness monologue and cabaret. Notwithstanding
her heroin addiction, Calloway wants us to see a Holiday whose life
at this point, as well as her music, as filled with brave defiance,
justifiable arrogance and unavoidable suffering. The rich drama, that
includes insights into Holiday’s childhood and her debilitating marriage,
as well as the infamous tour with the Artie Shaw Orchestra, unfolds
amid such songs as "When a Woman Loves A Man," "Them There
Eyes," "God Bless the Child," and "Livin’ For You."
Under Susan D. Atkinson’s direction, Calloway will have musical assist
from David Alan Bunn, on piano, and Arthur Harper on bass.
There is no denying the love and dedication with which Chris has worked
to preserve Cab Calloway’s legacy and keeping his flame lit since
his death in 1995. She put together her father’s last band, The Hi-De-Ho
Orchestra, for the JVC Jazz Festival in New York City in 1999 and
a subsequent 55-city tour called "Cab Calloway’s Legacy of Swing."
But Chris is equally dedicated to her own artistic pursuits. Part
of that pursuit has been touring with "Lady Day" from Alabama
to the Edinburgh Arts Festival, from Dallas to a tour of England,
from Winnipeg Canada, to Sarasota Florida, and to Santa Fe Stages
International Theatre Festival.
It was in New Mexico that Calloway was given the title Santa Fe’s
"Reigning Diva of the Night" where she performed at the major
hotels and lounges, perfecting her own style. It was there that she
structured the material for "Celebration of a Legacy," a showcase
marking 75 years of show business history for the Calloway family,
that was notable for its music, the bulk of which was written or recorded
by her aunt Blanche Calloway and her father.
"I settled in New Mexico to get away from my Dad," she says
qualifying that with "I needed to figure out who I was as an artist
as I had spent the majority of the past 20 years touring and performing
with my father as a team and his Hi-De-Ho Orchestra throughout the
U.S. Europe, South America, Japan, and Australia. The touring was
good because I had a job, but bad because I knew that they weren’t
coming to see me. I was always introduced as Chris Calloway, Cab Calloway’s
daughter. I knew they were thinking, Oh, God, here comes Nancy Sinatra.
So, the pressure was on me to be better than they expected. That became
a blessing in disguise. I worked to establish a performance level
and an ethic that was up to the legacy."
Calloway’s special talents as an actor, a singer, and most recently
a playwright have kept her active in show biz since she made her first
professional appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show with an introduction
to the world by her Dad in the mid 1960s. But introductions can only
do so much as Chris learned the hard way starting out as a "singing
hat check girl" at New York’s Improvisation, the Catskill Mountains
circuit, and a brief stint with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. But
perhaps as Calloway recalls, it was really when she was about 12 years
old that she got the singing bug lip-synching to Mahalia Jackson’s
"Oh Holy Night," for her father on his birthday — Christmas
Active with her high school’s drama club in White Plains,
N.Y. where the Calloway family lived, Calloway made a decision to
attend Boston University School of Fine Arts, where she says, "I
didn’t quite make it through to the end. "Dad was so pissed that
he threw a television set at me," she says also allowing (with a loud
laugh) that it missed. Chris remembers how her dad "knew how to
hustle" when it came to making a living in the waning years of
the big band era. "He went on tour with the Harlem Globetrotters
and was the half time show in the gymnasiums. There was only him and
As had other members of the Calloway clan, Chris was anxious to get
her musical career going. "Dad’s brother Elmer was a band leader,
and my baby sister Cabella was a dancer, and my middle sister Cecilia
worked with my Dad for a bit, but it was Aunt Blanche (Calloway),
who was one of the only females to front an `all male’ band in 1931
and who directly influenced my dad, who was so inspiring that I decided
to write a play about her."
In the spring of 2001, Chris dove into a project that was "a dream
come true for me." Santa Fe Stages produced Chris’ one-woman show
— "Clouds of Joy" — that she wrote about her Aunt
Blanche. It has recently been revised by co-author Mark St. Germain
and renamed "Blanche and Her Joy Boys." Plans for a New York
run are in the works. Chris talks even more enthusiastically —
"I’m a happy girl" — about the prospects of a Broadway
musical about Cab Calloway. Chris’ own big Broadway break came when
she was picked to appear with her Dad in the history making "all
black" David Merrick production of "Hello Dolly," starring
After a nine-month tour with the musical review "Eubie" that
followed the "Dolly" run, Chris settled in Hollywood where
she hosted her own radio talk and music shows. She was one of the
first black DJ’s in the LA market. A TV soap — "The Doctors"
— entered the picture for a year with Chris playing the mysterious
Dr. Ivey Gooding, co-starring with Alec Baldwin and John Panko.
I asked Chris what she considered the best part of her life. "It’s
my spiritual life and my understanding of who I am and why I’m here,"
she says. "I know its sounds bizarre, but the death of my son
was a gift because it gave me focus. My grieving was so pervasive
and definitive that I knew I had to pick myself off the floor. I don’t
do fear." More than she knows at the moment, the Diva of the Night
seems to be expressing the sentiments of Lady Day.
— Simon Saltzman
Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. Opening night
for the musical starring Chris Calloway. To February 16. $37. Thursday,
January 30, 8 p.m.
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