Singer, composer and bandleader Blanche Calloway (1902-1978) is recognized as the first woman to successfully lead an all-male Jazz orchestra under her own name.
Waxing a couple dozen sides, Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys were a quite successful regional Midwestern band in the early 1930s.
But she was eclipsed by the superstardom of her much more famous brother Cab Calloway.
Cab Calloway borrowed key elements from his elder sister’s act -- her bravura vocal style and Hi-de-Ho call and response routines. His 1976 memoir acknowledges her influence, declaring Blanche “vivacious, lovely, personality plus and a hell of a singer and dancer,” an all-around entertainer who was “fabulous, happy and extroverted.”
Blanche’s 12-piece outfit consisted of personnel often interchangeable with Andy Kirk and The Clouds of Joy including pianist and arranger Mary Lou Williams, but Calloway split off. In 1931 she was one of the first to hire young Kansas City tenor saxophonist Ben Webster -- heard on “Just a Crazy Song.” Trombonist Vic Dickenson is featured in “I Need Lovin’.” Both songs were probably arranged by talented trumpet player and arranger Edgar “Puddinghead” Battle, who later wrote for Cab.
Blanche Calloway in her early days and with Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy including Mary Lou Williams.
Calloway dropped out of college to enter show business with a Cabaret troupe, subsequently appearing in Sissle and Blake’s “Shuffle Along” and the touring “Plantation Days.” She was very successful in Chicago during the early 1920s at the prestigious Sunset Café and made a blues record accompanied by cornet player Louis Armstrong.
Though her last official orchestra disbanded in 1938, Calloway ran an all-woman band briefly during World War II. She remained engaged with the entertainment industry into the 1950s, running bands and representing her protégé, R & B singer Ruth Brown.
Blanche retired to Miami in the 1950s. Becoming active in civil rights, she was the first black woman to vote in the State of Florida. In the 1960s Blanche was the only African American female disc jockey on the air in Florida, possibly the entire Southern United States, and ran her own cosmetics company.
Her scintillating 1931 “Growlin’ Dan” contains proto-Minnie the Moocher imagery. It again shows the deft hand of arranger Edgar Battle and drummer Cozy Cole. “You Ain’t Livin’ Right” is from her last recording session in November 1935.