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Black History Month: The Bold Blanche Calloway

Entertainer and bandleader Blanche Calloway
Entertainer and bandleader Blanche Calloway

KNKX remembers the groundbreaking bandleader Blanche Calloway for Black History Month.

Before there was the "Hi-De-Ho" man, there was his sister.

Blanche Calloway paved the way to stardom for her younger brother Cab, and she was recognized as the first Black woman to successfully lead an all-male jazz orchestra, which she did through most of the 1930s. 

Brother Cab mimicked Blanche’s vocal style and exuberant showmanship in front of the band. He frequently credited her as the reason he got into show business in the first place.

Blanche was successful as an entertainer in Chicago in the 1920s. She made her first recordings in 1925, hiring a young Louis Armstrong as a sideman.

Legend has it that Blanche, being an “ambitious woman,” tried to take over the orchestra known as the Clouds of Joy from bandleader Andy Kirk when she was their featured vocalist. Mr. Kirk promptly quashed that rebellion by firing her.

Shortly afterward, Blanche put together her own orchestra, first named Blanche Calloway and her Joy Boys, later to become Blanche Calloway and her Orchestra. Their theme song was “Growlin’ Dan.”

Blanche disbanded her orchestra in 1938 and ran an all-women band in the early 1940s.

She settled in Miami in the 1950s and was active in politics and the beginnings of the civil rights movement. In 1958, she was the first Black woman to vote in Miami.

Celebrating Blanche Calloway for Black History Month.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.