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Few cinematic cameos have been more galvanizing than Cab Calloway’s in The Blues Brothers. In the 1980 film, he plays a janitor who suddenly dons white tie and tails, gets up on stage in front of an admiring group of long-haired rock and soul musicians, and proceeds to steal the show not only from its stars, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, but also from James Brown, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin, all of whom made cameo appearances of their own. How? By singing “Minnie the Moocher,” a swinging lament for an opium addict he had written a half-century earlier. Calloway, who was 73 years old in 1980, was little more than a name to the baby boomers who were seeing him for the first time. They had no idea how famous he had once been, or that the big band he led throughout the 30s and 40s was one of the most successful jazz groups of its day. Even those who were aware of Calloway’s triumphs as a bandleader had mostly been inclined to deprecate him. Only a limited number of his 78s had been transferred to LP by 1980, and it was common for jazz critics to dismiss him as a flamboyant clown, a zoot-suited purveyor of novelty tunes like “A Chicken Ain’t Nothin’ but a Bird.” It was conventional wisdom that Calloway’s “inane vocal antics” (in the phrase of the highbrow British jazz critic Max Harrison) served to obscure the playing of his sidemen, who included such world-class instrumentalists as the tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and the bassist Milt Hinton.

more from Terry Teachout at Commentary here.