Blanche Calloway

Born

  • February 9, 1902
  • Baltimore, MD

Died

  • December 16, 1978
  • Baltimore, MD

Full Name

  • Blanche Dorothea Calloway

Blanche Calloway

Sister of Cab, Blanche Calloway was a popular singer and bandleader during the 1930s. She studied music at Morgan State College before dropping out to pursue a career in show business. Her big break came in 1923 when offered a part in a musical touring company. Her vocal talents quickly made her a spotlight entertainer, and she began working nightclubs across the country. In the mid- and late 1920s she recorded for Okeh and Vocalion, including a 1925 session with Louis Armstrong. She also worked with her brother.

In 1931, while performing at the Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia, Blanche was heard by bandleader Andy Kirk. Kirk asked her to sing with his outfit, the Clouds of Joy. While touring with the orchestra she quickly found herself the featured attraction. Watching her popularity soar she made an attempt to steal leadership of the group from Kirk. When Kirk figured out the plot he quickly dumped her.

Still determined to have her own orchestra, Blanche found an ally in Kirk trumpet player Edgar ''Puddin Head'' Battle, who helped her put together a group. Called Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys, the band at times included Ben Webster and Cozy Cole. It later changed its name to Blanche Calloway and Her Orchestra. She was the first black woman to front an all-male orchestra. Considered one of the best African-American outfits in the country, the group toured and recorded for RCA Victor, finally disbanding in 1938 due to financial difficulties.

Blanche continued performing solo but found her audience shrinking. In 1940 she put together an all-female orchestra, which soon disbanded due to lack of bookings. Blanche retired from show business in 1944. In the early 1950s she managed a nightclub in Washington, DC, where she is credited with discovering R&B singer Ruth Brown. In the 1960s she worked as a disc jockey in Miami and operated a mail-order hair care business. Blanche Calloway passed away in 1978 after a battle with breast cancer.