Blanche Calloway’s younger brother may be the sibling history remembers, but she was the real star.
When Blanche sang with the big band Andy Kirk’s 12 Clouds of Joy, she knew she had the charisma & experience to front the whole show, so in 1931, she formed Blanche Calloway and the Joy Boys.
And just like that, she was the first female leader of a major American dance band.
That same year, the Pittsburgh Courier called her “one of the most progressive performers in the profession.” Blanche’s loud, flamboyant & provocative style made her a standout with critics & audiences, and she was soon touring the country plus regularly headlining at illustrious black theaters like the Harlem Opera House & The Apollo.
She was even kind enough to invite her little brother Cab to make guest appearances while he was building his own career, and lend him some of her vocal stylings, like the “Hi-Di-Hi-Di-Hi-Di-Ho” call & response that he’s best known for.
But it was her fame & the state of American society at the time that lead to her downfall.
In 1936, while Blanche & the Joy Boys were on tour in Mississippi, she made the fatal error of using a white-only restroom. The police were called, one of the band members was pistol-whipped and the two of them were jailed. They came up enough money to bail themselves out, but while they were in jail, another band member collected their gig payments & skipped town.
The band never recovered and in 1938, Blanche filed for bankruptcy. She continued her solo career, but never regained the fame she had before, and settled in Philadelphia where she was active in politics & the black community.
She didn’t stop setting milestones though. She moved to Miami and became their first female disc jockey in 1953, and the first black woman to vote in there in 1958.
One of the constant criticisms Blanche faced as a performer is that she wasn’t a proper & respectable lady. So, if well-behaved women rarely make history, it’s no wonder that all of her life, Blanche did exactly that.