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Cab Kaye: 1921-2000
Cab Kaye
Singer, pianist, guitarist

Born: September 3, 1921 in London, England
Died: March 13, 2000 in Amsterdam, Holland

An Exhuberant Voice in British Jazz

Copyright © 2000 

The Scotsman, 2000


Cab Kaye was a colourful presence on the British jazz scene in the 1940s and 1950s, and if he was best known as an ebullient and slyly witty singer who incorporated some of the musical advances of bebop into his style, he was also a competent stride piano player, drummer and guitarist. Three of his children went on to become well-known musicians in their own right, guitarist Caleb Kaye (who worked with Elton John and Hall and Oates, among others), singer and percussionist Terri Naa-Koshie Quaye, and, more recently, singer Finley Quaye.

Cab Kaye was born Augustus Kwamlah Quaye, and was himself the child of performers. His father, pianist and percussionist Caleb Quaye, was from Ghana (then still known as the Gold Coast), and his mother, Doris, was an English music hall artist when they met on the variety circuit. Caleb Quaye performed under the name Mope Desmond, and worked with the famous American saxophonist Sidney Bechet in London in the early Twenties. He was killed in a railway accident in Blisworth, Northamptonshire, in 1922, when his son was only four months old.

A life insurance policy helped the family survive financially, and they relocated to Portsmouth. Given his parentage, and an even deeper family background in music (his African grandfather and great-grandfather had also been musicians), Cab always seemed likely to take up a musical career. He began working in nightclubs as a teenager, where he made valuable contacts among more senior musicians. One of those contacts, the American trombone player Ellis Jackson, worked with Billy Cotton's famous showband, and recommended Kaye when the bandleader was looking for a singer. The association launched his career in earnest, and he made his recording debut singing on Cotton’s version of ‘Shoe Shine Boy’ in 1936.

He married the first of his three wives, Theresa Austin, in 1939, the mother of both Caleb and Terri Quaye (she was also a singer, and performed in Cab Kaye’s own bands in the 1950s). He sang with a number of well-known bandleaders on the London scene, including Doug Swallow, Hal Swain, Ivor Kirchin and Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson (who was later killed when a bomb fell on the club where the band was working in 1941), then joined the Merchant Navy in 1941.

He was shipwrecked when his vessel was torpedoed, and subsequently sustained serious injuries in an air crash, and was invalided out of the navy in New York in 1942, where he was able to sit in on jazz sessions, including one with the great trumpet star, Roy Eldridge. He returned to London that year, and worked for a short time with Harry Parry early in 1943, then with the Princes of Rhythm. He became a familiar name on the wartime entertainment scene, leading his own bands and working with Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson, another former member of Ken Johnson’s band who had survived the fatal air raid.

He travelled to India with Hutchinson in 1946 to entertain the forces, then returned to London, where he became a focal point for the new wave of immigrant musicians arriving in London from the West Indies, as well as serving as an important influence on aspiring English jazz musicians like saxophonist Ronnie Scott and pianist Dennis Rose, both of whom worked in his band.

Kaye also sang with Tito Burns and the Ted Heath Orchestra in the late 1940s. He moved to Holland in 1950, where he met Charlie Parker, and for several years worked extensively in Europe, while occasionally returning to lead his own band (which often featured both British-born and immigrant musicians of African and West Indian descent) in a series of tours and residences in Britain, including a tour of Scotland in 1953 with the show Memories of Jolson. He also recorded with his own groups in this period, and eventually dropped the Anglicised version of his surname.

He returned to Britain in 1957, working initially with Eric Delaney and subsequently with Humphrey Lyttelton in 1959-60. The following year, he moved to his father’s homeland of Ghana, where he worked as Government Entertainments Officer for a short period, and spent much of the next decade in Africa and the USA. He returned to London in 1970, performing locally and using the city as a base for European engagements, but subsequently settled in Amsterdam, where he opened a piano bar, and continued to perform throughout the 1990s.

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With 5 reader comments, latest February 26, 2008