Cab Kaye - The War Years

The War Years

In 1937 Cab Kaye played drums and percussion with Doug Swallow and his band in April, the Hal Swain Band in the summer and Alan Green’s band in September in Hastings, England. Until 1940 he sang and drummed with the Ivor Kirchin Band, with Steve Race on piano, in the Paramount Dance Hall (on Tottenham Court Road), where he was one of the only Africans around. When a guest was refused entrance because of skin colour, Kaye refused to perform. The incident led to the regular acceptance of people of colour and the Paramount Dance Hall grew into a sort of “Harlem of London”. After a short period with Britain’s first black swing bandleader, Ken "Snakehips" Johnson and His Rhythm Swingers, Kaye played in several radio broadcasts. Shortly thereafter, he joined the British Merchant Navy, which was required to sail and provided support services to the allies during World War II. On 8 March 1941, three days after Kaye enlisted, Ken Johnson and saxophonist David Williams were killed when a bomb fell on the Café de Paris nightclub in London's West End, where they were performing. Around this time Kaye’s mother was also killed when her house in Portsmouth was the only house on her street to be hit by a bomb.

While on leave from the Merchant Navy, Kaye sang with Don Mario Barretto in London. In 1942, his ship was hit by a torpedo in the Pacific Ocean. Kaye was saved, but his convoy continued to be attacked by enemy ships. During the following three nights, two other ships were sunk. These experiences stayed with Cab his entire life and explain his constant fear of fireworks. But the adventure was not over. En route to an Army hospital in New York he was badly hurt as his plane crashed just before landing. While recuperating in New York, he went to concerts and played in clubs in Harlem and Greenwich Village with the trumpet player Roy Eldridge, trombonist Sandy Williams, Slam Stewart, Pete Brown, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Willie "The Lion" Smith. The story was told in a two-page article in Melody Maker (December 1942) headlined: “TORPEDOED... SHIPWRECKED... INJURED... BUT HE MET ALL THE SWING STARS!” After his return to London, Kaye sang in February and April 1943 with clarinettist Harry Parry, then with the “Princes of Rhythm”, and formed a band that played in 1943 and 1944 in the Orchard Club on Wigmore Street that included a 16-year-old Ronald Schatt (Ronnie Scott) on sax, and Ralph Sharon and Dick Katz on piano.

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