Cab Calloway, part 1: selected early originals and covers 1930-1939
See also our second Cab Calloway special feature:
And recordings by Calloway in the following feature pages:
- St. James Infirmary
- Blues in the Night
- Reefer Songs
- Don’t Worry ’bout Me
- Jumpin’ Jive
- That’s What I Like About the South
- Stormy Weather
- (I Don’t Stand a) Ghost of Chance With You
- Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
- The Big Broadcast (1932)
- Exactly Like You
Minnie the Moocher (Cab Calloway, Irving Mills) is a jazz song first recorded in 1931 by Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, selling over 1 million copies. The song is most famous for its ad-libbed nonsensical (scat) lyrics. In performances, Calloway would have the audience participate by repeating each scat phrase in a form of call and response, eventually Calloway’s phrases would become so long and complex that the audience would laugh at their own failed attempts to repeat them.
The song is based both musically and lyrically on Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon’s 1927 “Willie the Weeper” (Bette Davis sings this version in The Cabin in the Cotton). The lyrics are heavily laden with drug references. “Smoky” is described as “cokey” meaning a user of cocaine;the phrase “kicking the gong around” was a slang reference to smoking opium. It was followed two years later by Lonnie Johnson’s “Winnie the Wailer”.
Calloway also wrote an extended version, adding verses which describe Minnie and Smokey going to jail; Minnie pays Smokey’s bail, but he abandons her there. Another verse describes her tempting “Deacon Lowdown” when she “wiggled her jelly roll” at him.
Finally, they took Minnie to “where they put the crazies”, where she dies. This explains why both the short version and the long version end with the words “Poor Min, poor Min”.
Minnie herself is mentioned in a number of other Cab Calloway songs, including “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day”, “Ghost of Smoky Joe”, “Kickin’ the Gong Around”, “Minnie’s a Hepcat Now”, “Mister Paganini – Swing for Minnie”, “We Go Well Together”, and “Zah Zuh Zaz”. Some of these songs indicate that Minnie’s boyfriend Smoky was named Smoky Joe as well. – wikipedia extracts, modified
1931 – Audio track at last.fm: (click)
1932 – From the Betty Boop and Bimbo cartoon Minnie the Moocher. At the beginning there is a segment, about 45 seconds long (beginning at 0:19) of the band performing, with Calloway dancing and conducting. This is the earliest known footage of Calloway. The video provider has edited a couple of minutes out, leaving only the song.
1942 – A Soundie made in 1942, also titled Minnie the Moocher
1955 – This clip is from the film Rhythm and Blues Revue (1955) which featured some of the top acts in R&B and Jazz at the time including Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Big Joe Turner, Amos Milburn, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, and Herb Jeffries.
1958 – live
Cabell “Cab” Calloway III (December 25, 1907 – November 18, 1994) was an American jazz singer and bandleader. Calloway was a master of energetic scat singing and led one of the United States’ most popular African American big bands from the start of the 1930s through the late 1940s. Calloway’s band featured performers including trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham, saxophonists Ben Webster and Leon “Chu” Berry, New Orleans guitar ace Danny Barker, and bassist Milt Hinton. Calloway continued to perform until his death in 1994 at the age of 86.
Cab Calloway was born in a middle-class family in Rochester, New York, on Christmas Day 1907 and lived there, until 1918, on Sycamore Street. He was later raised in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, Cabell Calloway II, was a lawyer and his mother, Martha Eulalia Reed, was a teacher and church organist. When Cab was young, he would enjoy singing in church. His parents recognized their son’s musical talent and he began private voice lessons in 1922. He continued to study music and voice throughout his formal schooling. Despite his parents’ and vocal teachers’ disapproval of jazz, Calloway began frequenting and eventually performing in many of Baltimore’s jazz clubs, where he was mentored by drummer Chick Webb and pianist Johnny Jones.
After graduating from Frederick Douglass High School Calloway joined his older sister, Blanche, in a touring production of the popular black musical revue Plantation Days (Blanche Calloway herself would become an accomplished bandleader before her brother did and he would often credit his inspiration to enter show business to her). Calloway attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania but left in 1930 without graduating.
When the tour ended in Chicago in the fall, Calloway decided to remain in Chicago with his sister, who had an established career as a jazz singer in that city. His parents had hopes of their son becoming a lawyer like his father, so Calloway enrolled in Crane College.
His main interest, however, was in singing and entertaining, and he spent most of his nights at the Dreamland Ballroom, the Sunset Cafe, and the Club Berlin, performing as a drummer, singer and emcee.
At the Sunset Cafe he met and performed with Louis Armstrong who taught him to sing in the “scat” style.
The Cotton Club was the premier jazz venue in the country, and Calloway and his orchestra (he had taken over a brilliant but failing band called “The Missourians” in 1930) were hired as a replacement for the Duke Ellington Orchestra while they were touring. Calloway quickly proved so popular that his band became the “co-house” band with Ellington’s and his group began touring nationwide when not playing the Cotton Club. Their popularity was greatly enhanced by the twice-weekly live national radio broadcasts on NBC at the Cotton Club. Calloway also appeared on Walter Winchell’s radio program and with Bing Crosby in his show at New York’s Paramount Theatre. As a result of these appearances Calloway, together with Ellington, broke the major broadcast network color barrier.
In 1931 he recorded his most famous song, “Minnie the Moocher”. That song and “St. James Infirmary Blues” and “The Old Man Of The Mountain” were performed for the Betty Boop animated shorts Minnie the Moocher, Snow White and The Old Man of the Mountain, respectively. Through rotoscoping, Calloway not only gave his voice to these cartoons but his dance steps as well. He took advantage of this and timed his concerts in some communities with the release of the films in order to make the most of the attention. As a result of the success of “Minnie the Moocher” he became identified with its chorus, gaining the nickname “The Hi De Ho Man”. He also performed in a series of short films for Paramount in the 1930s (Calloway and Ellington were featured on film more than any other jazz orchestras of the era). The 1933 film, International House featured Calloway performing his classic song, “Reefer Man,” a tune about a man who favors marijuana cigarettes. – Wikipedia
Other early songs
Some of these Days (Shelton Brooks) The song was written in 1910 and first recorded by Sophie Tucker in 1911 for whom it became a signature song. Her 1926 recording backed by Ted Lewis & his Orchestra was a million-seller which topped the charts and remained #1 for five weeks.
Calloway & his Orchestra recorded a red hot version in 1930, the band’s first year of recording, and again 1931. In 1937 the song was one of four included in the short film, Hi De Ho (1937), which featured four songs originally released from 1931-1936 by the band.
1937 in the short film Hi De Ho
The Viper’s Drag (Fats Waller) — Cab Calloway and his Orchestra – 1930
St. James Infirmary Blues (traditional)
Animated Fleischer Brothers short, Snow White, featuring Betty Boop (1933)
In the feature film Hi-De-Ho (1947)
Kickin’ the Gong Around (Harold Arlen, Ted Koehler) – in the film The Big Broadcast (1932)
Doin the New Low Down (McHugh, Fields) – with the Mills Brothers. Recorded in New York, 29 December 1932. (The second song in the video is another hit from Blackbirds of 1928 by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, Diga Diga Do; this time with vocals by the Mills Brothers, music by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. – date unknown)
Reefer Man (J. Russel Robinson, Andy Razaf)- from the film International House – 1933
Cab Calloway and his Orchestra made a short film titled Cab Calloway’s Hi-De-Ho directed by Fred Waller which was released on 24 August 1934. The film is 10 minutes in length. Songs performed by the band in the short include Zah Zuh Zaz (songwriters: ?), Lady With a Fan (Al Brackman, Jeanne Burns, Cab Calloway), and a brief portion of the 1931 song I Love a Parade (Arlen, Koehler) at the conclusion. I don’t know the name of the “new number” the band is awoken to rehearse as a replacement for the opening number of their show, to be “ready by morning” on orders of Irving Mills.
Lady with the Fan (m. Jeanne Burns, w. Cab Calloway, Al Brackman)
From the book A Renaissance in Harlem by Lionel Bascom, p. 120:
Jumpin’ Jive (Cab Calloway, Frank Froeba, Jack Palmer) – The song, also known as (Hep-Hep!) The Jumpin’ Jive, was originally recorded in 1939. Cab Calloway & his Orchestra and the Nicholas Brothers later performed the song in a famous production number in the film Stormy Weather (1943). The Andrews Sisters recorded a version in 1939, released in November of that year. It was the B-side of their seventeenth straight top 20 hit, Chico’s Love Song.
See our separate page:
recorded 17 July 1939
(above) Stormy Weather (1943) : Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway
(above) The Nicholas Brothers in the “Jumpin’ Jive” number of Stormy Weather (1943)
Cab Calloway and his Orchestra, with dance by the Nicholas Brothers — 1943 film Stormy Weather
1980 – Minnie the Moocher in the film The Blues Brothers