This week's song was the biggest-selling hit in the United States exactly ninety years ago - April 1931. If you don't know it, worry not - it's easy to pick up on the fly:
Cab Calloway? I can date more or less precisely the moment I first heard of him. I was a schoolboy and a pal had lent me a paperback copy of Spike Milligan's memoir, Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall. Milligan was a member of the BBC's Goon Show. (If you're American and don't know what the Goons are, ask the Prince of Wales, as I believe he was made an honorary member.) Anyway, midway through the memoir, young Spike is playing trumpet with a band called the Ritz Revels and, because trumpet playing tended to strain his groin, he took to improvising a truss by stuffing an old sock tight with rags and taping it to his crotch. Unfortunately, this gave him "a bulge in my trousers that looked like the erection of a stallion". So he decided the solution was to somehow obscure the stallion effect:
Mother came to the rescue; she sewed on an additional length of dyed black curtain which covered the bulge but brought the jacket half way down my thighs. Embarrassed, I explained it away by saying, "This is the latest style from America, Cab Calloway wears one." "He must be a c**t," said the drummer.
At my tender age, I had no idea who Cab Calloway was, but I figured it had to be a joke of some sort. So the next Saturday I chanced to be in a record store (of blessed memory), riffled through the bins and found an old album showing a handsome beaming moustachioed black bandleader in a stylish if unfeasibly long tail coat. I disagreed with the drummer of the Ritz Revels. He looked kind of cool. And, as the record was priced to clear, I bought it, took it home, and heard for the first time:
Now, folks, here's a story 'bout Minnie The Moocher...
Quite a story it turned out to be, though references to "kicking the gong aroun'" were as mystifying to me as the jacket joke had been. And, although there would be many other records bearing his name, it was that lowdown hoochie-koocher that kept Cab in business for two-thirds of a century.
Cabell Cabell Calloway III was born into a black middle-class family in Rochester, New York. His father, Cabell Calloway II, was a lawyer, and his mother Martha was a teacher, and they steered their son into formal voice and music lessons. Then jazz bit him. And, despite his parents' and his teachers' disapproval, Cab decided the muse was calling. For a fellow from his background, showbiz wasn't a ticket out of the ghetto but a ticket down toward it. He and his sister Blanche got jobs with a touring revue called Plantation Days, and by 1929 they were working in a club in Chicago - Blanche as a singer, and Cab as a busboy. And at that point Irving Mills of Mills Music swung by.
He was in town to audition Blanche, but she refused to go to New York unless Cab came, too. Mills listened to Cab sing and watched him dance, and decided to sign both Calloways. So Cab hit the big town - and the big time, winding up at the Cotton Club. He wasn't the house bandleader - that gig belonged to Duke Ellington. But Duke was on the road a fair bit, and, when he was, it was Cab's orchestra that got to fill in. The Cotton Club was the hottest nightspot in town, and radio brought it to a national audience. Calloway was a natural personality for the medium. As Dorothy Duran, the radio editor of The Beacon Journal, put it in 1934:
There are kings and kings, but the 'king of hi-de-hi and ho-de-ho' undoubtedly is Cab Calloway.
Undoubtedly. For one thing, being the "king of jazz" or the "king of swing" is a competitive title, but Cab pretty much had the hi-de-hi and ho-de-ho deal all to himself. What was it? Well, it was a sort of happy accident. Irving Mills was a journeyman songwriter but a very savvy manager, and he was always looking for ways to maximize the reach of Ellington, Calloway and his other clients. "Cab," he said, one day in 1931, "it's about time you had a theme of your own. You're on national radio, you're doing national tours. The band needs a tune that it can be identified by." Calloway thought they already had one - the old blues "St James' Infirmary", which they'd been using as a theme song to great effect:
But Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory and any number of other folks were also associated with it, and Mills wanted something more reflective of the orchestra's personality.
Calloway met him halfway. "We figured," he said, "we ought to try to write something that would have the same feeling, and a melody that wasn't too different. We first wrote a tune that was very similar to 'St James' Infirmary'." As Calloway conceded, if you listen closely to his new theme tune, you'll hear some of the same chord changes and harmonies as his old theme tune. "In fact the melody itself is pretty close in some sections. Then Mills and I got together on the lyrics. There was a song going around at that time called 'Willie the Weeper'. I don't know who wrote it, but it was pretty popular. And there was another one called 'Minnie the Mermaid'. They were both torch songs."
The eventual "new" song was really a merger of the pre-existing ditties. "Minnie the Mermaid" ("A Love Song in Fish Time") gave 'em the gal and her general disposition:
O, what a time I had with Minnie The Mermaid
Down at the bottom of the sea
Down amongst the corals
Where she lost her morals
My, but she was good to me...
On the other hand, "Willie The Weeper" gave 'em the plot line:
Have you heard the story of Willie the Weeper?
Made his living as a chimney sweeper
Had the hop habit and had it bad
Listen and I will tell you about a dream he had...
Fortunately for Calloway, almost any version of "Willie the Weeper" anyone had ever head eschewed the lyric - even Louis Armstrong's:
Oh, okay, if you scrabble around, you can find a vocal version. Here's the versatile vaudevillian Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon, a 5'2" black female impersonator, in 1927:
Went to the Chink's joint the other night
Where he knew that the lights were always shining bright
He called in the Chink and ordered a toy of hop
Started in to smoking and thought that he never would stop...
A Chink's hop joint? That's opium talk. Calloway, Gaskill and Mills fished Minnie off the bottom of the sea and stuck her in a hop joint with a cokie boyfriend:
Now here's a story 'bout Minnie The Moocher
She was a red-hot hoochie-coocher
She was the roughest, toughest frail
But Minnie had a heart as big as a whale
She messed around with a bloke named Smokey
She loved him though he was cokie
He took her down to Chinatown
And he showed her how to kick the gong aroun'
Gong-kicking? That's more opium talk. See Hoagy Carmichael's later "Hong Kong Blues" et al. But never mind that: Is "Minnie" the only hit American song to use the Britannic "bloke"? I would say so.
Despite that innovation, given the similarities between "Minnie The Moocher" and its predecessors, you wonder why nobody sued. Well, "Willie The Weeper"'s authorship is unknown, and so's "St James Infirmary". "Minnie The Mermaid" was written in the early Twenties by Buddy DeSylva, who went on to be one-third of DeSylva, Brown & Henderson, Broadway's big musical comedy team of the Jazz Age ("Button Up Your Overcoat", "You're The Cream In My Coffee"), and a man who by 1931 could certainly have brought a bigtime suit if he'd been minded to. But I guess he figured that Mills, Calloway and Clarence Gaskill hadn't lifted anything other than Minnie's name and general looseness. Instead of abandoning her morals among the corals, Minnie on dry land "wiggles her jelly roll" at "Deacon Lowdown". Mind you, she has her sights set higher:
She had a dream about the King of Sweden
He gave her things that she was needin'
He gave her a home built of gold and steel
A diamond car with a platinum wheel...
Bertie Wooster was impressed by that regal rhyme, but Jeeves not so much:
Are Jeeves' the most doleful ho-de-hos ever sung? Well, as written by my late pal Clive Exton, Bertie's valet was at least impressed by His Swedish Majesty's generosity:
He gave her his townhouse and his racing horses
Each meal she ate was a dozen courses
She had a million dollars worth of nickels and dimes
She sat around and counted them all a million times...
Oh, there we go again: more drugs. "Nickels and dimes" are eighth-ounce and quarter-ounce bags of marijuana. If you think Mills and Calloway are encouraging folk to take up Minnie's debauched lifestyle, well, don't worry. They wrote verse after verse after verse, and in the end Minnie winds up "where they put the crazies", and dies. "Poor Min, poor Min, poor Min," as the lyric concludes. Unfortunately, that's circa versa 37, which most recordings and radio performances never got around to. So, in almost all the performances that Calloway bequeathed to posterity, shortly after the King of Sweden gives her things she's needin', the song ends. And, even though Cab tuts "Poor Min, poor Min", it's no longer very clear why.
So, if you want to hear "Minnie The Moocher" bubbling up off the ocean bed, start with Cab Calloway's take on "St James' Infirmary", then Bernie Cummins and his Orchestra's recording of "Minnie The Mermaid", next Half-Pint's version of "Willie The Weeper" (not as wild as King Oliver's, admittedly), and finally Cab & Co in 1931 putting it all together and mooching Minnie home. If that makes the song sound entirely derivative, well, no: It's better than "Willie The Weeper". The decision to go for an "Infirmary"-esque musical sound gives "Minnie" a novelty-song lyric but with a great bluesy minor-key wail of a tune. And, that aside, there is one component that is absolutely authentically pure Calloway. As he recalled it:
During one show that was being broadcast over nationwide radio in the spring of 1931, not long after we started using 'Minnie the Moocher' as our theme song, I was singing, and in the middle of a verse, as it sometime happens, the damned lyrics went right out of my head. I forgot them completely. I couldn't leave a blank there as I might have done if we weren't on the air. I had to fill the space, so I just started to scat-sing the first thing that came into my mind.
'Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho. Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho. Ho-de-ho-de-ho-de-hee. Oodlee-odlyee-odlyee-oodlee-doo. Hi-de-ho-de-ho-de-hee.' The crowd went crazy. And I went on with it – right over live radio – like it was written that way.
Not sure his chronology's quite right there, but the point is it's not merely scatting. It's a call-and-response thing that audiences loved, even if Jeeves didn't. Any crowd can "hi-de-ho" back at you, but once Cab got into the swing of it he'd fire off ever more elaborate permutations of "hi", "de", "ho" and assorted other monosyllables which the audience would garble back at him until eventually giving up. As for "poor Min", she got her own Betty Boop cartoon and a gazillion song sequels of declining fortune - "Minnie The Moocher's Wedding Day", "Minnie's A Hepcat Now", "Minnie My Mountain Moocher", "Minnie The Moocher Is Dead", "Minnie The Moocher At The Morgue". None of them amounted to much, but, given that as a songwriter Calloway was something of a one-hit wonder, it's no small feat to expand your one hit into virtually an entire genre - and then cement it in pop culture for another four decades courtesy of The Blues Brothers:
A generation after the Messrs Blues in 1980, some hip-hopper re-cast it as "Vinnie Tha Moocha". A few years back, in a novella called Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon, Ishmael Reed made Minnie the Moocher the wife of Richard Nixon and had her stick a voodoo curse on him. And, of course, let us not forget that Jeeves and Wooster episode with one of the most masterful post-Calloway performances.
Minnie the Mermaid? Still languishing among the corals. Willie the Weeper? He kicked not the gong but the bucket. Jerry the Junker? Likewise. Squeezit the Moocher, a canine variation? Dog gone. But Minnie mooches on, still the roughest toughest frail with a heart as big as a whale. Hi-de-ho-ho-ho, who's got the last laugh now? Happy ninetieth birthday:
~If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we have a mini-companion, a Song of the Week Extra, on our audio edition of The Mark Steyn Show - and sometimes with special guests from Mark's archive, including Eurovision's Dana, Paul Simon, Alan Bergman, Lulu, Ted Nugent, Artie Shaw, Peter Noone & Herman's Hermits, Patsy Gallant, Tim Rice and Randy Bachman.