Before and after Cab Calloway's Minnie the Moocher, there's more to hear
November 14, 2014 9:53 AM   Subscribe

Cab Calloway's song "Minnie the Moocher" is familiar to many people, due to its status a one of Cab's swinging classics, which was used for the title and inspiration for a spookly little Bettie Boop short cartoon, complete with a spectral walrus whose dance moves were rotoscoped from Cab himself. Flash forward to 1980 with Calloway in his 70s, Cab returned to belt out the tune in The Blues Brothers in classic Cab Calloway swinging style, returning the song to broad prominence. But do you know how the song came to be? You've probably heard the somber "Saint James Infirmary," but have you heard of "Willie the Weeper" or "Willie the Chimney Sweeper"? Mix the two, and you have a few pieces of the story behind Cab Calloway's big hit (Google books preview).

Take a gander at the lyrics for a version of "Willie the Weeper" ( book preview) and toss in "Minnie the Mermaid" as inspiration for a title, and you have more pieces that lead Cab and Irving Mills to their hit. That's the back story, so let's go forward.

There are various iterations by Cab Calloway and his crew that stay with the basic story, and then we get into an extended version or two where Minnie meets a grim ending. But there's more! The stories of Minnie are not linear, but more of a multiple universe scenario, with Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day featuring the return of many of the same terms and themes from the original song. Smokey Joe is still around, and dignitaries from around the world help them celebrate. There's even a variation of that song set to animation featuring Pooch the Pup in She Done Him Right.

But we also get "Kicking the Gong Around" (with original video!), "The Ghost of Smoky Joe," a very somber sequel "Minnie's a Hepcat Now," a weird little tangent about Minnie's taste in music called "Mister Paganini - Swing for Minnie" (set to some unrelated animation), and a passing reference to Minne and Smoky Joe in "Zah Zuh Zaz" (set to old video of Calloway and his band performing Minnie the Moocher). Cab's sister Blanche even jumped into the fun, with a tune called "Growlin' Dan," performed here by Cab's daughter, Chris Calloway.

And as is the case with any popular tune, there have been many takes and adaptations of the song. A decade after The Blues Brothers, Hugh Lorie performed the piece as Bertie Wooster in the Jeeves and Wooster pilot. Tupac paid some odd tribute to Minnie and the related themes, which was released on a posthumus compilation titled The Lost Tapes. Danny Elfman created two homages to the tune, first in Forbidden Zone with a piece re-worked as Squeezit the Moocher (warning: topless lady), then a more vague tribute in Oogie Boogie's song from The Nightmare Before Christmas. These are just a few of the notable performances. You can dig around and find a lot more covers and versions.

If after all this you still don't understand the lyrics, check out Cab Calloway's very own compendium of slang, The Hepster’s Dictionary.
posted by filthy light thief (25 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Epic post!
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:55 AM on November 14, 2014


Some items were mentioned previously:
1. Hollywood Hotel Good Morning featured a link to Saint James Infirmary, because vapidave liked it.
2. Scalp the Zazous covered les Zazous, with "Zaz Zuh Zaz" by Cab Calloway listed as an inspiration.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:55 AM on November 14, 2014

First I ever heard it was at the Vet during Eagles games. They would put up the scene from the Blues Brothers on the big screen and everybody would sing along...or try to that is.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:57 AM on November 14, 2014

I have no idea when I first heard the original song, to be honest. Probably in the late 1990s, with the return of big band and swing. But I was recently listening to a compilation of Cab Calloway songs, and I came across Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day, which really surprised me. Then I realized that sequel songs aren't exactly novel or unusual, but it seems Calloway took it to another level, with at least 6 sequels to the original song.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:07 AM on November 14, 2014

"Kicking the Gong Around" is one of the centerpiece songs in my favorite collection, Viper Mad Blues: 25 Songs of Dope and Depravity.

Other greats from the collection:

Smoking Reefers by Larry Adler
Killin' Jive by The Cats & the Fiddle
You'se a Viper by Stuff Smith & His Onyx Club Boys
Knockin' Myself Out by Lil Green

God help me, I love these smokey, cokey old songs.
posted by maxsparber at 10:12 AM on November 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

No doubt the next sequel was Stevie Ray Vaughn's Willie the Wimp and His Cadillac Coffin.

Hooray for bowdlerization!

My mother (who could have been this woman) taught me Cocaine Bill and Morphine Sue when I was in knee-britches. She was one hep cat, my mother.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:18 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I always like to point out that Cab Calloway had possibly the greatest male voice of the Swing Era with the possible exception of Billy Eckstine. But you should decide for yourself:

Cab Calloway Nobody's Sweetheart
Billy Eckstine Prisoner of Love
posted by tommasz at 10:18 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I mostly remember a great "making of" piece on one of the Blues Brothers DVDs, where John Landis told the story of having to tell Cab Calloway that the first attempt at recording the song wasn't good enough, and he wanted him to try again. Calloway, clearly offended, looked Landis in the eye, said "oh, you want it good," proceeded to record the track that they eventually used in the film, and walked out in a huff.

Later on, it was time to film the concert scene, where Calloway stalls for time by singing the song to an audience who had no idea who he was. The rest of the cast was worried how the audience of SNL fans who had come to see John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd would react. No worries; Calloway had those kids eating out of his hand, and the standing ovation he received at the end of the song was 100% genuine.
posted by Zonker at 10:23 AM on November 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

I remember reading this account of the Blues Brothers recording (related here):

Landis expected Calloway to record the original arrangement of "Minnie," but Calloway had his eye on sales of his new disco recording of the song, and wanted to record that version. The documentary gives us a snippet of Disco Minnie, and I shudder to think that musical period was kinder to Ethel Merman.

When Landis requests the original arrangement, Calloway is pissed. "He did it once, and it was OK," says Landis. When the director requests another take, Calloway asks "Why?" "Because it wasn't good," says Landis, "and you're Cab Calloway, so it has to be GREAT." "Oh," says Calloway, "you wanted GREAT? Why didn't you say so?!!" Calloway records the version we hear in "The Blues Brothers." It is indeed great.

On preview: zonker
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:33 AM on November 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

Epic post!
posted by dougzilla at 10:39 AM on November 14, 2014

Came in here to mention Forbidden Zone and so glad to see it below the fold. Excellent work!
posted by mykescipark at 10:43 AM on November 14, 2014

I had just assumed that the Blues Brothers was where Cab wanted to debut his attempt at a disco version, so I didn't even look for proof that it existed. But when I read that there was a sample included in The Blues Brothers DVD, I looked, and found a disco version of Minnie the Moocher, featuring Cab Calloway's vocals. I'm not sure if this is the version he had in mind, but there was indeed a 1978 disco single of the single. Not the worst disco era "update" I've heard, but it is still an awkward patchwork of Cab's vocals and dated lyrics (plus sound effects, WHY?) with an average to slightly above average "big disco" backing track (horns, strings, backup singers, etc).
posted by filthy light thief at 10:43 AM on November 14, 2014

Let's not forget the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra's cover.
posted by belarius at 10:45 AM on November 14, 2014

I am obligated to throw in my favorite version of St. James Infirmary...
posted by HuronBob at 10:48 AM on November 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

I just knew Dave Van Ronk's version.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:46 AM on November 14, 2014

Cab's version of St. James Infirmary Blues appears in a Betty Boop cartoon as well: Snow White. (Link to just the song.)

He's also featured in Old Man of the Mountain.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 12:48 PM on November 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ah! Great post! My teenage daughter recently discovered these weird old cartoons on the youtube and was showing them to me, so I showed her videos of Cab Calloway dancing and we spent a brilliant afternoon digging into some amazing music together.
posted by gofargogo at 12:59 PM on November 14, 2014

Came here to make sure the "St. James Infirmary" clip from the deeply wrong Betty Boop version of "Snow White" was in here, and CheeseDigestsAll already did it.

This sequence is even creepier than the walrus/ghost/cave from the "Minnie the Moocher" clip.
posted by kenlayne at 2:40 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

FLT -- a few weeks early for december's annual best post contest. not that i'm complainin'.
posted by OHenryPacey at 2:41 PM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Cab's definitely underrated, and Minnie the Moocher played a big role in that -- people remember him as the big showman, and forget him as the sharp bandleader.

That said, I was so happy when Cab Calloway sang Minnie the Moocher at my college graduation in '93.

Also I used to live one block from Cabel Calloway Park in Rochester.
posted by lodurr at 3:28 PM on November 14, 2014

Betty Boop's Snow White is only seven minutes long? I wish it was longer, but I'm thankful you folks linked me to it.

Also, Betty Boop + Snow White = I'm not sure, but I don't think it's Betty White.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:31 PM on November 14, 2014

I suspect the cost of the drugs was higher than the cost of the payroll for the animators back then...
posted by HuronBob at 5:35 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Might I suggest the album "How Big Can You Get?" by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy - it's an album of Calloway songs, and if there's anyone who can do them justice, it's these guys. They aren't trying to do anything fancy with it; they know these songs are plenty good as they are. Fantastic album.
posted by azpenguin at 6:51 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

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