*You’ve heard “Minnie The Moocher” countless times before, but have you ever stopped to really take in the lyrics? If so, could you understand what Cab Calloway was really saying through all of the scatting and talk of “kokies” and “hoochie coochies?”
The recording – released on March 3, 1931, by the famed band leader and His Orchestra on the Brunswick label – became his signature song, not to mention the first jazz record to ever sell over a million copies. But did white folks know they were singing about a woman of ill repute who is introduced to opium by a cocaine addict, becomes strung out and overdoses?
Calloway’s use of hoochie coochie is perhaps the most recognizable slang across the generations. The hoochie coochie was a style of belly dancing with gypsy origins and considered lewd and salacious at the time. Cab has Minnie hook up with a “kokie” called Smokey. “Kokie,” back in the day, referred to cocaine abusers. It was the 30s version of “coke head.”
Smokey takes her to Chinatown and introduces her to opium, which he describes with the slang “kick the gong around” in the lyrics. The rest of the song describes her opium-induced desires fulfilled, including the king of Sweden gifting her “a diamond car, with the puh-latinum wheels.”
How was this sordid ditty full of drugs and debauchery not censored in the 1930s? Perhaps because Calloway couched the story in slang and that went straight over the heads of most white listeners at the time.
So what happens to Minnie in the end? Calloway sings, “Poor Min! Poor Min” Poo-oor Min,” which signals that she met some horrible fate. However, the song, with Calloway’s patented call-and-response scats, sold more than a million copies and was able to engage audiences around the globe.
Calloway, the E-40 of his day, capitalized on his Harlem slang and published a dictionary called The New Cab Calloway Hepster’s Dictionary: Language of Jive.
“Minnie the Moocher” itself was mooched from the 1923 song “Willie the Weeper,” written by Walter Melrose, Grant Rymal and Marty Bloom. It was sung by a number of artists in 1927, including Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon and Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven. But instead of the king of Sweden, Willie dreams of his adventures with the Queen of Sheba, Cleopatra, and the sultan of Turkey.
In 1932 Calloway’s music and dance steps were used in a Talkartoon short cartoon with Betty Boop entitled Minnie the Moocher, where his movements were transformed into those of a ghostly singing walrus through the technique of rotoscoping. At the beginning of the short, he is filmed dancing to the introduction of the song, and this is the earliest existing recorded footage of Calloway.
Watch below, beginning at 4:23.
In 1999 “Minnie the Moocher” was given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
Calloway’s performance of “Minnie the Moocher” in director John Landis’ 1980 film “Blues Brothers” was his final movie appearance. He passed away of pneumonia in 1994, and kept on performing right to the end.
Here’s Calloway in 1990 performing “St. James Infirmary” and “Minnie The Moocher”at Jazz à Vienne.