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American Music History

Cab Calloway and Minnie the Moocher

My thoughts on Cab Calloway and his appearance in The Blues Brothers

The word “Jazz” has become a broad umbrella term for many different nuanced musical styles. It is rare to find someone who is truly knowledgable about the many traditions that sprouted from the mixing of African, Latin, and European musics in New Orleans. I would certainly not consider myself to be such a person, though I aspire to be one day.

From my time studying music at the collegiate and graduate level, I have noticed that large swaths of the jazz tradition are not discussed. I think there could be many reasons for this. Here are a few that might be most pertinent:

  1. Ignorance. People have not put in the time to study some of these areas of the tradition.
  2. The music is not considered “serious.” Academia might be afraid to take on music that is seen as “popular” rather than “art music.” (Personally, these lines become more blurred for me over time. I try to live by Duke Ellington’s philosophy – “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.)
  3. There is not a widely circulated, tried-and-true methodology for teaching music in these styles.

For me, Cab Calloway has been one of those names mentioned in passing. He was never discussed during my five years of collegiate jazz education. I came across his name in my own reading, but never dug into his music.

I read about Cab in Bill Milkowski incredible book Swing It!: An Annotated History of Jive. I highly recommend it. It is a lively read jam-packed with listening recommendations. He shines a light on this area of the jazz tradition that is often dismissed for popular music.

I listened to some of the recommended tracks, but being fully immersed in my graduate studies and work multiple jobs, I could not devote the time this book and music truly deserved.

Months have gone by. A couple nights ago, I was on YouTube and the following video showed up as a recommendation. I am not sure why I decided to click, but I am so glad I did.

Cab Calloway’s performance of “Minnie the Moocher” from The Blues Brother (1980)

At first, I was taken aback. To me, the performance appeared to a mere caricature of the “golden years” of Cab Calloway’s career. A phony backdrop depicting the long-shuddered jazz clubs where he played in his youth. The retro desks for the horn players. The white suit.

But, for reasons I cannot explain, I found myself replaying the video again and again. For hours. I started to see something different in it. Here is a man in his 70’s who is still able to put on an absolutely outstanding performance – as a musician and entertainer. Here is an audience that is showering him with love. Here is a team of directors, producers, etc. who recognized the importance of Cab Calloway and wanted to include him and introduce him to a new audience. How could anyone not marvel at this?

A 1934 performance of “Minnie the Moocher”

My obsession with this performance continues. I wanted to learn as music about it as I could. I found a couple interesting facts on IMDb.

This story reminded me of Ella Fitzgerald’s infamous “Mack the Knife” performance:

When Cab Calloway originally recorded “Minnie The Moocher” in the 1930s, the chorus lyrics were simply “Ho-dee-hody” rather than the lengthened “Hody-hody-hody ho”. In an interview, Calloway explained that one time when he was singing the song, he suddenly forgot the words, so he immediately shouted “Hody-Hody-Hody-ho!”, and carried on the song that way. That proved to be more popular with fans than the original, so he had been singing it that way ever since.

IMDb

This one resonates with my first impression of the performance:

When recording the soundtrack, Cab Calloway was needed to record his hit “Minnie the Moocher” in better quality than his original album. When he came into the studio, he was prepared to do the disco version, which had just been released. The filmmakers asked for the original version, which Calloway reluctantly gave them.

IMDb

I hope that Cab Calloway was ultimately able to enjoy the experience. Based on this story, it sounds like he did.

What are your favorite Cab Calloway recordings? How can we integrate this important figure, and his legacy, into jazz education?


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One reply on “Cab Calloway and Minnie the Moocher”

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