‘Minnie the Moocher‘ is a jazz song first recorded in 1931 by Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, famous for its nonsensical ad libbed (‘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. The character ‘Smokey’ 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.’
In 1931, the same year that Cab recorded the first version of Minnie, his sister Blanche (who performed as Blanche Calloway and her Joy Boys) recorded ‘Growlin’ Dan’ in which Minnie makes a guest appearance—as does a primal version of Cab’s hi-de-ho. One assumes that Cab got there first, and that Blanche was referencing her brother’s big hit, but it’s intriguing to wonder if perhaps it was Blanche’s schtick first.
Calloway performed the song in the 1955 movie ‘Rhythm and Blues Revue,’ filmed at the Apollo Theater. Much later, in 1980 at age 73, Calloway performed the song in the movie ‘The Blues Brothers.’ Calloway’s character Curtis, a church janitor and the Blues Brothers’ mentor, magically transforms the band into a 1930’s swing band and sings ‘Minnie the Moocher’ when the crowd becomes impatient at the beginning of the movie’s climactic production number.
In 1932, Calloway recorded the song for a Fleischer Studios Talkartoon short cartoon, also called ‘Minnie the Moocher,’ starring Betty Boop and Bimbo. Calloway and his band provides most of the short’s score, and appear in the short themselves in a live-action introduction. The thirty-second live-action segment is the earliest-known film footage of Calloway. In the cartoon, Betty decides to run away from her harsh parents (to the tune of ‘Mean to Me’), and Bimbo comes with her.
While walking away from home, Betty and Bimbo wind up in a spooky area, and hide in a hollow tree. A ghost walrus—whose gyrations were rotoscoped from footage of Calloway dancing—appears to them, and begins to sing ‘Minnie the Moocher,’ with many fellow ghosts following along. After singing the whole number, the ghosts chase Betty and Bimbo all the way back to Betty’s home. While Betty is hiding under the covers of her bedsheets, her runaway note is torn up and the remaining letters read ‘Home Sweet Home.’