On March 3, 1931, Harlem big band leader Cab Calloway recorded “Minnie the Moocher,” the classic tale of chasing opium that made Calloway a national star and put Harlem’s big band sound on the map.
Born on Christmas Day in 1907, Calloway had moved to Harlem to break into the jazz scene, and soon won the attention of Duke Ellington’s agent, a Russian Jew from the Lower East Side named Irving Mills. When Ellington, already one of Harlem’s biggest stars, went on a 1931 national tour, Mills booked the Cab Calloway Orchestra to headline in Ellington’s place at the Cotton Club.
Only 23 years old when he got the gig, Calloway was an instant hit, making a name for his “scat” singing style, use of audience call and response, and outlandish get-ups. Harlem author Jonathan Gill describes Calloway as “dressed in zoot suits, outrageously colored, high-waisted outfits with huge cuffs and deep pleats, a padded jacket that almost swept the floor, a long watch chain, a rakishly angled fedora, pointed, shiny shoes, and a trend-setting conked hairstyle that almost reached his shoulders.”
On March 3, 1931, a month into his stint at the Cotton Club, Calloway recorded “Minnie the Moocher.” The song not only shot straight to #1 on the pop charts, but it became the biggest hit of 1931, and the first song by a black artist to sell a million copies. The song’s lyrics may not have been fully understood by America’s prudish radio gatekeepers; the song is about Minnie and her degenerate boyfriend Smokey (the pair appear in many of Cab’s songs) going down to Chinatown to get their opium fix, signaled by the slang term, “kick the gong around.”
A string of big hits followed, like “Minnie” sequel “Zaz Zuh Zaz”, the hilarious “Reefer Man”, “Jumpin Jive” and Cab’s weird collaboration with Betty Boop, “The Old Man of the Mountain.” The Cotton Club ran into financial problems a few years later, but the Cab Calloway Orchestra continued to rock. In 1937 the band added a young trumpet player named Dizzy Gillespie, who would finish his band duties at 3am and head to late night jazz dives to hone his cutting edge bebop. Meanwhile, Calloway starred in movies and released more than 40 hit singles. He performed into his 80s, including perhaps the best performance of Blues Brothers, when he reprised “Minnie the Moocher,” settling for the old school big band approach after failing to persuade director John Landis to record a disco version.
Seventy four years later, “Minnie the Moocher” sounds as fresh as ever, one of the defining songs of New York City by one of its most colorful singers.