It’s been quite a while since we’ve last heard from our old friend Cab Calloway here on Old Time Blues, but has come time to turn out attention to what may well be his greatest claim to fame—”Minnie the Moocher”.
Cab Calloway and his Orchestra in the early 1930s. Pictured in Of Minnie the Moocher & Me, photograph from Frank Driggs Collection.
With a career spanning more than half a century, it’s no stretch to say that Cab Calloway sang hundreds of songs on record, radio, stage, and screen, but no song is so indelibly identified with him as his own composition “Minnie the Moocher”. Minnie “messed around with a bloke named Smokey” who “showed her how to kick the gong around”—a euphemism for smoking opium. Cab wrote “Minnie” early in his career, around 1930, based heavily on “Willie the Weeper”, a popular folk tune and vaudeville favorite that originated in the early twentieth century. He first recorded it early in 1931, and it became an instant success, spawning close to a dozen covers in the first year. Becoming his theme song, Cab reprised “Minnie” in Fleischer Studios’ eponymous Betty Boop cartoon the following year, appearing both as himself and rotoscoped as a ghost walrus. Such a sensation it was that sequels followed, like “Kickin’ the Gong Around”, “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day”. Cab’s original Brunswick recording was reissued all throughout the 1930s and onward, and he made new recording more than once, including an unissued Victor recording in 1933, and another for Okeh in 1942 (not to mention recordings made after the 78 era, upon which I’m not qualified to comment).
Brunswick 6074 was recorded on March 3, 1931 in New York City. Still following the basic roster of their predecessor, the Missourians, Cab’s orchestra is made up of R.Q. Dickerson, Lammar Wright, and Reuben Reeves on trumpets, De Priest Wheeler and Harry White on trombones, Arville Harris on clarinet and alto sax, Andrew Brown on bass clarinet and tenor sax, Walter “Foots” Thomas on alto, tenor, and baritone sax and flute, Earres Prince on piano, Morris White on banjo, Jimmy Smith on string bass and tuba, and Leroy Maxey on drums.
And so now here it is, Cab Calloway’s first ever recording of his theme song, “Minnie the Moocher (The Ho-De-Ho Song)”. “Minnie had a heart as big as a ‘hay-wale’.”
Minnie the Moocher (The Ho-De-Ho Song), recorded March 3, 1931 by Cab Calloway.
Unlike “Minnie”, Cab’s “Doin’ the Rumba” on the flip-side is all but forgotten. Nonetheless, it’s still a fine song, with hot, Spanish tinged, playing from the former Missourians.
Doin’ the Rumba, recorded March 3, 1931 by Cab Calloway.
Eddie Cantor in the 1930s. Pictured in Stars of Radio and Things You Would Like to Know About Them.
On Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the stock market on Wall Street crashed, catalyzing an economic descent into a Great Depression. The economy had been in decline prior to the crash, but that event proved to be the point of no return, and the economy dipped continuously until hitting bottom in the winter of 1932-’33. Economists, historians, and economic historians can argue about what caused the crash ’til the cows come home, but whatever set it off, “that’s when we started sliding in the fall of ’29,” as the Light Crust Doughboys once put it, “‘Twas a fall of fifty-fifty, you lost yours and I lost mine, but it made us all more human since the fall of ’29.”
As always, the world of music adhered to the current events, and almost immediately responded to the crash with a wave of new songs. In an effort to cheer the Depression, peppy optimism filled many compositions of the day, such as 1930’s “Cheer Up (Good Times Are Comin’), or 1931’s “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and “Headin’ for Better Times”. As the hard times dragged on however, the pep began to run out, and—although it always persisted in the music of Ted Lewis and a few others—the optimism began to turn to cynicism, exuded from such songs as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” from Americana and “Remember My Forgotten Man” from Gold Diggers of 1933 (not to mention the countless blues and hillbilly complaining songs). In 1931, the recently launched satire magazine Ballyhoo took that cynicism to a humorous extreme when they published their theme song, parodying the contemporary “cheer up” songs. Perhaps because its lyrics were quite inflammatory (“let’s hang the fat-head to a tree”)—or perhaps not—their song was recorded by the rather B-list Durium Products Corporation, makers of the fifteen cent Hit-of-the-Week paper records, albeit sung by very A-list talent, old Banjo Eyes himself: Eddie Cantor.
Durium De Luxe K6 was recorded in September of 1931 in New York City. The full personnel of Phil Spitalny’s Music is not known, at least by any source I’ve examined, but is said to include Bunny Berigan and Bob Effros on trumpets and Joe Venuti on violin. Its label is printed with a bold colorblock pattern matching that of the eponymous magazine; it originally came with a sleeve to match, which, unfortunately, has been separated from this copy by the passage of time. These Durium recordings had outstanding fidelity for their time, unfortunately, the paper and celluloid-like material on which they were pressed doesn’t always hold up as well as shellac, and this copy is not in pristine condition, causing some background rumble and some clicks and pops. Nonetheless, the music is still strong, and I hope you’ll find this transfer satisfactory.
On this one-sided, two track paper record, Eddie Cantor sings “Cheer Up”, Mischa and Wesley Portnoff and Norman Anthony’s theme song of Ballyhoo. Then, Phil Spitalny’s Music plays an absolutely fantastic instrumental arrangement of the same tune. Be sure to not confuse this song with “Cheer Up (Good Times Are Comin’)” from the previous year—doing that would be a grave mistake.
Ballyhoo – Theme Song “Cheer Up”, recorded September 1931 by Eddie Cantor with Phil Spitalny’s Music.
Art Tatum in the 1940s. Pictured in the 1944 Esquire Jazz Book.
One of the greatest musicians in the history of jazz music was Art Tatum, whose virtuosity on the piano was perhaps unparalleled. He was a favorite of almost all fellow jazz musicians, as well as such classical greats as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Leopold Stokowski.
Arthur Tatum, Jr. was born on October 13, 1909 in Toledo, Ohio, the son of a guitar playing father and piano playing mother. As a baby, he was afflicted with cataracts, which left him mostly blind for the rest of his life, in spite of surgical intervention. As a child prodigy with perfect pitch, Tatum learned to play the piano play by ear. He attended blind school in the 1920s, and later studied music. Tatum began playing on the radio in 1927, known as “Toledo’s Blind Pianist”, and soon began playing at the local Waiters & Bellman’s Club, where he was a favorite of jazz greats by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Andy Kirk, and Fletcher Henderson. In 1932, Tatum was noticed by the singer Adelaide Hall, who invited him to tour with her. He accompanied her back to New York, where he made his first recordings as a member of her backing orchestra. Not long after, he had his first solo recording session for Brunswick records, cutting the first versions of his famous arrangements of “Tea for Two” and “Tiger Rag”, among others. His subsequent recordings were made for Decca. Tatum remained in New York until the end of 1934, then went back west to the Midwest, and to Los Angeles, appearing on Rudy Vallée’s Fleischmann Hour in 1935. He returned to New York in 1937, and then embarked on the Queen Mary for a tour of England. After returning to the States, Tatum was a hit on 52nd Street throughout the 1940s, and toured around the country frequently. He also participated in concerts and sessions organized by jazz impresario Norman Granz, and was one of Esquire’s 1944 Jazz All-Stars. A chronic alcoholic, Art Tatum suffered kidney failure and died on November 5, 1956.
Brunswick 6543 was recorded in New York City on March 21, 1933. It is Art Tatum’s first issued solo record, and his second and third recorded solo sides. Both are modernistic stride improvisations on old standards.
First up is one of Art Tatum’s most famous performances, his frenetic arrangement of Nick La Rocca’s “Tiger Rag”.
Tiger Rag, recorded on March 21, 1933 by Art Tatum.
Next up is Tatum’s interpretation of W.C. Handy’s famous “St. Louis Blues”. Brian Rust notes two issued takes of this side, this is “A”.
St. Louis Blues, recorded on March 21, 1933 by Art Tatum.
One of the major hillbilly music powerhouses of the 1930s was Bob Miller—much like his contemporary Carson Robison, he was equal parts a songwriter, publisher, and musician, as well as an A&R man on the side. Though well known throughout the Depression years for his hit songs and “hillbilly heartthrobs,” including such mainstays as “Twenty-One Years” and “Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)”, and numerous topical songs such as “Eleven Cent Cotton (and Forty Cent Meat)”, Miller has faded into practical obscurity today.
Bob Miller was born on September 20, 1895 in Memphis, Tennessee. He was brought up a musician, and was playing piano professionally by the age of ten. He later graduated to playing on Mississippi steamboats, before heading to New York to work for Irving Berlin as an arranger and copyist. In 1931, he published “Twenty-One Years”, which would become one of the biggest hillbilly song hits of the decade. The following year, his “Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)” was met with the same success. Both songs inspired Miller to write numerous “answer” songs, such as “The Answer to 21 Years” and “Seven Years With the Wrong Man”. In addition to songwriting, Miller recorded many of his own compositions with small “citybilly” groups for various record companies, including Victor, Champion (i.e. Gennett), and Grey Gull’s many labels. In 1933, with already a large number of credits to his name, Miller founded his own music publishing company, Bob Miller Inc. With more than a thousand copyrights to his name, to attempt to list the song hits written by Miller would make for nothing but a mess of text consisting of title after title. His patriotic “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” (published under the pseudonym “Shelby Darnell”) became a wartime hit when it was recorded by Elton Britt in 1942. Bob Miller died on August 26, 1955 in New York City.
Electradisk 1919 was recorded November 3, 1932 in RCA’s Studio 1 in New York City by Bob Miller’s Trio as “Bill Palmer’s Trio” and was issued in April of 1933. It was later issued on Bluebird B-5034, Sunrise S-3132, and—with the sides split up—on Montgomery Ward M-4232 and M-4401. The ensemble consists of Bob Miller on piano and singing, Barney Burnett on banjo and second vocal, and A. Sirillo on guitar.
Seldom do you see these Electradisks—one of RCA Victor’s early budget labels, sold at Woolworth’s—at all, and it’s even less often that you see material other than the typical dance band pop.
One of the hillbilly hits of the 1930s was Miller’s “Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)”, and was covered by artists ranging from Cliff Carlisle to Jack Payne’s Dance Orchestra. It was “answered” by such songs as “Seven Years with the Wrong Man” and “Seven Beers with the Wrong Woman”.
Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman), recorded November 3, 1932 by Bill Palmer’s Trio.
On the reverse, Miller’s trio does another of his compositions of some note, “What Does the Deep Sea Say?”
What Does the Deep Sea Say?, recorded November 3, 1932 by Bill Palmer’s Trio.
This record is a surprisingly obscure one considering its excellence, even in light of its extraordinary scarcity. A Google search will yield precious few results, and the upload of the only side that’s on YouTube has accrued only around five-hundred views in more than half a decade. Its rarity earned it a spot on Document Records’ “Too Late, Too Late: Newly Discovered Titles and Alternate Takes” series rather than their Hokum Boys or Big Bill Broonzy series proper, and that may be the only commercial reissue it’s ever gotten (I’m not sure). To the few who know of it (mostly a small cadre of record collectors and blues researchers), it is held in high regard as perhaps Big Bill Broonzy’s best record. I had the fortune of being enlightened to its existence some years ago, and the even greater fortune of being able to acquire a copy. I hope to shed a much needed ray of sunshine onto this gem of prewar blues guitar, and help get it some of the recognition it deserves.
In 1930, Big Bill Broonzy was under the management of Chicago “race music” impresario Lester Melrose, and playing good-time music with Georgia Tom and Frank Brasswell (or Braswell, a.k.a. “The Western Kid”) as the “Hokum Boys” (a mantle originally used by Georgia Tom and Tampa Red). Broonzy hadn’t recorded since his earliest, somewhat poorly received “Big Bill and Thomps” Paramount sessions of 1927 and ’28. Among the tunes recorded by Broonzy and the Hokum Boys were (fittingly) hokum titles like “Somebody’s Been Using that Thing” and “Eagle Riding Papa” (both of which were later covered by Milton Brown), urban blues novelties like “Mama’s Leavin’ Town”, and fast guitar rags like “Saturday Night Rub” and “Pig Meat Strut”. On the rags, Frank Brasswell’s flatpicked rhythm combined with Bill’s adept fingerpicking to make musical magic. The trio, occasionally including Delta blues man Arthur Petties, first recorded in New York for the American Record Corporation in various configurations and under various names, including “Sammy Sampson” for Bill’s solo work. Next they traveled to Richmond, Indiana to cut several sides for the Starr Piano Company’s Champion label, all ones they had made previously for the ARC, this time with Bill’s solo work credited to “Big Bill Johnson”. Those Champions were the last sides to feature Brasswell, who proceeded to drop off the face of the earth. Bill on the other hand would go on to great acclaim.
Champion 16081 was recorded on May 2, 1930 in Richmond, Indiana. The Hokum Boys are Big Bill Broonzy (recording for the Starr Piano Co. as “Big Bill Johnson”) and Frank Brasswell on guitars. It sold a total of 959 copies, of which only a handful are known to exist today. As such, it is listed in the “Rarest 78s” section of 78 Quarterly (No. 6), and while the total number of existing copies was not estimated at the time, a current estimate places the number at “fewer than ten known copies.” More popular versions of both tunes were recorded for the American Record Corporation the previous month (and both, in my opinion, are not near as good as these). Per advice from Mr. Russ Shor, I’ve adjusted the transfers to playback at around 83 RPM, and per advice from Mr. Pete Whelan, I’ve also left in the original 78.26 RPM ones. Take your pick.
First up, Bill and Frank get hot on Broonzy’s classic rag composition “Saturday Night Rub” with a performance described by blues guitar teacher Woody Mann as “one of the most hard-driving rag tunes ever recorded.” Midway through, Bill utters those immortal words, “I’m gonna play this guitar tonight from A to Z!”
Saturday Night Rub, recorded May 2, 1930 by the Hokum Boys.
“Pig Meat Strut” on the “B” side is perhaps my favorite guitar instrumental (though there’s some stiff competition from Blind Blake, William Moore, Bayless Rose, Frank Hutchison, and others). Bill and Frank’s “Famous Hokum Boys” version of the rag for the ARC, recorded a little less than a month before this one, is often hailed as one of his best (I say phooey), but it sounds like a hot mess compared to this masterpiece! The riffs in “Pig Meat Strut” later became Big Bill’s popular “Hey Hey” in 1951. Interestingly, a nearly identical melody was also used by Texas blues man Little Hat Jones in his “Kentucky Blues”, recorded only a month after this one, though any actual connection between the two is unknown to me.
Man, did they get in the groove and how!
Pig Meat Strut, recorded May 2, 1930 by the Hokum Boys.