Calloway was one of the United States’ most popular big band leaders in the 1930s and 1940s and was well-known for his scat singing prowess. “Minnie the Moocher” is a sordid tale revolving around Minnie, a character who later made appearances in other Calloway songs. Minnie is a girl referred to in the song as a “red hot hoochie coocher.” The hoochie coochie was a type of belly dancing considered provocative and scandalous at the time, thus Minnie’s character was known for her raucous and enticing behavior. Minnie falls into some trouble when she meets a man named Smokey, who introduces her to a dangerous world filled with drugs and flashy riches. Though the song was riddled with lascivious language, most of it was not recognized by white audiences at the time because the lyrics were written in jive slang, which was an African American urban slang that became popular in the ’40s. The song ends with Calloway lamenting, “Poor Min!” making listeners believe that Minnie’s tale did not have a happy ending.
The song shot Calloway and his band into fame, and it continued to be an extremely popular and well-known tune for the next decade. A big factor in the song’s success was due to Calloway’s impeccable scatting talent. Scatting refers to a vocal improvisation using nonsensical syllables, using the voice as an instrument. When performed live, Calloway would perform a call and response with audience members, asking them to repeat each of his scat phrases. He would start out with simple scat variations that the audience could easily mimic, and made them increasingly difficult as he went on until the audience would give up in a fit of laughter. Because of his scatting abilities, he became known as the “Hi De Hi De Hi Man,” as that was the first scat he would sing when performing the song.
“Minnie the Moocher” has survived over the years, and Calloway even reprised his famous song in the 1955 movie Rhythm and Blues Revue and 1980′s The Blues Brothers. The song has been covered and remade by a variety of later artists like ’60s Australian band The Cherokees, hip hop artist Tupac Shakur, and British actor Hugh Laurie. 68 years after it’s original release, in 1999, “Minnie the Moocher” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
If you’ve never heard the famous song, take a listen here!