Cab Calloway was known as the Hi-De-Ho man, and “Minnie the Moocher” was his signature song. Written with impresario Irving Mills in 1931, the record sold more than a million copies and launched Calloway’s group on a decade-long supercareer, breaking audience records for an all-black band.
Tuxedo clad and dancing a proto-moonwalk, Calloway spins his tale about Minnie, a rough and tough “frail” (perhaps the only use of that word as a noun in any song) who falls for drugged-out Smokey. He shows her how to “pass the gong around,” a euphemism for sharing an opium pipe. “Poor Min, poor Min, poor Min,” Calloway laments at the end. Her whale-size heart couldn’t keep her out of trouble.
The song is best remembered less for the story than for Calloway’s call and response — the “hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi!” that audiences repeat — with Calloway’s scat getting ever jazzier and complex until the responders can’t hope to keep up. Yes, Calloway was clownish, but he was a legendary musician with one of the swing era’s best bands. “Minnie” put them on the map.