Friday, December 3, 2010

December 3: Cab Calloway, "Minnie The Moocher"

Artist: Cab Calloway
Song: "Minnie The Moocher"
Album: Minnie The Moocher (single/78)
Year: 1931

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Though many artists and bands have had lengthy careers, in nearly every case, as the decades pass, their popularity and relevance decline, or there are at least some periods where they seem to "disappear" for a few years.  This is rarely the "fault" of the artist, and more easily attributed to the natural ebb and flow of musical tastes and trends.  When an artist is able to stay a key player through such times, they are almost always later seen as some of the most important performers in history, and when one considers this fact, a single name rises to the very top of the list.  Though many performers would consider a career of two or three decades more than enough to earn the most elite standing in the history of music, there is a single artist who was a key player in music for more than sixty years.  While some may argue that he hit his artistic peek in the 1930's, one can see the continual influence and relevance of the one and only Cab Calloway across nearly the entire history of recorded music.  In both his exceptional talent as a writer and composer, as well as his unparalleled stage presence, there is simply no other artist in history that is on the same level, and this is much the reason that he remains one of the most revered performers of all time.  Due to his exceptionally long career, there are a number of bright spots in his recordings, yet one cannot argue any other song having the same feel or influence as Cab Calloway's seminal 1931 single, "Minnie The Moocher."

There are few songs that have transcended both generations and genres in the way that "Minnie The Moocher" has over the decades, and it stands as one of the few songs that "everyone" knows, and with the mere mention of the name, the unforgettable musical hook comes instantly to mind.  Originally performed by Cab Calloway's band, over the years his backing band employed some of the most famous names in history, with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Doc Cheatham all spending time in his employ.  The song itself is loosely based on the 1927 song, "Willie The Weeper" by Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon, yet Calloway's version has completely exclipsed it over the decades.  The trademark horn progression and "walking" bassline are perhaps the most infamous in all of music history, and they have been used in countless films, commercials, and cover versions over the years.  It is this aspect that highlights the brilliance of Calloway, as even though the sound perfectly represents the early hybrid of big band, swing, and jazz, it carries with it a certain mood that has never gone out of style.  The dancing piano provides the ideal compliment to the rest of the music, yet one cannot help but sit in awe of the phenomenal trumpet work, and there are few moments in history that are as perfect as the muted, almost vocal progression that precedes the lyrics.  Even those who are not fans of big band or swing cannot help but be drawn in by the arrangement on "Minnie The Moocher," and this is the most clear sign of the genius that was Cab Calloway.

However, as unforgettable and influential as the music is, one cannot discuss anything about "Minnie The Moocher" without giving credit to the groundbreaking vocal performance of Cab Calloway himself.  His personality and stage presence manage to come through in brilliant fashion on the song, and even after hundreds of listenings, it remains just as enjoyable and fresh as the first time.  Clearly well before the era of any ability to modify the vocals, Calloway is without question one of the most truly talented artists in music history, and his flawless execution of the "scat" lyrical section is nothing short of a historical moment.  The core lyrics of "Minnie The Moocher" are a rather unsubtle send-up to a life of drug use and abuse, and while many will easily understand references like someone being "cokey," it was Calloway's jive terms like "kick the gong around" (an allusion to smoking opium) that make the subject matter well beyond taboo for the time period.  However, it is the "scat" section of "Minnie The Moocher" that have become absolutely legendary, and the "call and response" portion remains an unparalleled moment in music history.  The way in which Calloway begins with an easy line, making them more difficult as they go never gets old, and one cannot help but smile when the audience can no longer follow his tongue-twister.  Again, considering the fact that overdubs were not possible, one can only sit in awe of Cab Calloway's phenomenal performance on "Minnie The Moocher."

Whether it was the smooth, yet slightly dangerous sounding musical arrangement or the exceptional vocal performance of Calloway, there is truly no other song in history that commands the same respect and reverence as "Minnie The Moocher."  Though one would think a song from the 1930's could not carry such longevity, it still pops up regularly throughout popular culture.  The song was given its most famous revival when it was performed in full in the 1980 film, The Blues Brothers, where it was played by some of the greatest musicians in history, with Calloway working the modern audience brilliantly, while he was well past seventy years of age.  It was this moment that proved the unending relevance of Calloway and his music, and it is performances like this that solidify his place as one of the most important figures in all of music history.  The other fact that supports just how influential "Minnie The Moocher" was over the years is in the fact that the original recording sold over one million copies.  While in modern times this may not seem significant, in the 1930's, such a sale is almost unfathomable, especially considering that due to his race, Calloway was largely confined to playing smaller venues and "cotton clubs."  To put it simply, while many songs may have been more popular in their time, there is no other song or performer in history that has proven to have the impact and staying power that one finds in Cab Calloway's magnificent 1931 single, "Minnie The Moocher."

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