Cab Calloway: On the Yiddish Side of the Street


In 1930s New York, no cat was more of a “hepster” than Cab Calloway. The son of a lawyer father and a church-organist mother, Calloway met Louis Armstrong while at Chicago’s Crane College. There he learned to scat-sing so well that he left school to relocate his well-trained tenor voice, and his band, to an extended engagement at Harlem’s Cotton Club. He soon hit the dance halls and stages of the wider world, barely stopping to breathe until the 20th century was almost over. Along the way, he took it all in: the sights, the sounds, and the fine points of the language of the streets, eventually publishing the first-ever dictionary of African-American slang, The New Cab Calloway’s Hepsters Dictionary: The Language of Jive, in 1938.

But there was another “hep” language floating around 1930s New York: Yiddish. Yiddish rang from every corner of Manhattan, making its way up from the Lower East Side, through Union, Herald, and Times Squares, into the heart of the entertainment industry, where it laced the speech of Irving Mills, a man of Odessa Jewish stock who became Calloway’s manager. The language of meshugas, dzhlubs, and mamzers resonated more than a little with Calloway.  In partnership with Mills, he soon found ingenious ways to infuse his act with retooled Yiddish folksongs, hilarious, if ironic, parodies of Jewish black-face performance, and mock cantorial melismas that incorporated his own unique brand of pidgin Hebrew, morphing into jazz-jive jargon at the drop of a white Panama hat.

It all started with “Minnie the Moocher,” a tune he co-wrote with Mills in 1931, and which became his first major hit, the first number-one song by an African-American performer, and his theme song for the rest of his career. Calloway and Mills based the tune on the “St. James Infirmary Blues,” since that New Orleans staple was already closely identified with the Calloway band. “
The ‘hi-de-ho’ part came later, and it was completely unexpected and unplanned…” writes Calloway in his memoir, Minnie the Moocher and Me, recalling the nationwide radio broadcast on which it was spawned. “… I was singing, and in the middle of a verse, as it happens sometimes, the damned lyrics went right out of my head… I had to fill the space, so I just started to scat-sing the first thing that came into my mind: Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de ho.” Of course, with Mills close by, it wasn’t surprising when Hi-de-hi morphed into some other syllables: “Oy, yoy, yoy, yoy, yoy, yoy,” and Jewish heads turned all over town.

But Calloway’s major Jewish collaborations didn’t come until after 1937, when a black vaudeville duo, Johnny and George, brought a Yiddish theatre song, taught to them in the Catskills by none other than culinary icon Jennie Grossinger, to the stage of the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. It caught the attention of songwriting dynamos Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, and once they procured the rights to “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn” and gave it to the Andrews Sisters, it was on its way to becoming the top song of 1938 and the biggest hit the country had ever known. Suddenly, everyone in the entertainment industry was flaunting their Jewish roots, or inventing them if none were available. Soon Ziggy Elman showed the world how angels could sing, and how a trumpet could swing and krekhts (sob) at the same time, and even Artie Shaw, who publicly shunned his Jewish background, was peppering his improvisations with freylekhs and bulgars. Chick Webb, Slim and Slam, Barney Bigard, and Mildred Bailey all were on board as the catering hall and dance hall played out their basherte (predestined) harmonic convergence.

It was in this atmosphere that Mills and producer/lyricist Buck Ram created “Utt-da-zay” (“That’s The Way”) in March of 1938. A take-off on a simple Jewish folksong, mimicking the motions of a tailor’s sewing, Calloway’s version starts with a spoof on the blackface singing of Al Jolson, with whom he had shared the spotlight in the 1936 movie The Singing Kid. A transition to a mock-cantorial recitative follows, and the song finally launches into a swinging romp of praise—for Calloway’s Jewish tailor.

The song was a hit, and the next year, Calloway was back in the studio cutting “Abi Gezunt” (“If You’ve Got Your Health, You Can Be Happy”), a song by fellow jive-talk philologist Henry Nemo, with a lyric that blended Yiddish and jive-talk jargon. It played on an expression made famous in an earlier song by Yiddish-theatre doyen Molly Picon:

I’m hip de dip, a solid sender, a very close friend to Mrs. Bender, Bender, shmender, abi gezunt, I’m the cat that’s in the know!

A 1942 collaboration between Calloway and Ram produced “Nain, Nain” (“No, no,
I Won’t Go Dancin’, ‘Til You Marry Me”), a song that starts with Calloway’s melodic paraphrase of the verse of “My Yiddishe Mama.” “Who’s Yehudi?” from that same year poked some gentle fun at the newest Jewish fiddle sensation and by that time, cantorial-scat melismas had found their way into lots of other Calloway hits, including his opening theme, “The Hi-de-ho Man.”

So, how Jewish was Cab Calloway? His memoir holds little evidence of what he had in mind in his Yiddish collaborations which, when all is said and done, seem to be a small sub-current in a remarkable career with an output that overflows with multi-cultural content and connection. On the other hand, some say he actually became fluent enough in Yiddish to hold his own in conversation with his Jewish immigrant fans. Whatever the truth, for the Jewish audience, he remains a unique figure, a larger-than-life entertainer who shared a special resonance with them because he also knew one of the sweetest secrets of life: that a “cat” that knows the meaning of “Abi Gezunt” is a cat that’s in the know.