Originally titled “Have You Ever Met That Funny Reefer Man,” this song was written in 1932 by J. Russel Robinson, with lyrics by Andy Razaf, and recorded by Cab Calloway. As the song was written five years before the Marihuana Tax Act—reefer was still legal in almost all of America at the time. It was first recorded by Calloway, with several popular covers, including one by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Calloway lived a long life—long enough to appear in the 1980 Saturday Night Live-inspired film The Blues Brothers.
“You’se A Viper” – Stuff Smith
In Harlem, New York, people started calling reefer smokers “vipers” in the 1920s and 1930s. “Viper culture” was centered on good jazz music and reefer. This classic B-side was first recorded by Stuff Smith and the Onyx Club Boys in 1936. It was released as the B-side to the song “After You’ve Gone.” The song was retitled again and again to correct the broken, casual English. Fats Waller’s 1943 cover version mentions “Mighty Mezz”—referring to Milton Mezzrow, a Jewish saxophone and clarinet player who also is synonymous with viper culture as a famed marijuana supplier.
“When I Get Low I Get High” – Ella Fitzgerald
This song was recorded in April 1936 by Chick Webb and his orchestra, with stunning vocals on the chorus performed by none other than Ella Fitzgerald. For the most part, Fitzgerald tried to cultivate a wholesome image, but she also was very street savvy in regards to the underground jazz community. In the 1930s, Fitzgerald sang about both reefer and cocaine, such as in Wacky Dust, also recorded with Webb. Fitzgerald went on to scoop up 13 Grammy Awards and an additional 20 nominations.
This song was used relatively recently as the series theme song for Disjointed starring Kathy Bates. Originally recorded in November 1938, the song was included on Reefer Blues: Volume One, a compilation album of vintage blues songs, featuring some of the other tunes on this list. Louis Armstrong played the cornet on some of Smith’s best known songs, and she was active during the vaudeville era. Smith’s birthdate is completely unknown, but she was born sometime between 1885 and 1895.
“That Cat is High” – The Ink Spots
That’s one high cat… Here’s one that will take you back in time. The Ink Spots originally released “That Cat is High” written by J. Mayo Williams and The Ink Spots, and released it on the single “Oh! Red” in 1938. The Ink Spots were an American vocal jazz group that gained international stardom in the 1930s and 1940s. Their accessible vocal style is thought to have helped lead to doo-wop and modern R&B. The Ink Spots were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.
This article appears in the June 2022 issue of High Times. Subscribe here.