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Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” at 60 December 19, 2018

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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Sixty years ago today – Dec. 19, 1958 – more music recording history was made.  Specifically, Bobby Darin cut his biggest hit, “Mack The Knife”.  Released first as a single and later on his career-defining album “That’s All”, it was a song that would help define an era just as said era was coming to an end.

The song itself was not new.  For that matter, neither was the musical style in which it was recorded.  This alone would be an odd juxtaposition in a time when newer car styles and newer technologies were rapidly entering society.  Yet this record would go on to win the Grammy for Record of the Year for 1959; in the fall of 1959, it stayed No. 1 on the charts for nine consecutive weeks.  Some polls hold it up as the fifth-ranked song of the 1955-1959 Rock Era, despite the song clearly not being rock.  And it all started with one legendary recording session 60 years ago today.

The actual, written song was already 30 years old when Darin recorded it on the Atco label, which was an Atlantic Records subsidiary.  Indeed, the record’s producers were Atlantic’s usual suspects of Ahmet Ertegun (its founder), brother Neshui Ertegun, and Jerry Wexler.

Kurt Weill wrote the melody and poet/writer Bertold Brecht wrote the original lyrics for “Moriat” (its original title) as part of their musical drama “Die Dreigrosschenoper”, or “The Threepenny Opera” in English.  In the musical play, an organ grinder sings the song which tells the tale of Mackie Messer, a murderous criminal who in turn was based on the Macheath character from John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” from 1728.  So yes, it’s all very derivative.

The word “Messer” means “knife” in German, hence the easy transition from Mackie Messer to Mack the Knife.  And yes, the original lyrics to “Moriat” were indeed auf Deutsch.

An English-language version of the opera was first offered to the public five years later (1933), with translated lyrics by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky.  The production had a run of only ten days.  In 1954, though, another English-language production of the Threepenny Opera was staged, and it enjoyed an off-Broadway run of six years.  Mark Blitzstein used his own English translation of the murder ballad of Mack the Knife, and these lyrics became the standard we know and love today.

Louis Armstrong actually beat Darin to the punch in having a pop hit with this song, recording his rendition in 1956, and giving it his typical Dixieland-inspired flavor.  But despite Satchmo’s first-mover advantage, the song today is associated with Darin, and rightly so.

This is not to say that the song’s success came easily.  Recording it was not even an easy sell.  Dick Clark advised Darin not to record the song because he feared its perception as an opera song would alienate rock n’ roll-oriented audiences.  But rather than repel such audiences, it attracted them instead.  Moreover, while Darin’s traditional young target demographics embraced his more mature music, the parents of the young audiences were reassured by the record’s strong Big Band sound (shouts to Richard Wess, who directed the orchestra for this track and indeed, the whole album), and enjoyed the record, too, as a result.  In short, this timeless track appealed to a massive range of the buying public, which clearly was a leading factor in its stunning success.

Other notable names soon jumped on the bandwagon with their own versions of “Mack the Knife”, such as Ella Fitzgerald recording a live rendition in 1960, and Dean Martin doing a nice, live version the previous yearFrank Sinatra recorded it with Quincy Jones as part of his 1984 album “L.A. is My Lady”, yet he himself confessed that Bobby Darin did the better version.  Other notables offering their respective takes on the tune include Tony Bennett, Brain Setzer, Kevin Spacey, and, not surprisingly, Michael Bublé.  Bill Haley and His Comets recorded an instrumental version of the tune in 1959, which would be the last track the legendary singer and group would cut for the Decca label.  Other notable acts have recorded variations and instrumentals of the song over the years.

One sterling example of the song’s timeless appeal:  superstar music judge Simon Cowell once named “Mack the Knife” as the greatest song ever written.  That is a stretch, to say the least, considering the bodies of work of Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, and Jerome Kern, to say nothing of George and Ira Gershwin.  But on the other hand, it’s refreshing to hear a current superstar with a credibly discerning ear remind us of what a great song “Mack the Knife” is.  It might not be the best ever, but it surely ranks up there.

Cool trivia:  both Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin give a nod to actress Lotte Lenya in their respective versions.  Lenya was Kurt Weill’s wife, and she introduced the song during the first productions of Die Dreigrosschenoper.

 

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These three Christmas records are 60, and they still sound great! December 19, 2018

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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This year, 2018, marks three Christmas songs that have become classic hits over the decades.

The Chipmunks Song

One of the three is “The Chipmunk Song”, the title alone sounding confusing to those unaware of its context.  First of all, let us be clear on who The Chipmunks were.  No, in this case, they are not Chip & Dale (that was always my default assumption regarding The Chipmunks back when I was, say, five years old!), rather the other Chipmunks, Simon, Theodore and Alvin.  They were the brainchildren of one David Seville (which was his stage name:  his mother knew him as Rostom [Ross] Bagdasarian), a singer-songwriter, the latter part through which he had hits spanning the whole 1950s.  For example, he wrote “Come On-A My House” in 1950, which Rosemary Clooney had a million-selling hit with the following year and launched her career in the process.

By 1958 he had come up with an idea for a novelty record after experimenting with different playback speeds on a tape recorder.  That idea manifested itself into a No. 1 hit in the Spring of that year with “Witch Doctor”.  Liberty Records released it under Bagdasarian’s new stage name, David Seville.  The tune is a duet consisting of Seville’s real voice and an accelerated version of it, the latter being the genesis of The Chipmunks characters.  “Witch Doctor” went on to sell 1.5 million copies in 1958, and Seville realized he had the opportunity to expand his chipmunk character into a trio.  The names for the three new characters all came from the names of the executives at Liberty:  Simon (Waronker), Theodore (Keep), and Alvin (Bennett).

This new trio debuted with an even bigger smash hit, “The Chipmunk Song”, which sounds generic on the surface, until you hear it and realize how timelessly familiar it is (“We can hardly stand the wait; Please, Christmas, don’t be late”).  So yes, the title might not suggest it, but it’s a timeless Christmas classic.

Such a status came almost instantly: it was released on Nov. 17, 1958, and was No. 1 in America by the week of Dec. 13, and would remain at the top of the charts for the rest of the month, selling 4 million copies in this inaugural run.  At the first-ever Grammy Awards in May of 1959, it won three such coveted awards; Best Recording for Children, Best Comedy Performance, and Best Non-Classical Engineered Song.

Seville himself reaped an outsized share of the benefit of such a huge hit, since he wrote the song, provided all of the vocals, and even produced the record itself.  Its success allowed for him to launch an entertainment franchise based on this rodent trio.  Indeed, Seville/Bagdasarian founded and owned Chipmunk Enterprises, which was the business end of said entertainment franchise, which in turn allowed for him to scream at Alvin (on his records) all the way to the bank until his premature death in 1972 from a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home at age fifty-two.

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Unlike the first entry, the second entry leaves nothing to confusion from a generic title, for it makes no bones about what it is and the season for which it is intended.  “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” By Brenda Lee, a.k.a., Little Miss Dynamite, a nickname she earned because of her short stature – 4’-9” – and her 1957 hit “Dynamite”.  She had already started recording Country hits on the Decca label in 1956 at age 12, and in December of that year, had a minor Christmas hit with “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus”.

The years 1958 through 1962 were her peak period of fame and recording success, having two No. 1 hits alone in 1960, for example (“I’m Sorry” and “I Want to be Wanted”), with other big successes coming with “Sweet Nothin’s” and “All Alone Am I” that same year.

But her biggest hit was, yes, a Christmas song, the aforementioned “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” from sixty years ago this month.  The song was written by Johnny Marks, who already had “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” to his name (written in 1949 ten years after his brother-in-law wrote the story about the red-nosed titular character as an assignment for the Montgomery Ward department stores) and four years later would write “A Holly Jolly Christmas”, which by Christmas of 1964 would forever be associated with Burl Ives.

Unlike “The Chipmunks Song”, which was practically an instant hit, “Rockin’…” was a delayed hit.  Despite the memorably twangy guitar by Grady Martin and the raucous-sounding sax by Boots Randolph, it only sold 5,000 copies upon its first release.  It was released a second time in 1959 and did not do much better.  Not until two years later (again, 1960), when Lee had her banner year with her aforementioned hits, did Decca re-release “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, and it exploded as a hit, eventually selling 5 million copies.

It remains a perennial favorite by folks of all ages six decades later, and is obviously the record by which Lee is best known to this day, not to mention a favorite to sing in grade-school music classes for 60 years and counting.

Interestingly, the record is a deceptively seminal one.  That is, it was one of the first to use what became known as the “Nashville sound”, which at its core consisted of a string section overlayed with legato vocals, combined to make up the musical background of a recording.

Run Run Rudolph

Last but not least, the third entry is the hardest-rocking of all.  But this one is by Chuck Berry, so one would expect nothing less!  And yes, there is a tie-in with the previous entry, and not just with the year, either!  Just as Johnny Marks, who, as mentioned earlier not only wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1949 and later wrote “Holly Jolly Christmas” in 1962, in addition to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in 1958, also wrote “Run Run Rudolph” (well, the lyrics, at least) as a follow-up to his 1949 classic that very same year.

Musically, the credit goes to Marvin Brodie, and some of Berry’s signature, nay, inimitable guitar riffs on his Gibson ES-335 echo that of “Johnny B. Goode”.

More to the point, this rocking Christmas classic is actually a close musical copy of a hit Chuck Berry had earlier that year in “Little Queenie”.  Indeed, one could easily transplant the lyrics of the former and superimpose them on the latter.  Hear for yourself:

Ironically, “Run Run Rudolph” peaked at only No. 69 in 1958, but it remains a perennial favorite anyhow.  Its popularity does not manifest itself so much in record sales, as its appeal in other areas:  the numerous cover versions this tune has invited over the decades.  For example, Luke Bryan, Whitney Wolanin, and Justin Moore have all made cover versions of this timeless rocker within the past 10 years alone.  Other previous covering artists included Lynyrd Skynyrd, Billy Ray Cyrus, The Grateful Dead, Kelly Clarkson, Jimmy Buffet, Dwight Yoakum, and that’s just the short list.  This (admittedly) random selection does nevertheless beg a question:  what do all these country artists within said list want to want to do with a 12-bar blues riff?  Food for thought.

So as we continue to enjoy these hits at this month’s Christmas parties, let us pause to appreciate their timelessness and how well they have endured over the course of six decades.  If nothing else, it’s further proof that, as Danny and the Juniors famously said, “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay”, especially at Christmastime.