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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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