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

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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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America’s Greatest Music: The Diamond Anniversary of two Artie Shaw Classics November 18, 2013

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The legendary Artie Shaw and his band recorded two songs 75 years ago today that personified why he was one of the best of the best of that era or of any era.

Seventy-five years ago today, the great Artie Shaw recorded two of his greatest records.  No, not the greatest of them all, which of course is his venerable, timeless, “Begin the Beguine”, but these two are quite close to the top.

One of which is “Between A Kiss And A Sigh”,

While the other is “Deep In A Dream”.  Both feature the superb lyrics of a young Helen Forrest, who made her major league debut with Shaw’s band before moving on to Benny Goodman at the beginning of 1940.

Both recordings are wonderful in that they personify the difficult combination of music that exudes smoothness while at the same time maintaining a good, bouncy tempo.  These two tunes give the sensation of being in a high-brow Art Deco nightclub in the late 1930s, which is always the ideal of where one wants to be for a night on the town!

As far as the lyrics go, they are relatively simple compared to the unmatched eloquence of something penned by, say, Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin.  This particularly pertains to the former song, though the latter is not devoid of vivid lyrics.  One example:

“The smoke makes a stairway for you to descend:  You come to my arms; my this bliss never end!”

What this shows is that even songs that would by themselves not make the cut for the Great American Songbook are still timeless when given the right kind of arrangement and are paired with the right performer.  Obviously this is the case with both of these records.  But what is also shows is that even if their lyrics cannot match the poignance of Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” or the vivid metaphors of Porter’s “You’re the Top,” they nevertheless are well-written enough to remind us yet again that when it came to writing songs and making music in general, these tunes were from a time when there was an embarrassments of riches — of great lyrics!

And on top of that, they’re just great records.

But wait, there’s more!  In addition to the two aforementioned hits, he recorded a few others on Nov. 17 , 1938 as well, such as his version of “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise,” the lyrics of which were written by none other than Oscar Hammerstein II in 1928.  But in typical Artie Shaw fashion, he scrapped the lyrics this time and concentrated on the music itself.

Disclaimer:  Artie Shaw recorded on RCA Bluebird.  What they show in the video is a mid-1950s Mercury label.  Why, I don’t know.  Furthermore, all of these tunes would have been cut and pressed on 78 RPM records, not 45’s, which were not introduced until 1949.

But I digress.  The band also recorded one of their versions of “Copenhagen” during this same session.

If that’s not enough, Artie Shaw and his band also cut a nice ditty in “Thanks For Everything”, surely a sentiment we love to share with friends, loved ones, and significant others alike.  Naturally, Helen Forrest’s vocals add just the right tough to this track.

America’s Greatest Music – It’s De-Lovely October 25, 2013

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“It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely…” Those are some of the most famous lyrics within the body of work of Cole Porter, the last two of which being the title of the in question.  Given that it is one of Porter’s most recognizable songs (save for “Night and Day,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, “Anything Goes,” “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, and several others), it merits a very prominent place in the Great American Songbook.

Here’s the catch, though; despite it being a great song, few of us can think of lots of notable recorded renditions of it.  Sure, a number of second-tier bands had moderate hits with it in the mid-1930s, but that will not turn lots of heads of music listeners who are not passionate and/or academic about the Swing Era.

The song originated when Cole Porter wrote it in 1936 for the show “Red Hot and Blue.”  On the big screen, it was introduced to the masses by Ethel Merman and Bob Hope.  Indeed, Merman would record a studio version of the song, which can be heard below.  Note that the approach she takes to the song is one that would highlight the potential silliness/gayety of the situation described.

As mentioned earlier, several second-tier bands promptly recorded their respective renditions of the song, including Eddy Duchin, Shep Fields, and Vincent Lopez, whose 1936 version can be heard below:

But one version easily stands out over all, and that is Ella Fitzgerald’s take on the tune from 1956 (which would be the same time of decade when she would tackle the “Cole Porter Songbook” and leave many wonderful records for posterity in so doing).  Frankly, nothing compares to this rendition.

Notice, in contrast to Ethel Merman’s approach from 20 years earlier, Ella puts all kidding aside and focuses on the shear passion that this tune can excite, what with being with the right gal (or guy) at the right time, along with the ensuing opportunity to create a magical evening.

America’s Greatest Music: Artie Shaw’s “Non-Stop Flight” and others September 27, 2013

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As I stated in my previous AGM entry, there are those occasional recording sessions in history where not just one legendary record is cut, but a whole plethora.  Today (Sept. 27) marks the Diamond Anniversary (that’s 75 years, for those of you who are graduates of Indiana University — or the University of Kentucky, for that matter) of one such session undertaken by Artie Shaw and his orchestra.  On Sept. 27, he and his band cut, for one, “Nightmare”, a haunting tune which he used, oddly enough, to open all of his live gigs.

But that is not the half of it.  In addition to “Nightmare” (also used frequently throughout the Martin Scorsese biopic “The Aviator” about Howard Hughes), Artie Shaw also cut the definitive rendition of “Non-Stop Flight,” a popular staple with Lindy Hoppers to this very day!

Things did not stop there, for Artie Shaw and his band also recorded the Jerome Kern hit “Yesterdays” from his musical “Gowns for Roberta” (the same musical in which Kern also wrote the legendary song “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”), and thus we have the triple-whammy of one of the greatest of all songwriters writing a song that belongs in — or at least near — the upper echelons of the Great American Songbook, and the record is performed by one of the greatest legends in American Popular Music in Artie Shaw.  The quality of music does live up to the billing, too!

Next up we have “What Is This Thing Called Love?”  Much like the aforementioned “Yesterdays”, it too is the same sort of “triple-whammy,” except this time it was penned by Cole Porter, not Jerome Kern.  Artie Shaw had an incredible knack for scrapping the wonderful lyrics of Cole Porter tunes and rendering them as instrumentals, yet somehow still doing the songs considerable justice (e.g., “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine,” “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, just to name a few).  No wonder that when Porter finally met Shaw face-to-face in the late 1930s, the first thing he said to the King of the Clarinet was “[H]appy to meet my collaborator”!

For the last two tracks, Shaw brought in Helen Forrest on the vocals to sing a nice little ditty already featured in this blog, “You’re a Sweet Little Headache”.  Part of that song can be heard in a scene in the very-underrated 1991 film “The Rocketeer”.

The other tune for which Helen Forrest sang was “I Have Eyes”.  Much like the previously-mentioned tune, Benny Goodman recorded it around the same time, during the same year, and Martha Tilton provided the vocals for both.  It therefore makes for a fun time for vintage music devotees to compare and contrast the respective merits of both songs and their counterpart recordings!

The Goodman version can be heard below for reference:

While I personally prefer the sound of the reed section in the Goodman rendition, overall I prefer the Artie Shaw version, for its sound is smoother, Shaw’s clarinet is more melodious, Helen Forrest’s vocals “click” a bit more effectively with that tune than Tilton’s for the same song, and the tempo on the Shaw record is much bouncier.  Moreover, I say all of this as a Goodman fan!  Such is miraculous effect that Artie Shaw had on key records, so relatively many of which were produced 75 years ago today.

Why are all these Artie Shaw records such a big deal?  A huge chunk of that answer lies in the fact that he left an indelible impression on our cultural landscape.  To wit, as Mark Steyn pointed out in his fantastic obituary piece on Shaw over nine years ago:

“On the eve of World War II, Time reported that to Germans America meant ‘skyscrapers, Clark Gable and Artie Shaw.'”

America’s Greatest Music: You’re a Sweet Little Headache September 12, 2013

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In a slight change of pace, this particular tune does not merit itself into the Great American Songbook.  Nevertheless, it is a lovely little ditty, one that a few bands recorded during the Swing Era.  The main reason we highlight this tune right now is because it was recorded on this day (Sept. 12) 75 years ago.

One thing is for certain, and that is that Benny Goodman’s “sound” certainly did the tune justice.  An uptempo “businessman’s bounce” — something at which Benny’s band excelled — this record is also a good example of the lilting tone effect heard in Goodman’s woodwind section, something he practically perfected that year.

While Benny Goodman did not have a monopoly on this song, his is arguably the definitive version, what with his aforementioned sound, combined with his gutsy style of play.  Martha Tilton’s vocals make for a very nice addition, too.  With all that said, other prominent recording stars took their stab at this song around the same time, including RCA stablemate Artie Shaw (who recorded it with Helen Forrest singing the lyrics that same year [1938])*, and even Bing Crosby lent his vocal talents to the ditty in question the following year.

A more modern pop cultural reference to this recording can be heard in the ever-popular film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” during the apartment scene in Venice, where one can hear the Elsa Schneider character play the tune on an acoustic phonograph (making the recording sound 10-15 years older than it actually was!).

So while the lyrics do not rate the song itself as highly as a good Cole Porter or Irving Berlin standard, it nevertheless merits our attention as a solid record during the golden age of American popular culture — enjoy!

*The Artie Shaw version one can briefly heard in the very underrated 1991 Disney Film “The Rocketeer,” which also takes place in 1938.