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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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The Top Three Greatest Christmas Albums December 18, 2014

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NKC-the-christmas-songNo. 1:  Nat King Cole:  The Christmas Song.  What merits this as number one?  Start with the fact that the title cut of the album is perhaps the most iconic recording of a secular Christmas song.  Add in the fact that A) this is Nat “King” Cole, whose vocal talents just feel perfect for music to promote Yuletide cheer, and B) this is a Capitol Records album, produced at the time (1960, specifically) when the label included not only Cole, but also both Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as his stablemates and thus the label pretty much owned the mainstream popular music market in that era.  But Cole mixes well the secular and religious songs, making fun, upbeat versions with some (e.g., “Deck the Halls” and “Hark!  The Herald Angels”) and poignant versions with others (e.g., “O Tannenbaum” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”), making for a compilation that spans the proper emotional gamut during this sentimental time of year.

The only irony is that it does not contain the best version of “The Christmas Song,” a tune that Cole himself would record officially at least three different times, but that is a discussion for another day.

FS_XmasNo. 1a:  A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra.  Make no mistake about it, this album was cut in 1957, when Ol’ Blue Eyes was on top of his game, only a year or so removed from recording his two greatest albums ever (“Songs for Swinging Lovers” and “A Swingin’ Affair”).  It shows in this album, too.  Just as the previously mentioned album introduced me to Nat “King” Cole, so too did this particular album introduce me to Sinatra at a very early age.

Certain songs grab you in such a way that you remember where you were the first time you heard them.  For me, it was Christmastime while I was in kindergarten when I first heard the opening track, “Jingle Bells,” on this album, and it stuck with me ever since.  The song is so well-known as to be trite, but every once in a while, one hears a version that is so well-rendered as to rise above the triteness.  This is one of those songs.

But if you are first grabbed by that opening track, you stay for “Mistletoe and Holly.”  To this day, few have attempted to cover it because Sinatra did it so well the first time.  But two additional tracks truly cement the album’s timelessness.  Sammy Cahn’s “The Christmas Waltz” truly helps define the song collection, and no Christmas season is complete without enjoying this track a few times.  Others have tried to duplicate Frank’s efforts with this song over the years, but each time, they keep coming up short.

The other track that seals the album’s greatness for all time is Sinatra’s definitive version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  Sinatra truly captures the essence of the song itself, arguably outdoing the other definitive version by Judy Garland from 1944.  Listening to this song proves to any discerning listener why Frank Sinatra was indeed the singing voice of the 20th Century.

The religious songs on the latter part of the album are not too shabby, either.  Recent re-releases of the album include an alternative version of “The Christmas Waltz,” which is not quite as good as the official rendition, but it remains a good listen nonetheless (it being a Nelson Riddle arrangement, compared to the Gordon Jenkins arrangements that populate the rest of the track line-up).

AChristmasGifttoYoufromPhilSpectorcoverNo. 3:  Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You (1963).  One unique aspect of this album is that it does not center on one artist, but rather on several artists/groups that were the talent pool on Spector’s label at the time.  The recording effect that defined the legendary producer’s records came to be known as the “Wall of Sound,” (a primer for those unfamiliar with this effect of recorded sound) and while that effect lifted many Spector-produced tracks to legendary status and made for a definitive element in some music from 1960s, one could argue that this effect was perfected on this very album.  If that exceeds credibility in the minds of some readers, I invite them to listen to the last several bars of instrumentation of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by The Crystals:  it’s vintage Phil Spector (this is not to mention that the song’s arrangement has been copied by many artists in the 50+ years since).

There is not a bad track in the line-up, and they include some of the most iconic versions of certain secular Christmas songs.  The Ronettes’ version of “Sleigh Ride”, for example, remains the definitive version of this song – in most circles – to this day, though ironically paced with a shuffle beat (one of the oldest rhythmic patterns in popular music).  Bob B. Soxx’s rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” is a fresh take on that song, too.   Indeed, there is a timeless “hipness” to these tracks, which is what makes the album so classic.

Of course, Darlene Love contributed the lion’s share of musical gems.  Her version of “White Christmas” is the closest one to rival Bing Crosby’s eternally popular 1942 and 1947 versions.  “Baby Please Come Home” has become an iconic song in its own right, and her multi-dubbed vocals on “Winter Wonderland” have made it arguably the best version of that winter-themed song to date.  With such a strong line-up of recordings, it almost makes “Marshmallow World” get lost in the mix, but an attentive listen reveals that this track is the most underrated on the album.  This is easily the greatest version anybody has made of the song, and the energy that Love puts into the vocals on this track are positively contagious.  Moreover, if one focuses just on Love’s contributions to this song compilation, one cannot help but conclude that these make up the very cornerstone to her musical legacy.

Put all three albums together, and you have a solid trifecta of timeless Christmas music that has stood the test of time for more than five decades, which is all too fitting for a holiday season partially defined by timeless traditions.

America’s Greatest Music: Where or When? February 5, 2014

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It seems we stood and talked like this before; we looked at each other the same way then;  but I can’t remember where or when.”

So go some very famous lyrics found in the Great American Songbook, the last three of which make title of the song to which they belong, “Where Or When.”

Written in 1937 by the highly adept duo of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for their musical Babes in Arms, the song became an instant hit with the buying public when prominent recording artists such as Benny Goodman (specifically his Trio) recorded the song the same year.  Within a 77-year span of time, singers and musicians across several genres have taken their stab at rendering the tune, from contemporaries of when the song was new to respected artists who primarily traffic in the Standards today.

One of the most appealing aspects to the song is that it speaks to a strong sense of déjà vu with a significant other, potential or otherwise.  Different “takes” on the song also hint at various aspects of intimacy that the song suggests as well.  Moreover, it’s a good choice to play in any number of forms when trying to recall key moments in life with one’s own significant other!

What is also very appealing about the tune is that, like many other elite tunes in the Great American Songbook (e.g., “Night And Day,” “Stardust,” “Begin The Beguine,” and so forth), it works great in standard, sung form, as well as in instrumental form.  The Benny Goodman Trio, for example, took the latter approach, and the band’s leader along with Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson do a good job of bringing out the tune’s intimacy.

A decent, semi-contemporary rendition where the lyrics were not ignored was done by Dick Haymes in the 1940s.

Perhaps the most-recognized version in this day and age, and arguably over the past five decades, is the one by Dion & the Belmonts from 1960.

But this does not even scratch the surface of the prominent artists who have recorded this fine song over the course of more than seven decades.  The laundry list of big names includes, in no particular order:  Julie Andrews, Ray Anthony, Count Basie, Shirley Bassey (yes, of “Goldfinger” fame), The Beach Boys (!), Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Perry Como, Ray Conniff, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jr. (naturally!), Dennis Day (the voice of Johnny Appleseed from Disney’s 1948 feature “Melody Time”), Percy Faith (who wants to bet that was rendered instrumentally?), The Flamingos, Ralph Flanagan, The Four Lads, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Harry James, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin (he performed this song at least five times on his show), The Lettermen, Mario Lanza, Steve Lawrence, Vaughn Monroe, Red Norvo, Patti Page, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Artie Shaw, Dinah Shore, Carly Simon, Frank Sinatra (but of course!), Kay Starr, Barbara Streisand, The Supremes, Art Tatum, Jack Teagarden, Mel Tormé, and Andy Williams.

Once you take a moment to catch your breath, it is also worth pointing out that more recent names such as Barry Manilow, Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr. and Rod Stewart have also added their names to this lengthy list.

Indeed, such length of said list, to say nothing of the diversity of musical genres within it, along with the span of time that these artists cover, all add up to the strongest of testaments to the sheer timelessness of this song.

Let us not forget Ella Fitzgerald’s version of it, for she never fails to do a great song like this its proper justice.

But my personal favorite has to be Nat King Cole’s live — albeit instrumental — rendition of his during his 1960 concert at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where many a recording legend had many a great concert.

America’s Greatest Music: You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby August 15, 2013

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Whenever you meet a girl whom you instantly recognize as a cut above the rest, this tune instantly enters your mind.  You know that even further when this tune pops up on the radio (assuming you’re tuned in to the SiriusXM 40s on 4 channel) and without hesitation you start singing along to the record.  But the question becomes, along with which version do you sing?

Such is a valid question.  After all, like many legendary tunes in the Great American Songbook, it has been recorded by many a legendary artist throughout the ages.  At different times, Artie Shaw, Lee Wiley, Perry Como (1946), Rosemary Clooney, The Crew Cuts — who made their mark on the business by doing cover versions of early ’50s R&B and doo-wop hits — Vic Damone, Joni James, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra have all taken their individual cracks at this song.  Let us also not forget Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin (1961), The Dave Clark Five (1967), or Michael Bublé (2001, which, compared to the years of the previous records, might as well be literally yesterday).

But this does not even acknowledge the spate or recordings made of this song when it was written (1938) by Harry Warren (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics — figures!).  That year, Tommy Dorsey recorded his version with Edythe Wright on the vocals.  Chick Bullock — who provided the vocals for some of Bunny Berigan’s small group recordings on the Vocalion label in 1936 — also rendered his version that same year, as did Russ Morgan.

Yet the version that clearly stands out above all others was also recorded the same year the song in question was written (1938, in case you skipped the previous paragraph), and it was sung by none other than Bing Crosby (recorded on the Decca label, of course!).  It is this version that sticks out in one’s mind when a guy meets a girl that stands out from all the rest; it is this version that you joyous sing along with in your car when it comes on the radio….and it swings!

For anybody who doubts that Crosby owns the definitive version of this song, take a moment to notice its reference elsewhere in popular culture.  In the Looney Tunes cartoon “What’s Up Doc?” (1950) featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, an obvious reference to this record surfaces in the middle of the show.

A scene depicts Elmer Fudd coming across, by happenstance, a down-and-out Bugs.  Of the four characters that Fudd passes up before reaching Bugs, the first is a caricature of Al Jolson (“mammy” being a lyric often found in some of his songs), the third is a caricature of Eddie Cantor, and the fourth is obviously a satirical depiction of Der Bingle himself, singing a line of from the featured recording of this very article.  Watch for yourself!

Such humorous references to contemporary pop culture were a hallmark, and indeed, a distinctive competency (to borrow a business term) of the Warner Brothers’ Merrie Melodies cartoons!  But as hinted previously, this very reference also demonstrates that Crosby’s version stands apart from all others, much like that special lady.