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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.

 

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: The Man/Gal That Got Away November 14, 2013

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This tune is something of a break from most American pop standards spotlighted within this series of blog entries in that it is not from the Golden Age of the Great American Songbook (ca. 1920-1945).  Nevertheless, it quickly merited a place in the aforementioned Songbook because of its eloquent lyrics that easily compare to those of said Golden Age.  The viewing public first heard this from the hit 1954 film “A Star Is Born,” and was broken by none other than Judy Garland.  The fact that is was written by Harold Arlen (music) and Ira Gershwin (lyrics) certainly does not hurt, and indeed, accredits the song all the more (they being two songwriting veterans whose penmanship contributed plenty to America’s Greatest Music)!

What is interesting is that the title must be slightly modified depending on whether the person that is singing this is male for female.  When Judy Garland broke the tune, the title was “The Man That Got Away”.  Not so with Frank Sinatra, who recorded his own version on the Capitol label shortly after the song became a hit off the silver screen.  It could not have been recorded any later than 1955, for that was the year that the album “This is Sinatra” was released.  Interesting side-note:  “This is Sinatra” was no concept album, unlike his “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” album from the previous year.  “This is…” was merely a compilation of hit singles he had over 1953 and ’54, not that such a distinction should detract from the collection of masterworks found in one album!

For my money, Sinatra’s version is the definitive one, though that ought not to detract from Judy Garland’s heartfelt rendition.  Whichever your preference may be, few songs better personify the feeling one experiences when the person-of-the-opposite-sex that they thought was “The One” for them has gotten away from them.  That alone should be reason enough why this song belongs in the Great American Songbook, Silver Age or no.