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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: 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.

America’s Greatest Music: Cheek to Cheek August 29, 2013

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The great Irving Berlin has been estimated to have written 1,500 songs throughout his 60-year career (he lived to be 100 years old).  A good many of this estimated 1,500 have become legendary in their own right within the Great American Songbook.  Quite possibly his most-recognized musical contribution is “God Bless America,” which, when he wrote and published the song in 1939, it became so popular so quickly that it threatened to supplant the Star-Spangled Banner as our national anthem.  One of the positive developments in the wake of 9-11 is that the tune has enjoyed an extra boost of popularity over the past almost-dozen years.

But that important song aside, Berlin’s contribution-in-song to American popular culture is vast, and one of his most famous — aside from the aforementioned patriotic tribute — is “Cheek to Cheek”.  Enter Fred Astaire, who himself is legendary not just for his amazing dancing ability, but also for the fact that he himself broke some of the most famous tunes ever to grace the Great American Songbook, this ballad being one of them.

First sung in the film “Top Hat” (1935), which is considered by many to be the quintessential Fred-and-Ginger movie, its original version from that picture remains famous to this day.  Indeed, it can be argued that not only did Fred Astaire break many famous American popular songs, but that he often performed the definitive version of them for all time.

Note that I said “often.”  In this case, that is debatable, not because the version is mediocre — far from it; in fact, what Astaire clearly lacked in vocal ability, he made up for this intangible quality of making the listener/viewer “believe” the tune — but because the competition is very fierce when it comes to great singers trying to out-do each other on the ultimate version of this song.

The term “fierce competition” is not an exaggeration when one considers that Julie Andrews, Ray Anthony, Desi Arnaz, Chet Atkins, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Connee Boswell, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Vic Damone, Ziggy Elman, Eddie Fisher, (take a deep breath) Billie Holiday, Harry James, Joni James, Al Jolson, Steve Lawrence, Peggy Lee, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller, Louis Prima, Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra (from this 1958 album “Come Dance With Me”), Rod Stewart, Mel Tormé
, and Teddy Wilson — among many others.

But one version does stand out above most others, and that is the one cut by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on the Verve label in 1956.  Indeed, Louie and Ella as a duet recorded many tunes from the Great American Songbook; many a fine version at that (one could argue a few of which are some of humanity’s [many] greatest recordings).  This particular rendition is one of the finer examples of the duo’s body of work from the latter half of the 1950s, and could rightfully be classified as one of humanity’s great records.

If the reader has never heard this version before, then the reader is in for a treat!  Regardless, though, the song itself wonderfully describes the bliss one experiences when dancing with that special partner.  Guys, when you’ve danced with that special girl before, you know what this song means!