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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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Fats Domino, New Orleans’ Founder of Rock, dies at 89 October 28, 2017

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fats domino1Antoine Dominique “Fats” Domino, one of the last surviving “Founding Fathers” of Rock n’ Roll, has died at the age of 89.  According to the Jefferson Parish Medical Examiner’s office, Domino died of natural causes.  A life-long resident of the New Orleans area, he gave the city a rock music vibe to complement its status as the birthplace of jazz.  Young and old alike easily recognize his signature vocalization of the famous lyrics “I’ve found my thrill…on Blueberry Hill…”, a recording 61 years young.

Domino helped usher in rock n’ roll with his boogie-woogie piano played in his signature style, and did so thoroughly.  Not only did he have hits at the dawn of rock’s explosion (1955) and for the rest of that decade, but he had R&B hits that helped firmly plant rock’s roots prior to then.

From the start of the 1950s through the early ‘60s, we sold 65 million singles and had 23 gold records, making him second only to Elvis as the strongest commercial force at the dawn of the genre.

To add depth to the legend, his image and persona were unforgettable.  He stood at 5 feet, 5 inches tall (joking that he was as rotund as he was tall), and sported a big, infectious grin.  During performances, he exhibited a fondness for the bling in the form of jewel-encrusted rings that he wore on most of his fingers – again, he wore these while playing the piano.  His easy-going demeanor surely helped his public persona as well.

As each of Rock’s founding fathers contributed their own style to the genre, Domino was no exception, he having brought New Orleans parade rhythms to the proverbial party.

Domino was born on Feb. 26, 1928, the youngest of nine children.  He grew up in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, and spent most of his life there.  His life changed forever when his family inherited a piano when he was ten.  His brother-in-law was a jazz musician who wrote down the notes for young Antoine, and taught the boy some basic chords.

He threw himself fully into learning to play the piano, becoming almost entirely self-taught.  Part of the self-teaching included playing records from noted boogie-woogie artists, including Amos Milburn, who would later have a slew of R&B hits in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

At this same time, he dropped out of the fourth grade so he could take a job as an iceman’s helper.  He supplemented his piano practicing by playing pianos for customers in their homes while making deliveries.  Later in his teens, he started working at a club called The Hideaway with a band led by a bassist named Billy Diamond, who first dubbed him “Fats”.  It did not take long for Domino to become the face of the band and a huge local draw.

A songwriter, arranger, and producer named David Bartholomew took notice of this strong, local draw, and realized he found a special artist in Domino.  By 1949, Bartholomew brought over the owner of Imperial Records, Lew Chudd, to The Hideaway in New Orleans to see Fats Domino in person and the amazing effects he had on the club’s patrons.  As he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in a 2010 interview, “Everyone was having a good time. When you saw Fats Domino, it was ‘Let’s have a party!’ ”

Together with Mr. Bartholomew, Fats Domino established his boogie-woogie style of piano playing early on with his first record, “The Fat Man,” an instant R&B hit when it charted in 1950 on the Imperial label.  The song title would give him a stage persona for the rest of his career, and he would stay with that label for over a decade, churning out hits that helped define the 1950s.  Another trait he established with his first record was his mastery of the non-word lyrics, namely the “wah-wah” sound that soon evolved into “woo-woo”.

Indeed, those very sounds added much to the character of another early 1950s R&B hit from 1953, “Please Don’t Leave Me”.  A close listen indicates that, from the opening bars of that record, he already had honed his signature style of rapid piano triplets.

His most solid contribution to someone else’s record came in 1952, when he just so happned to visit a New Orleans studio.  He was asked to help a nervous teenaged singer named Lloyd Price.  Domino not only obliged, but came up with another memorable piano riff at the beginning of the track that set the tone for the entire song, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”.  The R&B record proceeded to become one of the first to cross over to the pop audience.

His style continued to gradually evolve to the right point at the right time when he had a hit that helped trigger the Rock n’ Roll explosion of 1955 with “Ain’t That A Shame”.  But that was only a warm-up for what he was to record for the following year.  People of all ages to this day can easily recognize his version of “Blueberry Hill” from its semi-staccato piano opening.

As a preschooler, it was within a handful of the first of popular tunes I recall hearing.  At that time, the recording was not even 30 years old.  The almost plaintive-sounding response/reactions of the horn section to Domino’s vocals are unlike anything recorded before or since, and undoubtedly contributed to the legendary status of the record.  Those strains have certainly remained with me all these years.

The irony of “Blueberry Hill” is that, unlike, say, “The Fat Man”, it was not a Domino original, but a long-standing cover.  The song originated in Big Band Era, with Gene Autry actually cutting the first know version in 1940.  Glenn Miller followed suit on May 13 the same year (with Ray Eberle on vocals).  Other bands and notable singers contributed their own “take” on it in the early half of the 1940s, including Kay Kyser, Russ Morgan, Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Connie Boswell.  Glenn Miller’s version actually made it to No. 1 on the pop charts in 1940.  Louis Armstrong would later cut a version with Gordon Jenkins’ band in 1949.  But 16 years after the song’s introduction, Fats Domino truly made it into his own, so much so that it now comes as a surprise to many that earlier versions of it by other artists even exist.

Although Domino already had such a legendary record to his credit by 1956, he did not cease to cut great, memorable tunes.  That same year, he produced some other notable tunes such as his version of “My Blue Heaven” and “When My Dreamboat Comes Home” (also holdovers from the Big Band Era).  With both, Domino offered refreshing takes, particularly the latter.  Also in Domino’s 1956 vintage is “I’m In Love Again”.

At the end of 1956, he churned yet another of his most memorable tunes, “Blue Monday”.  Who can forget the quasi-chorus “Saturday mornin’…..Oh, Saturday morning…..all my tiredness have gone away….”?  Clearly grammar was not the Fat Man’s strong point – no doubt a product of his aforementioned truncated education — but the tune was great anyhow, bluesy yet upbeat at the same time.  As kid in junior high, I learned how to play the brief sax solo in the middle of the record in question.

His most notable track from 1957 was “I’m Walkin’”, another uptempo tune that has found its way into movie soundtracks and commercials over the years.  Who can forget the sequence in “Blues Brothers” (1980) when the protagonist duo trapse all over Chicagoland announcing the Blues Brothers Showband and Revue?

Whole Lotta Loving” is the stand-out tune in Domino’s discography from 1958, and he closed out the Fifties strongly with “I’m Ready”, “I Want to Walk You Home” and “Be My Guest” in 1959, all having different tempos.  The first of the aforementioned three is particularly catchy.  Its energy would make one think as though it was recorded closer to the rock explosion period of 1955-’57.

Even the early 1960s were a rather fecund period for Domino, having a hit in 1960 with “Walking to New Orleans”, a track played ad nauseam on the SiriusXM 50s on 5 channel.  Other tracks from this period included Hank Williams covers (“Jambalaya”, “You Win Again”), originals such as “Let the Four Winds Blow”, and other covers such as “I Hear You Knocking” (Smiley Lewis’ hit from 1954) and “You Always Hurt the One You Love” (A Mills Brothers hit from 1944).

By 1963, his record sales were lagging considerably, and a switch to ABC-Paramount did little to revive them.  But he remained a popular live act throughout the 1960s, touring Europe for the first time in 1962, and met the Beatles in Liverpool during that tour – before they became huge stars.  By the mid-1960s, he appeared in Las Vegas for 10 months a year making live performances.

He quit touring for good in the 1980s, and settled back down in his hometown of New Orleans.  Part of the reason for staying in his native city was that, according to him, it was the only place where he liked the food.  Lucky for those in attendance, he was a regular performer at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Still alive and well when Hurricane Katrina hit his native city on Aug. 29, 2005, he refused to leave his home in the Lower Ninth Ward even as it was flooding.  Eventually he was rescued by helicopter on Sept. 1, and evacuated to Baton Rouge, La., where for a couple of days he stayed in then-LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell’s apartment until taking up shelter elsewhere pending the receding of the floodwaters.  The flood in the hurricane’s wake caused major damage to his home, having risen up 20 feet on the house, but it was fully rebuilt by 2007.

The timelessness of Domino’s music was discerned by some even when it was new.  Jerry Wexler, the legendary producer at Atlantic Records, made a prediction as early as 1953, stating “Can’t you envision a collector in 1993 discovering a Fats Domino record in a Salvation Army depot and rushing home to put it on the turntable?” he wrote. “We can. It’s good blues, it’s good jazz, and it’s the kind of good that never wears out.”  The fact that “Blueberry Hill” and other riffs from his other records remain recognizable today prove just how thoroughly that prognostication has come to pass.