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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.

 

America’s Greatest Music: Beyond The Sea, etc. December 25, 2013

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Bobby-Darin-Thats-AllThe past five days mark of the 55th Anniversary of some of the best records made over that span of time.  Starting on Dec. 19 1958, Bobby Darin and the in-house orchestra at Atco Records (a pop subsidiary label of Atlantic), conducted by Richard Weiss, cut the tracks for the album that arguably would define his career:  “That’s All.”

By this time, Darin had already established himself in the teen market with hits such as “Splish Splash” (1957) and “Queen of the Hop” (1958) and “Dream Lover” (1959), but everyone thought he was crazy when we wanted to cut an album for the adult market.  Nevertheless, the Atco executives green-lit the project, and in late December of ’58, these key tracks were cut, starting with what would become the biggest record of 1959, “Mack the Knife.”

Recorded on Dec. 19, 1958, this song was written by Bertholt Brecht for his famous “Threepenny Opera” (little known fact:  it was originally written in German) 30 years earlier, and Louis Armstrong had already given a bit of new life to the song with a hit of it in 1956.  But no matter who came before or later (Dean Martin did a live performance of it in ’59), Darin clearly owns the song with this definitive version, which remains an all-time classic to this day.

That same recording date, Darin also cut “That’s the Way Love Is,” which is also a fine record, and one that does an excellent job of nailing the feeling one feels when a guy has that one special woman in his life and how strangely all that works.

In between this aforementioned span of time, he also cut two other dynamite records, both being strong, jazzy versions of the standards “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise,” and “I’ll Remember April,” which are great for getting you up in the morning.

But the session was capped off with another definite pop record of the 1950s, and of Darin ‘s career:  “Beyond the Sea.”  The song was first recorded as “La Mer” by Charles Trenet in 1946, but Darin sang it to the English lyrics we all know and love today.  If ever somebody dear to you has been situated overseas, this song is the ultimate morale-booster, and it was recorded on Christmas Eve of 1958, 55 years ago today.

Oh, and the title cut was, ironically, the last track on this album: it’s arrangement is, er, rather unique compared to the more traditional arrangements of this particular standard.

America’s Greatest Music: A love song “twofer” from 75 years ago today. September 15, 2013

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A 1938 Cadillac is shown on the right and a 1935 Packard (similar to a 1938 model) is shown on the right. This image montage is included for visual reference to some of the text below. Photos by the author.

Sometimes certain recording sessions prove to be particularly fecund, if not downright one for the ages.  That was especially the case, for example, when Artie Shaw and his band cut the legendary record “Begin the Beguine,” in addition to other greats such as “Any Old Time,” “Back Bay Shuffle,” “Yesterdays,” and so on, all on July 24, 1938 for RCA Bluebird.  It happens that way in recording sessions, sometimes:  things just happen to click, and one great record after another is put to acetate for all of posterity to appreciate.

Such turned out not to be the case with the recording session the Billie Holiday undertook 75 years ago today (Sept. 15) for the Vocalion label (a Columbia subsidiary at the time), this being contrary to that which I wrote in this very article earlier.  I apologize for misleading the readers, as I did get my discography information incorrect, which led to the inaccurate info.  Nevertheless, these are two incredible, timeless records that were produced in 1938, and both just so happened to be the [arguably] definitive versions of two songs that definitely belong in the Great American Songbook.

One is “You Go to My Head.”  Written by the relatively obscure duo of J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie — interestingly, the same pair that wrote “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”; seriously! — the song itself has been recorded by numerous artists and has become a venerable pop/jazz standard over the course of three-quarters of a century.  Nan Wynn and Teddy Wilson (on piano, naturally) took a stab at the song the same year Lady Day cut her version.  Marlene Dietrich recorded a version the following year, and in the years since then, luminaries including Frank Sinatra (1946 and 1960), Lena Horne, Doris Day (1949), Charlie Barnett, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Dinah Washington (1954), Dinah Shore, Patti Page (1956), Louis Armstrong (1957), Ella Fitzgerald (of course; 1960), and many others all have a version under their respective, figurative belts.

An outstanding yet relatively obscure version was done live in 1938 by Benny Goodman and his band during a Camel Caravan radio broadcast from Chicago, with Martha Tilton on vocals.  Goodman’s sound and ‘take’ on the tune certainly did it justice, as is the case with most Goodman records.  But the one that stands out above all is Billie Holiday’s version from that same year (she actually cut this track on May 11, 1938, not Sept. 15, as originally posted).

How could it not?  The very first thing the listener hears — and never forgets it when he/she does for the first time — is a fantastic opening tenor sax solo by Babe Russin (a member of Goodman’s band at the time, though the year prior capped off the legendary Tommy Dorsey record “Marie” with another great solo!) that simply oozes Art Deco imagery in the listener’s mind.  For best effect, try hearing the record while beholding the styling craftsmanship of, say, a 1938 Cadillac or Packard!  Claude Thornhill on piano and Cozy Cole on the drums make for a nice touch, too.

But that’s just the beginning.  Holiday’s expressiveness was practically tailor-made for the lyrics, and how they so accurately personify the incredible sensations one experiences of adoring “the one”, the potential significant other, despite how diligently the rational side of our minds tries to remind us of key apprehensions.  Hear for yourself!

On a related note is another love song, one just as timeless, and that being “The Very Thought of You.”  (And this was recorded on Sept. 15, 1938!)  The lyrics focus more so on the pure adoration aspect regarding the feelings one has for a significant other, and how “the one” tends to become the center of one’s focus.

Sid Ascher — later the manager of Tony Bennett — wrote the song in 1934, and sold the rights to the great British bandleader Ray Noble, who cut a fine version of it that year with Al Bowlly providing the vocals.  Bing Crosby himself did his own version that same year.  Vaughn Monroe recorded his rendition a decade later, and the inclined movie connoisseur can hear a band-accompanied piano instrumental of the song during a scene inside Rick’s Cafe Americain in the 1942 hit film “Casablanca.”  Doris Day later sang a version of the song for the 1950 film “Young Man with a Horn.” Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Nat “King” Cole all have their respective versions (the latter of which is particularly lovely), and Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett recorded a duet of it together.

But as is the case with the previously-examined song, Billie Holiday’s version stands out above the others.

A rather modern, repeated reference to this record can be heard throughout the 1992 film “Forever Young” with Mel Gibson; the song being used as something of a constant, a source of continuity, a bridge to two very different eras and how certain things were meant to stand the test of time, much like the song itself.

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!

America’s Greatest Music, entry 08-04-13 August 4, 2013

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Inspiration hit me over the course of this weekend to share with friends and/or readers alike the many splendors of the golden age of American Popular music.  The era of this golden age is rather lengthy (more than three decades; to be defined more precisely at a later time), and thus what becomes truly vexing is where to begin.  Then again, if one were to continuously vacillate over the myriads of delectable options, one would never decide on a starting point to begin with, and no articles on this marvelous subject would be written.

So, to borrow a decision-making technique in the business management world known as “satisficing,” I’ll go with an example that is as good as any.  It has been a great weekend for yours truly, largely defined by an occasion — without going into excessive detail — that has left me in the best of moods.  It is only therefore fitting that we first take a look and a listen at the designated song below.  Moreover, the record in question turned 60 years old earlier this year, thus further augmenting the appropriateness of the occasion.

The chosen song in question is “I’ve Got the World on a String” by Frank Sinatra.  Ol’ Blue Eyes made a smash debut with this tune in light of his recent switch from Columbia to Capitol Records in 1953.  Recorded in April of that year, it set the upbeat tone for Sinatra’s body of work with Capitol for the next eight years.  The song itself was already 21 years old at the time, written by the notable duo of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler in 1932 (they would also write a number of other timeless tunes in the Great American Songbook, including, for example, “Stormy Weather“).  Louis Armstrong produced a wonderful version of it the following year (1933), and in subsequent years would be covered by Lee Wiley (1940), Louis Prima (1957), Ella Fitzgerald and Jo Stafford (both 1960), Diana Krall (1995), Barry Manilow (1998), and even Celine Dion (2004) and Michael Buble (2007).

But Frank Sinatra’s 1953 version clearly stands out above all others.  Behold, listen to, and appreciate the record that set the tone for arguably the best era of the body of work for the Voice of the Century!