Mack the Knife
"Mack the Knife" or "The Ballad of Mack the Knife", originally "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer", is a song composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht for their music drama Die Dreigroschenoper, or, as it is known in English, The Threepenny Opera. It premiered in Berlin in 1928 at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. The song has become a popular standard recorded by many artists, including a US number one hit for Bobby Darin.
The Threepenny Opera
A moritat (from mori meaning "deadly" and tat meaning "deed") is a medieval version of the murder ballad performed by strolling minstrels. In The Threepenny Opera, the moritat singer with his street organ introduces and closes the drama with the tale of the deadly Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife, a character based on the dashing highwayman Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (who was in turn based on the historical thief Jack Sheppard). The Brecht-Weill version of the character was far more cruel and sinister, and has been transformed into a modern anti-hero.
The song was a last minute addition, inserted just before its première in 1928, because Harald Paulsen, the actor who played Macheath, demanded that Brecht and Weill add another number that would more effectively introduce his character. However, Weill and Brecht decided the song should not be sung by Macheath himself, opting instead to write the song for a street singer in keeping with the moritat tradition. At the première, the song was sung by Kurt Gerron, who played Police Chief Brown. Weill also intended the Moritat to be accompanied by a barrel organ, which was to be played by the singer. At the premiere, though, the barrel organ failed, and the pit orchestra (a jazz band) had to quickly provide the accompaniment for the street singer. 
Original German text
|German||Literal English translation|
1954 Blitzstein translation
|"A Theme from The Threepenny Opera (Mack the Knife)"|
|Single by Louis Armstrong|
|B-side||"Back O' Town Blues"|
|Recorded||Los Angeles, California
28 September, 1955
Coronet KS-349 (pictured, reached Nº1 in Australia)
|Writer(s)||Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, English lyrics Marc Blitzstein, arr. Turk Murphy|
The song was first introduced to American audiences in 1933 in the first English-language production of The Threepenny Opera. The English lyrics were by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky. That production, however, was not successful, closing after a run of only ten days. In the best known English translation, from the Marc Blitzstein 1954 version of The Threepenny Opera, which played Off-Broadway for over six years, the words are:
- Oh the shark has pretty teeth dear,
- And he shows them pearly white
- Just a jack-knife has Macheath dear
- And he keeps it out of sight.
Blitzstein's translation provides the basis for most of the popular versions we know today, including those by Louis Armstrong (1956) and Bobby Darin (1959—Darin's lyrics differ slightly), and most subsequent swing versions. Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, the star of both the original 1928 German production and the 1954 Blitzstein Broadway version, was present in the studio during Armstrong's recording. He spontaneously added her name to the lyrics, which already named several of Macheath's female victims.
The rarely heard final verse—not included in the original play, but added by Brecht for the 1930 movie—expresses the theme, and compares the glittering world of the rich and powerful with the dark world of the poor:
1976 Manheim-Willett translation
- See the shark with teeth like razors
- All can read his open face
- And Macheath has got a knife, but
- Not in such an obvious place
This is the version later performed by Sting and Nick Cave. It is also the version performed by Lyle Lovett on the soundtrack of the film Quiz Show (1994)—the same movie features Darin's rendition over the opening credits.
A much darker translation by Robert David MacDonald and Jeremy Sams into English was used for the 1994 Donmar Warehouse theatrical production in London. The new translation attempted to recapture the original tone of the song:
- Though the shark's teeth may be lethal
- Still you see them white and red
- But you won't see Mackie's flick knife
- Cause he slashed you and you're dead
|"Mack the Knife"|
|Single by Bobby Darin|
|from the album That's All|
|B-side||"Was There a Call for Me"|
|Recorded||December 19, 1958 at Fulton Studios, New York City|
|Length||3:11 (Album version)
3:04 (Single version)
|Writer(s)||Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht
Marc Blitzstein, Turk Murphy (English version)
|Bobby Darin singles chronology|
"Mack the Knife" was introduced to the United States hit parade by Louis Armstrong in 1956, but the song is most closely associated with Bobby Darin, who recorded his version at Fulton Studios on West 40th Street, New York City, on December 19, 1958 (with Tom Dowd engineering the recording). Even though Darin was reluctant to release the song as a single, in 1959 it reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and number six on the Black Singles chart, and earned him a Grammy Award for Record of the Year. Dick Clark had advised Darin not to record the song because of the perception that, having come from an opera, it wouldn't appeal to the rock & roll audience. In subsequent years, Clark recounted the story with good humor. Frank Sinatra, who recorded the song with Quincy Jones on his L.A. Is My Lady album, called Darin's the "definitive" version. Darin's version hit #3 on Billboard's All Time Top 100. In 2003, the Darin version was ranked #251 on Rolling Stone's "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list. On BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, pop mogul Simon Cowell named "Mack the Knife" the best song ever written.
Brecht's original German language version was appropriated for a series of humorous and surreal blackout skits by television pioneer Ernie Kovacs, showing, between skits, the vibrating soundtrack line.
Ella Fitzgerald made a famous live recording in 1960 (released on Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife) in which, after forgetting the lyrics after the first verse, she improvised new lyrics in a performance that earned her a Grammy Award. Robbie Williams also recorded the song on his 2001 album Swing When You're Winning, and performed it as the first song after the arrival of the Queen during the Diamond Jubilee Concert in 2012, referencing Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie. Other notable versions include performances by Dave van Ronk, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tony Bennett, Marianne Faithfull, Nick Cave, Brian Setzer, Kevin Spacey, Westlife, and Michael Bublé. Swiss band The Young Gods radically reworked the song in industrial style, while jazz legend Sonny Rollins recorded an instrumental version entitled simply "Moritat" in 1956. A 1959 instrumental performance by Bill Haley & His Comets was the final song the group recorded for Decca Records. Tito Puente also recorded an instrumental version. Salsa musician Rubén Blades recorded an homage entitled "Pedro Navaja". Brazilian composer Chico Buarque, in his loose adaptation of Threepenny Opera (Ópera do Malandro), made two versions called "O Malandro" and "O Malandro No. 2", with lyrics in Portuguese.
The song has been parodied many times. Steve Martin parodied "Mack the Knife" in his opening monologue to the premiere of Saturday Night Live's third season in 1977. In the mid-1980s, McDonald's introduced Mac Tonight, a character whose signature song was based on "Mack the Knife." American political parodists the Capitol Steps used the tune for their song "Pack the Knife" on their 2002 album When Bush Comes to Shove.
The chorus to the song "Haifisch" (shark) by Rammstein is inspired by "Mack the Knife".
Selective list of recorded versions
- 1928/29 Bertolt Brecht
- 1954 Gerald Price, Broadway cast recording of The Threepenny Opera
- 1955 Lotte Lenya on the album Lotte Lenya Sings Berlin Theatre Songs of Kurt Weill
- 1956 Louis Armstrong #20 hit single
- 1957 Bing Crosby with Bob Scobey on the album Bing with a Beat
- 1958 Wolfgang Neuss with the Sender Freies Berlin Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Wilhem Brückner Rüggenburg (supervised and performed by Lotte Lenya) on the album Die Dreigroschenoper (CBS)
- 1959 Bobby Darin, U.S. and UK #1
- 1959 Eartha Kitt on the album The Fabulous Eartha Kitt
- 1960 Jimmy Smith on the album Crazy! Baby
- 1960 Ella Fitzgerald on the album Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife
- 1964 Dave Van Ronk on the albums Dave Van Ronk and the Ragtime Jug Stompers, in 1967 on Live at Sir George Williams University, and in 1992 on Let No One Deceive You
- 1965 Ben Webster on the album Stormy Weather
- 1968 The Doors on the album Live In Stockholm
- 1974 Mina on the album Baby Gate
- 1977 Peggy Lee on the album Live in London
- 1981 The Psychedelic Furs on the B-side of the single "Pretty in Pink", the 1994 album Here Came The Psychedelic Furs: B Sides and Lost Grooves, and the 2002 re-release of their self-titled first album
- 1984 Frank Sinatra on the album L.A. Is My Lady
- 1985 Sting on the album Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill
- 1986 Dagmar Krause on the album Supply and Demand
- 1988 Ute Lemper on the album Ute Lemper sings Kurt Weill
- 1990 Roger Daltrey on the film soundtrack Mack the Knife
- Kenny Garrett on the album African Exchange Student
- 1991 The Young Gods on the album Play Kurt Weill
- 1994 Lyle Lovett on the soundtrack to Quiz Show
- 1995 Nick Cave on the album September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill
- 1999 Max Raabe on the album Die Dreigroschenoper, Ensemble Modern
- 2000 The Brian Setzer Orchestra on the album Vavoom!
- 2001 Robbie Williams on the album Swing When You're Winning
- 2014 Mark Lanegan on the album Imitations
- Friedwald, Will (2002). Stardust Melodies: The Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs. New York: Pantheon Books. p. 79. ISBN 0-375-42089-4.
- Farneth, David (2000). Kurt Weill: A Life in Pictures and Documents. Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press. pp. 75–78. ISBN 0-87951-721-2.
- Friedwald, Will (2002). Stardust Melodies: The Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 81–82. ISBN 0-375-42089-4.
- Song: La complainte de Mackie at secondhandsongs.com
- Threepenny Opera | IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information
- Threepenny Opera | IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information
- Bobby Darin interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969).
- The Billboard Hot 100 All-Time Top Songs (10–01) (July 2008)
- Pedro Navaja on MaestraVida.com
- "Mackie Messer" sung by Lotte Lenya on YouTube (3:39)
- Bertolt Brecht sings "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" on YouTube (2:48)
- Everything you ever wanted to know about "Mack the Knife"
- Bobby Darin "Mack the Knife" website
- What's the story behind "Mack the Knife"? (The Straight Dope)
- ibdb.com info on the 7 Broadway productions
- Steve Martin's comedy monologue on Saturday Night Live parodying "Mack the Knife"