Mack the Knife

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Mack the Knife
by Kurt Weill
Native nameDie Moritat von Mackie Messer
GenreMoritat
TextBertolt Brecht
LanguageGerman
Published31 August 1928 (1928-08-31)

"Mack the Knife" or "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" (German: "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer") is a song composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht for their 1928 music drama The Threepenny Opera (German: Die Dreigroschenoper). The song sings about a knife-wielding criminal of the London underworld from the musical named Macheath, the "Mack the Knife" of the title.

The song has become a popular standard recorded by many artists after it was recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1955. The most popular version of the song was by Bobby Darin in 1959, whose recording became a number one hit in the US and UK and earned him two Grammys. Ella Fitzgerald also received a Grammy for her performance of the song in 1961.

The Threepenny Opera[edit]

Composer and lyricist of "Mack the Knife"

A Moritat 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 whose crimes included rape and murder, and transforming him into a modern antihero.

The song was a last-minute addition that was inserted before its premiere 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.[1] 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 premiere, the song was sung by Kurt Gerron, who played Police Chief Brown. Weill intended the Moritat to be accompanied by a barrel organ, which was to be played by the singer.[2] 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.[3]

The Moritat singer performs the song at the start of the play. The song begins by comparing Macheath to a shark, followed by tales of his crimes, including a murder on the Strand, the disappearance of a wealthy man and theft of his money, a fatal stabbing of woman, an arson that killed seven children in Soho, and the rape of a young widow.[4] The first stanza reads:

The final stanza – not included in the original play, but added by Brecht for the 1931 film – expresses the theme and compares the glittering world of the rich and powerful with the dark world of the poor:[4]

French translation[edit]

The song was translated into French as "La complainte de Mackie" by André Mauprey and Ninon Steinhoff and popularized by Catherine Sauvage.[6]

1954 Blitzstein translation[edit]

Marc Blitzstein translated the best-known English version of the song

The song was 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.[7] 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,[8] the opening stanza reads:

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[9]

Blitzstein's version is a loose translation of the German lyrics; some lines on the crimes of Macheath have been omitted, and he included a verse not in the original, giving a list of female characters in the drama.[10] The lyrics were further sanitized in the original Broadway cast recording (with Gerald Price as the ballad singer) with two stanzas on Macheath's assaults on women replaced.[11] Blitzstein's translation provides the basis for most of the popular versions heard today, including those by Louis Armstrong (1955) and Bobby Darin (1959; Darin's lyrics differ slightly), and most subsequent swing versions. In Armstrong's recording, the name of Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, who was the star of both the original 1928 German production and the 1954 Blitzstein Broadway version, was added to the lyrics ("Look out, Miss Lotte Lenya").[4] The Armstrong version was later used by Bobby Darin.

1976 Manheim–Willett extension ("Moritat")[edit]

In 1976, a brand-new interpretation of "Mack the Knife" by Ralph Manheim and John Willett was used in the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of The Threepenny Opera, starring Raul Julia as Macheath. This version, simply known as "Moritat", is an extension of the story with completely new lyrics that expound upon the tales of Macheath's trail of activity. Here is an excerpt:

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 version was performed by Lyle Lovett on the soundtrack of the 1994 film Quiz Show. Darin's version plays over the opening credits and Lovett's over the closing credits. This interpretation was performed by Sting on Hal Willner's 1985 Weill tribute album Lost in the Stars and also recorded by Nick Cave in the late 1990s.

1994 translation[edit]

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.

Popular recordings[edit]

"A Theme from The Threepenny Opera (Mack the Knife)"
Mack The Knife Coronet.jpg
Single by Louis Armstrong
B-side"Back O'Town Blues"
Released1955
RecordedNew York City
28 September 1955[12]
GenreJazz
Length3:25
LabelColumbia, Coronet
Songwriter(s)Kurt Weill
Bertolt Brecht
Marc Blitzstein (English lyrics)
Turk Murphy (arranger)

Louis Armstrong version[edit]

A number of early artists recorded the song, including the cast recording and a jazz version by Sidney Bechet,[13] but it was Louis Armstrong who first introduced the vocal version of "Mack the Knife" to the United States hit parade. George Avakian, a producer at Columbia Records, whose wife Anahid Ajemian gave a recital of Weill's Violin Concerto in 1954, became interested in Weill's music, in particular the song from the off-Broadway production of Three Penny Opera that he had seen. He spent a few months trying to interest various jazz artists from his label to record "Mack the Knife".[14] eventually persuading Turk Murphy to record. Murphy also suggested Armstrong to Avakian for the recording,[4] and made an arrangement of the song for him.[15]

Armstrong recorded an instrumental together with a vocal version on September 28, 1955, while Murphy also recorded both instrumental version and vocal versions himself as well as one in German with Lotte Lenya on September 22, 1955.[13] The lyrics of Armstrong's version were based on the Broadway cast recording, but Avakian suggested changing Blitzstein's lyrics by using the word "drooping" instead of "dropping", as well as including the name of Lotte Lenya in the recording.[4] Armstrong gave a shout-out in the song to Lenya who was invited to the recording session by Avakian. Lenya also joined Armstrong to record a duet version which was not released commercially.[16] Armstrong's released version was spliced together from the instrumental recording and the vocal version.[13]

The song titled "A Theme from The Threepenny Opera (Mack the Knife)" was released in late 1955 together with an instrumental version by Murphy, both by Columbia.[14] The song, however, faced an initial ban on the song by radio stations for lyrics perceived as glorification of a criminal, although it sold well.[16] Armstrong's recording reached Billboard's Top 100 chart in February 1956, peaking at No 20 on March 17, 1956.[17][18] An instrumental version released by Dick Hyman charted higher.[16] Armstrong's version also reached No. 8 in the UK.[19]

Armstrong's recording was inducted by the Library of Congress in the National Recording Registry in 2016.[20]

Charts[edit]

Chart (1956) Peak
position
Netherlands (Single Top 100)[21] 3
UK Singles (OCC)[19] 8
US The Top 100 (Billboard)[18] 20

Bobby Darin version[edit]

"Mack the Knife"
Mack the Knife Bobby Darin.jpg
Single by Bobby Darin
from the album That's All
B-side"Was There a Call for Me"
ReleasedAugust 1959
RecordedDecember 19, 1958, at Fulton Studios, New York City
Genre
Length3:11 (Album version)
3:04 (Single version)
LabelAtco (U.S.)
London Records (UK)
Songwriter(s)Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht
Marc Blitzstein (English version)
Bobby Darin singles chronology
"Dream Lover"
(1959)
"Mack the Knife"
(1959)
"Beyond the Sea"
(1959)

The song, however, is most closely associated with Bobby Darin, who recorded his version on December 19, 1958 for his album That's All. Darin had performed the song in his act for before, and wanted to include the song in an album of standards. The song was arranged by Richard Wess.[23] Musicians on the song included Don Lamond on drums, Milt Hinton on bass, and Doc Severinsen on trumpet.[24] with Tom Dowd engineering the recording.[citation needed] Darin performed with the song lyrics similar to Armstrong's version with small changes, such as using the word "babe" instead of "dear', and he ended the song with a reprise of the sixth verse instead of the first.[13] Darin recorded the song in around three takes, performing the song with an up-tempo bouncy beat,[25] and modulating up a semitone every verse starting with the third verse, from B flat to B to C to D flat to E flat.[4]

The song was released as a single in August 1959, even though Darin was reluctant to release the song as a single.[26] The song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and number six on the Black Singles Chart.[27][28] It was listed as a Cash Box Top 100 number one single in 1959 for eight weeks.[29] Dick Clark had advised Darin not to record the song because of the perception that, having come from an opera, it would not appeal to the rock and roll audience; he subsequently acknowledged his error.[30]

Reception[edit]

Frank Sinatra, who recorded the song with Quincy Jones on his L.A. Is My Lady album, called Darin's the "definitive" version.[4]

Bobby Darin took the song by the scruff of the neck and turned it into the swing classic widely known today. Unlike the Brecht-Weill original, which remains in the same key throughout, Darin's version changes key, chromatically, no fewer than five times, ratcheting up the tension. – Financial Times[31]

Billboard ranked this version as the No. 2 song for 1959.[32] In 2003, the Darin version was ranked No. 251 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list.[33] Darin's version of the song was featured in the films Quiz Show and What Women Want.

The song earned Darin two Grammy Awards in 1959, for Record of the Year and first ever Best New Artist.[34] Darin's version was also inducted by the Library of Congress in the National Recording Registry at the same time as Armstrong's in 2016.[20] It was ranked as No. 15 in the list of Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.[35]

Charts[edit]

Chart (1959) Peak
position
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[36] 11
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Wallonia)[37] 15
Canada (CHUM Hit Parade)[38] 1
Netherlands (Single Top 100)[39] 14
Norway (VG-lista)[40] 9
UK Singles (OCC)[41] 1
US Billboard Hot 100[42] 1
US Cash Box[43] 1
West Germany (Official German Charts)[44] 31

Other versions[edit]

Instrumental version of "Mack the Knife" titled "Moritat – A Theme From "The Three Penny Opera"" was recorded by Dick Hyman,[4] and it performed better Louis Armstrong's vocal version which charted around the same time, reaching No. 10 on Billboard's Top 100.[45] It also reached No. 9 on the Cashbox chart,[46] as well as No. 9 on the UK chart in 1956.[47] A number of other instrumental versions also appeared on The Top 100 at the same time: Richard Hayman and Jan August (No. 12),[48] Lawrence Welk (No. 31),[49] Billy Vaughn (No. 37), and Les Paul and Mary Ford (No.49).[48] Billy Vaughn also reached No. 12 in the UK.[50]

Ella Fitzgerald made a notable live recording in 1960 (released on Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife) during which, after forgetting the lyrics after the first stanza, she improvised new lyrics, including name-checking Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin.[51] The performance earned her a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 3rd Annual Grammy Awards.[52] This version made the US Hot 100, peaking at No. 27.[53]

Frank Sinatra added the song to his repertoire in 1984 in an arrangement by Frank Foster;[4] In the performance included in his album L.A. Is My Lady, Sinatra similarly name-checked Armstrong and Darin, as well as adding members of his backing band.[51] Sinatra and Jimmy Buffett recorded a duet of the song for Sinatra's final album Duets II (1994).

Nick Cave and Spanish Fly performed the song for the video September Songs – The Music of Kurt Weill in 1994, released as an album in 1997.[54] while Sting and Dominic Muldowney recorded it for the 1985 tribute album Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill.[55]

Other notable versions include performances by Mark Lanegan, Dave Van Ronk, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tony Bennett, Anita O'Day (in an arrangement by Jimmy Giuffre), Bing Crosby, Marianne Faithfull, Brian Setzer, Dr. John, Ute Lemper, King Kurt,[56] Kevin Spacey, The Psychedelic Furs, David Cassidy (in At the Copa), Westlife, and Michael Bublé. Swiss band The Young Gods radically reworked the song in industrial style on their 1991 album The Young Gods Play Kurt Weill, 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. Ray Conniff recorded a version for orchestra and chorus in 1962 for the album, The Happy Beat. Deana Martin recorded "Mack the Knife" on her second studio album, Volare, released in 2009 by Big Fish Records. Robbie Williams recorded the song on his 2001 album Swing When You're Winning.[57] Hildegard Knef recorded a German version, "Mackie Messer".[58]

Salsa musician Rubén Blades recorded an homage entitled "Pedro Navaja" (Razor Pete).[59] Brazilian composer Chico Buarque, in his loose adaptation of Threepenny Opera (Ópera do Malandro), made two versions called "O Malandro" and "O Malandro № 2", with lyrics in Portuguese. Liberace performed the song in five styles: as originally written, in the style of the "Blue Danube Waltz", as a music box, in a bossa nova rhythm, and in boogie-woogie.[60]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Friedwald 2002, p. 79.
  2. ^ Farneth, David (2000). Kurt Weill: A Life in Pictures and Documents. Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press. pp. 75–78. ISBN 0-87951-721-2.
  3. ^ Friedwald 2002, pp. 81–82.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Mack the Knife – Sinatra Song of the Century #95" by Mark Steyn, 8 December 2015
  5. ^ Bernard N. Lee Jr (2017). Michele Barard (ed.). A Look Back in Time: Memoir of a Military Kid in the 50s. Vol. 2. Conyers, Georgia: Bernard N. Lee Jr. p. 55. ISBN 978-0-9995576-0-0.
  6. ^ "Song: La complainte de Mackie". Secondhandsongs.com. Retrieved 8 October 2014.
  7. ^ "Threepenny Opera (Cochran/Krimsky)". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  8. ^ "Threepenny Opera (Blitzstein)". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  9. ^ Louis Armstrong – Mack The Knife Lyrics, lyricsfreak.com
  10. ^ McLamore, Alyson (2016). Musical Theater: An Appreciation. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9781317346333.
  11. ^ Pollack, Howard (2012). Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World. Oxford University Press USA. p. 362. ISBN 9780199791590.
  12. ^ Jos Willems (2006). All of Me: The Complete Discography of Louis Armstrong. Scarecrow Press. p. 257. ISBN 978-0-8108-5730-8. Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  13. ^ a b c d Pollack, Howard (2012). Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World. Oxford University Press USA. ISBN 9780199791590.
  14. ^ a b "Unorthodox Events Lead to 2 Disks". Billboard. October 29, 1955.
  15. ^ Gleason, Ralph J. (2016). Music in the Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason. Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300221091.
  16. ^ a b c Gordon, Eric A. (1989). Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein. St Martins' Press. p. 396. ISBN 9780312026073.
  17. ^ Collier, James Lincoln (1983). Louis Armstrong, an American Genius. Oxford University Press. p. 321. ISBN 9780195037272.
  18. ^ a b "The Top 100". Billboard. March 17, 1956. p. 44.
  19. ^ a b "Louis Armstrong: Artist Chart History". Official Charts Company.
  20. ^ a b "New Entries to National Recording Registry". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2016-08-29.
  21. ^ "Louis Armstrong & His All-Stars – Mack the Knife" (in Dutch). Single Top 100.
  22. ^ Burke, Ken (January 1, 1998). "Bobby Darin". In Knopper, Steve (ed.). MusicHound Lounge: The Essential Album Guide. Detroit: Visible Ink Press. p. 121.
  23. ^ ""Mack the Knife"—Bobby Darin (1959). Added to the National Registry: 2015. Essay by Jimmy Scalia" (PDF). Loc.gov. Retrieved March 14, 2022.
  24. ^ Starr, Michael Seth (2011). Bobby Darin: A Life. Taylor Trade Publishing. p. 36. ISBN 9781589795983.
  25. ^ Starr, Michael Seth (2011). Bobby Darin: A Life. Taylor Trade Publishing. p. 37–38. ISBN 9781589795983.
  26. ^ "Big Rock Candy Mountain: Rock 'n' roll in the late fifties. [Part 3]: Track 2: Bobby Darin". Pop Chronicles.
  27. ^ "That's All – Bobby Darin". AllMusic.
  28. ^ " 'Mack the Knife' by Bobby Darin", songfacts.com
  29. ^ "Cash Box Pop Singles – 1959", Cashbox
  30. ^ "Bobby Darin & Dick Clark". www.bobbydarin.net.
  31. ^ Cheal, David (January 15, 2016). "The Life of a Song: 'Mack the Knife'". Financial Times. Archived from the original on 2022-12-10.
  32. ^ "Billboard Top 100 – 1959". Archived from the original on January 2, 2014. Retrieved January 13, 2011.
  33. ^ "500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. December 11, 2003.
  34. ^ "2nd Annual GRAMMY Awards". GRAMMY.com. November 28, 2017.
  35. ^ "Songs of the Century". CNN. March 7, 2001.
  36. ^ "Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50.
  37. ^ "Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife" (in French). Ultratop 50.
  38. ^ "CHUM Hit Parade, week of October 19, 1959".
  39. ^ "Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife" (in Dutch). Single Top 100.
  40. ^ "Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife". VG-lista.
  41. ^ "Bobby Darin: Artist Chart History". Official Charts Company.
  42. ^ "Bobby Darin Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard.
  43. ^ "The Cash Box Best-Selling Singles: Week ending October 10, 1959". Tropicalglen.com.
  44. ^ "Offiziellecharts.de – Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife". GfK Entertainment charts.
  45. ^ "The Top 100". Billboard. March 3, 1956. p. 46.
  46. ^ "The Cash Box Best-Selling Singles: Week ending February 25, 1956". Tropicalglen.com.
  47. ^ "Dick Hyman Trio". The Official Charts Company.
  48. ^ a b "The Top 100". Billboard. March 17, 1956. p. 44.
  49. ^ "The Top 100". Billboard. March 24, 1956. p. 42.
  50. ^ "Billy Vaughn". The Official Charts Company.
  51. ^ a b Perone, James E. (2016). Smash Hits: The 100 Songs That Defined America. ABC-CLIO. p. 83. ISBN 9781440834691.
  52. ^ "Ella Fitzgerald". GRAMMY.com. November 23, 2020.
  53. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2013). Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles, 14th Edition: 1955-2012. Record Research. p. 298.
  54. ^ Bambarger, Bradley (August 23, 1997). "Sony Classical Tribute Taps into the Legacy of Kurt Weill". Billboard. p. 9.
  55. ^ Viglione, Joe. Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill at AllMusic. Retrieved 18 July 2011.
  56. ^ "King Kurt – Mack The Knife". Discogs. Retrieved 6 February 2021.
  57. ^ "www.allmusic.com". allmusic.com. Retrieved August 3, 2022.
  58. ^ ""Mack the Knife" Lyrics in German". ThoughtCo. February 24, 2020.
  59. ^ "Pedro Navaja". MaestraVida.com. Retrieved 8 October 2014.
  60. ^ Liberace performs "Mack the Knife" on The Ed Sullivan Show on YouTube (note: this performance omits the music box version).

Sources

External links[edit]