Mack the Knife
|"Mack the Knife"|
|Published||31 August 1928|
"Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" (later known as "Mack the Knife" or "The Ballad of Mack the Knife") 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 and UK number one hit for Bobby Darin in 1959.
The Threepenny Opera
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 and has been transformed into a modern anti-hero.
The play opens with the Moritat singer comparing Macheath (unfavorably) with a shark and then telling tales of his crimes: arson, robbery, rape, murder.
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. 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. 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.
Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne,
And the shark, it has teeth,
1954 Blitzstein translation
|"A Theme from The Threepenny Opera (Mack the Knife)"|
|Single by Louis Armstrong|
|B-side||"Back O' Town Blues"|
|Recorded||New York City|
28 September 1955
|Songwriter(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 heard 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 ("Look out, Miss Lotte Lenya"), which already named several of Macheath's female victims. The Armstrong version was later used by Bobby Darin.
The rarely heard final stanza — not included in the original play, but added by Brecht for the 1931 movie—expresses the theme and compares the glittering world of the rich and powerful with the dark world of the poor:
Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln
There are some who are in darkness
1976 Manheim–Willett extension ("Moritat")
In 1976, a brand-new interpretation of "Mack the Knife" by Ralph Manheim and John Willett opened on Broadway, later made into a movie version starring Raúl Juliá as Mackie. 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 and Lovett's versions play over the opening and closing credits, respectively. This interpretation was recorded by Sting and Nick Cave in the later part of the 1990s.
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|
|Genre||Traditional pop, jazz|
|Length||3:11 (Album version)|
3:04 (Single version)
|Songwriter(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 would not appeal to the rock and 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. Billboard ranked this version as the No. 2 song for 1959. Darin's version was No. 3 on Billboard's All Time Top 100. In 2003, the Darin version was ranked #251 on Rolling Stone's "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. Darin's version of the song was featured in the movies Quiz Show and What Women Want. Both Armstrong and Darin's versions were inducted by the Library of Congress in the National Recording Registry in 2016.
A German language version (sung by Wolfgang Neuss), was appropriated for a series of humorous and surreal blackout skits by television pioneer Ernie Kovacs, showing, between skits, the soundtrack displayed on an oscilloscope.
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 stanza, she improvised new lyrics in a performance that earned her a Grammy Award. Robbie Williams 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.
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Other notable versions include performances by Mark Lanegan, Dave Van Ronk, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, Marianne Faithfull, Nick Cave, Brian Setzer, Dr. John, 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. Deana Martin recorded "Mack the Knife" on her second studio album, Volare, released in 2009 by Big Fish Records. Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Buffett recorded a duet of the song for Sinatra's final album Duets II.
Tito Puente and Dick Hyman recorded instrumental versions. 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 № 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 what Liberace considered a popular American style, boogie-woogie.
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The song has been parodied numerous 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". There was a skit on The Muppet Show, where the characters play upon the sinister nature of the lyrics. American political parodists the Capitol Steps used the tune for their song "Pack the Knife" on their 2002 album When Bush Comes to Shove.
- Friedwald 2002, p. 79.
- 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 2002, pp. 81–82.
- "Song: La complainte de Mackie". Secondhandsongs.com. Retrieved 8 October 2014.
- 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.
- Threepenny Opera (Cochran/Krimsky) at the Internet Broadway Database
- Threepenny Opera (Blitzstein) at the Internet Broadway Database
- Bobby Darin interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
- "Greatest of All Time Hot 100 Singles : Page 1". Billboard. Retrieved 2016-08-29.
- "New Entries to National Recording Registry". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2016-08-29.
- on YouTube
- "Pedro Navaja". MaestraVida.com. Retrieved 8 October 2014.
- on YouTube (note: this performance omits the music box version).
- on YouTube
- Friedwald, Will (2002). Stardust Melodies: The Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs. New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-375-42089-4.