Mack the Knife through the ages

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
And it shows them pearly white
Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe
And he keeps it, ah, out of sight
Ya know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe
Scarlet billows start to spread
Fancy gloves, oh, wears old MacHeath, babe
So there’s never, never a trace of red

Now on the sidewalk, huh, huh, whoo Sunday morning, un huh
Lies a body just oozin’ life, eek
And someone’s sneakin’ ’round the corner
Could that someone be Mack the Knife?

There’s a tugboat, huh, huh, down by the river don’tcha know
Where a cement bag’s just a’drooppin’ on down
Oh, that cement is for, just for the weight, dear
Five’ll get ya ten old Macky’s back in town
Now d’ja hear ’bout Louie Miller? He disappeared, babe
After drawin’ out all his hard-earned cash
And now MacHeath spends just like a sailor
Could it be our boy’s done somethin’ rash?

Now Jenny Diver, ho, ho, yeah, Sukey Tawdry
Ooh, Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown
Oh, that line forms on the right, babe
Now that Macky’s back in town

I said Jenny Diver, whoa, Sukey Tawdry
Look out to Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown
Yes, that line forms on the right, babe
Now that Macky’s back in town
Look out, old Macky’s back

— Lyrics from the Bobby Darin version of “Mack The Knife”

By Bill Bronk

It’s early on a Sunday morning. The fog is thick, enveloping everything it touches.  Lying on the sidewalk is a body, bleeding out…slowly losing life.  Meanwhile, some of the town folk are speculating that MacHeath, a mysterious killer who sneaks around town trolling for his victims may have returned to his old neighborhood. He’s a murderer who’s not only handy with a knife; he’s a dandy who likes to wear gloves when he’s out doing his thing. (It helps to keep everything nice and tidy).

Oh, and in addition to being a big spender, he has a fancy for tugboats and cement bags!  Could it be…. that’s why Louis Miller went missing after visiting his bank to make a withdrawal of some of his hard-earned cash? Like the deadly, razor-sharp bite of a shark on the hunt for prey, MacHeath swiftly and stealthily goes about doing his dastardly deeds with, not a scalpel-like blade, but…to get right to the point… just a jack knife.

That grave scenario is the underlying premise, or gist (albeit a wee bit colorfully) of the lyrics that starkly capture the storyline behind  “Mack The Knife,” one of the most unusual, but highly popular songs of the mid-to-late 1950s. Who would have thought that a song about a sadistic, blood-thirsty killer would become a mega-hit? Like the folk song “Tom Dooley” (Capitol 45 F4049), a Kingston Trio chartbuster from 1958, which was loosely based on the true story of Thomas C. Dula, convicted and hung for stabbing his old girlfriend with a knife, “Mack The Knife” is kinda/sorta based on the real life exploits of a charming London thief named Tom Sheppard.

While “Tom Dooley” is more a tale of murder, “Mack The Knife” seems more akin to a tale of horror….bringing to mind the stories about “Jack the Ripper,” or even  the 1953 “House of Wax” movie about a sculptor who skulks around the neighborhood, murders his victims, covers their bodies with wax, props them up and displays them in his museum. Perhaps it’s the cutting-edge methodology MacHeath uses to slay his victims, the peculiar particulars of his nautical dispersion of the corpses… or the other-worldly creepiness factor which draws people to “Mack The Knife.” After all, who doesn’t like a good goose-bump story; you know…the kind that will raise-the-hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck.

Ah! But this isn’t just a startling tale of hellish mayhem, this is about an iconic, globally recognized pop standard whose melodic hook is hauntingly beautiful, even hypnotic; it grabs hold of you, draws you in and doesn’t let go until… it’s darn ready to let you go.  It’s so good, so infectious, it’s almost like you don’t want the song to end.

So what is “Mack the Knife’s” genealogy; where did MacHeath and his wicked ditty come from? Well, MacHeath, our favorite anti-hero, first appeared on the scene about 285 years ago…in the satirical musical play “The Beggar’s Opera.” The comedy, written in 1728 by John Gay, an English poet and dramatist, used tunes composed by Georg Friedrich Handel, the German-born British Baroque composer, and is a parody of Handel’s style. As well, it panned Italian operas and satirized 1800s society and the British governing class.

But…the song we hold near and dear to our hearts had no relationship to the music score from that play. And believe it or not, “Mack the Knife” did not emanate from the pen of one of the Brill Building’s (Publishers Row, NYC) many prolific songwriters.

We do know, however, that early in his career…our MacHeath was a highwayman, but a bandit with a good heart, a man who was high-minded, noble and eschewed violence. While MacHeath had been around a good, long while…we have to jump ahead 200 years to 1928 — for the birth of “Moritat – The Threepenny Opera” (“die Dreigroschenoper”), a reincarnation of “The Beggar’s Opera” — to find MacHeath with a somewhat harder, nastier edge to him. He is now a gangster, a ringleader of a gang of robbers, but not yet the horrifying reprobate who lurks in the shadows in wait for his next victim.

The new,”Threepenny Opera” music score is credited to the genius of Kurt Weill, the German composer.  Working with his partner, Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright and lyricist who wrote the newly adapted text with co-writer, Elizabeth Hauptmann, they gave birth to “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” (“die Moritat von Mackie Messer”). This is where we hear for the first time the eerily enchanting tune that so aptly captures our attention…and breathes life into MacHeath and his mordant deviltry.

But stuff happens, and the song almost didn’t come to pass. Strange as it may seem, “Mack the Knife” itself was a last minute addition to the play, written shortly before the play opened…with the lyric written just the night before. The reason for the abrupt change? To assuage the ego of the actor portraying MacHeath…who lobbied hard to sing an opening number that would give himself a much grander entrance. After all, he was the star! But Brecht’s vision and imagination (plus a little diplomacy) saved the day and “Mackie” took the form of a moritat (a/k/a murderous deed), a popular middle ages type ballad sung by traveling minstrels that usually chronicled the heinous crimes of infamous murderers. In the end, the ballad was sung, not by the villainous MacHeath, but by the moritat street singer…who, appropriately enough, was a policeman.

We’ve witnessed MacHeath as he first took on the role of a high-minded highwayman and then as he became a hard-nosed gangster. But now we have to travel ahead another quarter century ’til we get the first inklings of how and where our boy developed the badass behavior that bred so much fear and trepidation into the hearts and minds of the town’s citizens.

For that we give kudos to Marc Blitzstein, an American composer and lyricist who wrote the most popular and widely-known version of the “Mack the Knife” lyrics…for a long-running 1954-61 Off-Broadway production of “The Threepenny Opera”…which premiered at the Theatre de Lys in New York City’s Greenwich Village on March 10, 1954. And yes, our MacHeath — via the revamped song’s more radical characterization of him — has now morphed into a larger-than-life depraved serial killer who is front and center one of the most unlikely but true objects of America’s (and the world’s) affections. There’s just something about Mackie that draws us to him and his grisly pursuits.

That something has to be the fusion of Blitzstein’s lyrics and Kurt Weill’s music. And it was the genesis of “Mack the Knife’s” world-wide popularity and the many and varied vocal and instrumental renditions of the song that were recorded…the best of which frequently popped up on America’s juke boxes, radios and music charts.

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The original 1954 cast recording of “The Threepenny Opera” (MGM LP E3121)

The original 1954 cast recording of “The Threepenny Opera” (MGM LP E3121) had Gerald Price, as The Streetsinger, singing “Mack the Knife,” and giving us the first real look at the new, more notorious MacHeath and what he likes to do in his spare time. It’s safe to say that Mackie is a cut above the-run-of-the-mill wannabes who choose that most inappropriate of avocations.

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Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Mack the Knife” (Columbia 40587)

Not long after the cast recording was released, Turk Murphy, a well-known jazz trombonist, and His Band recorded a Dixieland jazz version of “Mack the Knife” for Columbia in 1955 (Columbia 78 40586; 45 4-40586). Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong’s recording, with himself on vocals, also on Columbia (78 40587; 45 4-41471) followed  shortly thereafter in ’55, with Turk Murphy, interestingly, credited as the arranger. With his gravelly voice in full timbre and his trumpet leading the charge, “Satch” and his band cut a classic and swung their way into music history. The recording, which peaked at #20 on the Billboard charts early in ’56, was notable also for Armstrong’s inclusion in the song of Lotte Lenya, the wife of Kurt Weill, “The Threepenny Opera’s” composer. She had been visiting the studio and her presence was all the spark that was needed for him to extemporaneously slip in that great line “Look out, Miss Lotte Lenya,” excluding poor Polly Peachum (from the original lyric) in the process.

Early on, “Mack the Knife” was all over the airwaves. After the release of the original cast recording, between January and February of ’56, “Mack”recordings charted six times on Billboard …under three different titles:  “A Theme From the Threepenny Opera,” “Moritat – A Theme From the Threepenny Opera” and “Mack the Knife.” The only vocal during that time was the aforementioned “Mack” cut by “Satchmo.” The other five were instrumental versions. In January of ’56, Richard Hayman and Jan August (Mercury 45 70781) reached No. 11 on the Billboard charts with “A Theme From the Threepenny Opera.” Also in January of ’56, Billy Vaughn (Dot 45-15444) reached No. 37 on the charts with that same title. The Dick Hyman Trio (MGM 45 K-12149) peaked at No. 8 with “Moritat- A Theme From the Threepenny Opera” in January ’56. And in February ’56 both Lawrence Welk and His Sparkling Sextet (Coral 45 9-61594) and Les Paul (Capitol 45 F3329) also charted with “Moritat”… and their efforts reached as high as No. 17and No. 49 respectively. All in all,  an impressive showing for five “Mack” instrumentals at a time when rock ‘n’ roll was exploding on the charts.

Each one of the five instrumentals had something unique or special to offer that the listening public was drawn to. While there were some similarities in style and the musical instruments used…the differences were enough to set them apart and make the song their own. Les Paul’s guitar wizardry was spot-on while the accordion was up-front and personal on Lawrence Welk’s rendition. Versions by Billy Vaughn, Richard Hayman & Jan August and The Dick Hyman Trio cleverly used a harpsichord sounding instrument, most likely a rinky-tink or tack piano…which made each recording sound as though it was something from long out of the past. Hayman, a master harmonica player, enhanced his recording with bluesy but vibrant riffs throughout… while Vaughn and the Dick Hyman Trio began and ended their recordings — to great effect — with some eerie, unearthly whistling.

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Bobby Darin — “Mack The Knife” (Atco 45 6147)

Later in the ’50s…Bobby Darin (of  rock ‘n’ roll’s “Splish Splash” and “Queen of the Hop” fame) not only reached Billboard’s “Hot 100”, with “Mack The Knife” (Atco 45 6147; LP SD 33-131), he went all the way up to the pinnacle…#1 on the charts in 1959. Darin gave it everything he had. Starting out soft…and low, almost in a whisper he gives us the low-down on Mack, and as he picks up steam, increasing his volume and tempo, telling us about how bad-nasty this guy really is, he comes up with the swinging-est, snappiest, sassiest “Mack” of all. With great fervor and intensity…as he and the full power of the orchestra behind him crescendo toward the finale, in typical Darin style he spits out the warning…”Look out old Mackie is back:” Whew! Great stuff!

Darin’s “Mack the Knife” earned him the prestigious Grammy award for “Record of the Year” in 1959. His recording, one of the few early vocals, is across-the-board accepted as the best of the bunch. Even Frank Sinatra, one of the more pre-eminent balladeers of the 20th century, with a spirited, jazzed-up rendition of his own 1984 recording (Qwest 45 7-29139), summed up Darin’s artistry on the song best by saying Darin’s is “the definitive version.” Coming from “The Voice” himself, you can’t get any better praise than that!

One of our greatest jazz vocalists, Ella “Queen of Jazz” Fitzgerald, pulled off a remarkable musical feat herself in 1960 at the Deutschlandhallen in Germany’s West Berlin.  Accompanied by The Paul Smith Quartet she recorded live “Mack the Knife – Ella In Berlin” (Verve LP MG VS-64041; 45 V-10209X45) … making history with yet another classic “Mack the Knife” vocal performance. Even during her introduction of the song, as the piano and drums were playing softly behind her, she said “I hope we can remember all the words.” Well, she nailed the first three stanzas… but keeping her wits about her she ingeniously vamped and improvised the rest of the song…along the way paying homage to Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin. After her great scat-singing imitation of Satchmo she alluded to the fact that “Ella and her fellas were making a wreck of ‘Mack the Knife’.” Of course, the audience loved every minute of it. Her efforts won her the 1960 Grammy Awards for “Best Vocal Performance, Single Record, Female” and “Best Vocal Performance, Album, Female”.

Highlighted above are some of the best vocal and instrumental recordings of “Mack” that were produced during its heyday in the ’50s and early ’60s. But there are many other interesting and noteworthy efforts, including but not limited to: Bertolt Brecht, Lotte Lenya, Jimmy Smith (Blue Note 45 1766), Pete Fountain (Coral 45 65535), Sonny Rollins (Prestige LP 7079), Tito Puente (RCA 45 47-6417), Errol Garner (Reprise 45  20179), Quincy Jones (Mercury 45 71825), Jonah Jones (Capitol 45 EP  F1-839), Eartha Kitt ( Kapp LP KS-3046), Bing Crosby (RCA EAP 1-1473), Peggy Lee (Capitol EAP-41857), Arthur Fiedler (Time Life  STLS6011-J), Bill Haley & His Comets (Decca LP DL 78964) and Dave Van Ronk and the Ragtime Jug Stompers (Mercury LP MG 20864).

One more thing. In 1962 Ray Coniff, His Orchestra and Chorus recorded “The Happy Beat” album (Columbia LP CL 1949; 45 4-42685), which included their take on “A Theme From the Threepenny Opera.” It’s a real swinging arrangement and worth listening to. But for a special treat, go to youtube.com and watch as he, with gusto, directs his people in a couple different live performances of “Mack” that’ll knock your socks off. Using no words (to get in the way of the music’s exuberance), his choristers just sing “bah dah dah dot…bah dah dah dot” all the way through, their voices blending beautifully with the fully charged-up orchestra and enhancing the whole rip-roaring performance. And while they’re doing that, they are snapping their fingers, clapping their hands, swaying to and fro and dancing along with Coniff…who, all decked out in white, is bouncing around the stage, jumping in the air and having a grand old time. A rollicking good show!

“The Ballad of Mack the Knife” (“die Moritat von Mackie Messer”) almost did not happen. But…isn’t it great that it did? Yes, it is a macabre tale about a man who, as a character in a play and a song, over time, was transformed from a gentleman thief, to a hardened gangster to a depraved killer. But there’s something special about “Mack the Knife” that brought out the genius of those who wrote it and of those who performed it. With the talents of such icons as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Bobby Darin, we learned about MacHeath’s nefarious exploits through the wonderfully, wacky world of music and entertainment…where such wickedness, as in the golden days of yore, can be sung about and truly appreciated and enjoyed… but only as a guilty pleasure. And… only at a safe distance!

Is Mack still among us, creeping around, lurking in the shadows… doing what only he does best?  Maybe, but if not… who the heck is that sneakin’ around the corner? Perhaps it may be in your best interest to heed the warning so urgently uttered by Bobby Darin as he made his timely exit from…..

Eek!  “Look out old Mackie is back”!

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