Song 111 – Mack the Knife

SONG: Mack the Knife

ARTIST: Bobby Darin

YEAR: 1959

Listen to it here: 

THE SONG:

Mack the Knife, or The Ballad of Mack the Knife has a history long before Bobby Darin ever got his hands on it. It was originally a murder ballad song composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht in their 1928 music drama The Threepenny Opera. The songs in this drama are about a knife-wielding criminal from the London underworld named Macheath. The song became a popular standard after it was recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1955, and was recorded by many other artists after that point. The most popular of these recordings is the one we’re listening to today, recorded in 1959 by Bobby Darin. For the Louis Armstrong version, the original German lyrics were “sanitized” quite a bit and don’t go into Mack the Knife’s horrific crimes in such detail, and Bobby Darin also chose to use these cleaned up lyrics for his version. 

Darin’s version was recorded for his 1959 album, That’s All. Darin had performed the song in his act before and wanted to include it in this album of standards. Darin changed a few words here and there in his version, and also decided to modulate up a semitone every verse from the third verse onwards. Darin was originally reluctant to release the song as a single, and Dick Clark advised him against it as well, since the rock and roll crowd would never get behind a song that comes from an opera, but he was wrong, and later acknowledged his error when the song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100. 

THE ARTIST:

Bobby Darin was born Walden Robert Cassotto in May of 1936 in East Harlem, New York City. Darin’s birth mother was only 17 when she got pregnant with him, so she and her mother hatched a plot to pass her baby off as her mother’s, and Darin grew up believing that his actual birth mother was his elder sister and that his grandmother was his mother. He wasn’t told the truth of his birth until he was 32 years old. 

By the time that Darin was a teen, he played several instruments – piano, drums, guitar, harmonica, and xylophone. Bobby Darin gravitated towards acting in school, eventually dropping out to pursue it professionally. He took the name of Darin when he started to record. It was adapted from the first name of actor Darren McGavin (TV’s Mike Hammer).

Darin’s music career took off when he entered into a songwriting partnership in 1955 with Don Kirshner. They met at a candy store, ironically, because they became famous for “bubblegum pop”. After bouncing around from record label to record label for a while, Darin’s career exploded when he recorded “Splish Splash” with Atlantic in 1958. This started an avalanche of hits like “Dream Lover”, “Beyond the Sea”, and the song we’re listening to today, Mack the Knife. 

Who knows why, but in the early 1960s, Darin began to write and sing country music and found some modest success there. He also signed with several Hollywood studios and was in a few movies along the way. 

In the late 1960s he became more politically active, traveling with Robert F. Kennedy, and was nearby when Kennedy was assassinated. It was right around this time that Darin was informed about his parentage (that his “sister” was actually his mother and his “mother” was actually his grandmother). These two events had a deep effect on Darin, who spent most of 1969 living in a trailer in seclusion near Big Sur. 

Upon his return to showbiz, Darin started his own record label which put out folk and protest music. 

Bobby Darin had suffered from poor health his whole life. He was afflicted with rheumatic fever as a child, and in his teen years and early 20s had several heart surgeries. In 1973, after failing to take antibiotics to protect his heart before a dental visit, Darin developed sepsis, which further weakened his body, and damaged one of his heart valves. He underwent open heart surgery to repair the damage, but died shortly after the surgery at age 37. 

FACTOID CORNER:

  • Aside from music and acting, Bobby Darin was also an avid chess player

KELLY’S REVIEW:

I can’t remember the version of this song I heard first (maybe Ella Fitzgerald?), but for some reason I feel like this version is the most famous.  Anyway, I really like Bobby Darin and he can be quite soulful when he wants to, and I don’t know if he was in on the joke here, but this seems sooooo lounge.  Like I imagine Bobby in a suit with collar undone at some Las Vegas or Florida cabaret in the late 1950s, meandering through the crowd with this microphone, schmalzing it up with all the retiree snowbirds enjoying their extra dirty martinis, crooning and giving some sort of hip thrust or point whenever the orchestra plays a horn shot.  Is this a criticism?  Absolutely not.  The original Weill/Brecht version is quite different, for one thing it’s in German, and secondly it’s a bit more of a polka, but Darin’s version is all easy listening.  I think Bobby Darin has a pretty smooth, pleasant, listenable voice and suits the song super well.  The orchestra is good, not really much to say about it, it’s an orchestra playing fromage!  It’s also an interesting juxtaposition to have this fun, light, gin-soaked attitude singing about mass murder!  Anyhow, this song is a classic and I like it.

HOLLY’S REVIEW:

I know this song really well, though like my sister, I’m not sure what version I heard first. I have played in The Threepenny Opera a few times, and played a saxophone quartet arrangement of the most famous tunes from that opera as well. This version is really confusing to me because I’m not sure what Bobby Darin is going for. I never read my sister’s reviews before I write mine so that I’m not influenced by what she says, so I don’t know what she thinks of Bobby Darin, but I really enjoy his voice. It sounds like he’s trying to do a lounge singer thing here, and in my mind, he’s successful. I wonder whose choice it was to go this direction with this song, but the lyrics and the style being in contradiction with each other seems to always be the obvious choice! I don’t love lounge music a ton, but this version is really nice. It’s smooth, and not without real feeling, and the band is strong. All in all, this is a cheesy version of Mack the Knife, and I’m ok with that!

Average mark out of 10:

Holly: 8/10

Kelly: 8/10

Other notable versions of this song:

The version that appears in the film version of Threepenny Opera:

Possibly my first encounter with this song – Louis Armstrong:

And, Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition:

Listen with us!

Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:

Link to the Best of the Best 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:

One thought on “Song 111 – Mack the Knife

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