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"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. The song has become a popular standard.
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. The Brecht-Weill version of the character was far more cruel and sinister, and has been transformed into a modern anti-hero.
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, CA |
28 September, 1955
|Label||Columbia 40587 |
|Writer(s)||Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, English lyrics Marc Blitzstein, arr. Turk Murphy|
- 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.
This is the version popularized 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
Crimes of Macheath
The song attributes many crimes to Macheath:
- A dead man in London, on the Strand
- A rich man, Schmul Meier, disappeared for good and possibly robbed
- Jenny Towler, killed with a knife in the chest
- A cabbie, Alfred Gleet, missing and presumed dead
- Seven children and an old man killed in an arson fire
- Rape of an underage widow (minderjährige Witwe) in her bed
The arson, rape and disappearance of the cabbie were omitted from the original cast recording of the Blitzstein version, but remain intact in the libretto.
"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). In 1959 Darin's version 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. To this day, Clark recounts the story with good humor. Frank Sinatra, who recorded the song with Jimmy Buffett, 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 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. 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. Other notable versions include performances by 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 adaptation of Threepenny Opera (Ópera do Malandro), made two versions called "A Volta do Malandro" and "O Malandro No. 2", with lyrics in Portuguese.
The song has been put to many other uses. American parodists the Capitol Steps used the tune for their song "Pack the Knife" in their 2002 album When Bush Comes to Shove. In the mid-1980s, fast food giant McDonald's introduced "Mac Tonight", a character whose signature song was based on "Mack the Knife." Comedian Steve Martin famously parodied "Mack the Knife" in his opening monologue to the premiere of Saturday Night Live's third season in 1977.
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
- 1960 Ella Fitzgerald on the album Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife
- 1964 Miloš Kopecký in Czech musical Lemonade Joe (Limonádový Joe aneb Koňská opera)
- 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
- 1980 The Psychedelic Furs on the 2002 re-release of their self-titled first album
- 1983 King Kurt on the album Ooowallahwallah!, psychobilly version
- 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
- 1990 Kenny Garrett on the album African Exchange Student
- 1991 The Young Gods on the album The Young Gods 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
- 2004 Kevin Spacey On the Beyond the Sea soundtrack.
- Tony Bennett
- Jimmie Dale Gilmore
- Dean Martin
- Peggy Lee
- Michael Bublé
- Steve Martin's comedy monologue on Saturday Night Live parodying "Mack the Knife"
- Everything you ever wanted to know about "Mack the Knife"
- Bobby Darin "Mack the Knife" website
- What's the story behind "Mack the Knife"?
- ibdb.com info on the 7 Broadway productions