Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht wrote this song in 1928 for the German play The Threepenny Opera. "Mack" is Macheath, the title character, portrayed as a criminal. The light melody can make this feel like an upbeat song, but it contrasts sharply with the lyrics, which are about a murderer.
Darin decided to perform this song when he saw a production of The Threepenny Opera
in Greenwich Village in 1958. He thought up his own way of presenting the song, and started performing it in his nightclub act, where it was well received. The song was included on Darin's album That's All
, which was released in March 1959. In May of that year, Darin's "Dream Lover
" became a huge hit, and demand was building for "Mack The Knife," which was growing increasingly popular thanks to Darin's nightclub performances and sales of the album.
Darin, however, had a teen idol image to uphold, and a song from the '20s about a murderous sot could derail that train quickly. He was recording for Atlantic Records, who made lots of good decisions, and label boss Ahmet Ertegun ordered it released as a single. Finally, in late August, the single came out and was a massive hit. Whatever teen idol cred Darin scrubbed, he more than made up for in adult appeal, as the song introduced him to an audience that went well beyond "Splish Splash
." He became a regular on various TV shows, played a lot of high-end resorts and became the youngest headliner at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, where he was once a busboy. The song's success also earned him a second spot on The Ed Sullivan Show
, where he made a total of six appearances.
This was a US Top 40 hit for seven different artists:
The Dick Hyman Trio (#8, 1956)
Richard Hayman and Jan August (#11, 1956)
Lawrence Welk (#17, 1956)
Louis Armstrong (#20, 1956)
Billy Vaughn (#37, 1956)
Bobby Darin (#1, 1959)
Ella Fitzgerald (#27, 1960)
The first three versions are instrumentals; Armstrong was the first to chart with a vocal rendition.
The electric guitar innovator Les Paul also cracked the Hot 100 with the song in 1956, peaking at #49 with his guitar instrumental
The original German lyrics were far more graphic, making it clear that this is a murderer we're talking about. For American audiences, the translation was more ambiguous to soften the killings, essential in eluding censors in the conservative 1950s.
Here is how Marc Blitzstein softened the blow:
On a beautiful blue Sunday
Lies a dead man on the Strand
On the sidewalk, Sunday morning
Lies a body oozing life
Jenny Towler was found
With a knife in her chest
And on the wharf walks Mack the Knife
Louie Miller disappeared, dear
After drawing out his cash
And MacHeath spends like a sailor
Did our boy do something rash?
Darin's biggest hit, this song spent nine weeks atop the Hot 100. Its run was interrupted briefly by the Fleetwoods' "Mr. Blue."
This won Record of the Year at the second Grammy Awards in 1959. This was the first time the Grammys were televised, and back then the ceremonies took place in November or December instead of February, so when Darin performed this song on the November 29 show and took the award, the song was still at #1 in America. Darin also won for Best New Artist at the ceremonies. The Threepenny Opera was still playing in New York at the time as well.
The original German version of this song is called "Theme from The Threepenny Opera," or "Moritat," which is the German word for "Murder Ballad." The lyrics have been translated in various ways on different versions, but the most popular translation was by the lyricist Marc Blitzstein for the 1954 off-Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera, which ran until 1961 and played in Greenwich Village, New York.
The soundtrack to this production included a rendition of "Mack The Knife" performed by Gerald Price, who played the Street Singer. It got the attention of executives at record labels around New York who had their artists record the song.
The translated lyrics from the production are what Louis Armstrong used in his 1956 version of the song and most of what Darin used in his. This translation used a lot of one-syllable words, which allowed swinging singers like Darin to personalize the song. On Darin's version, he added little bits like, "Five'll get ya ten old Macky's back in town" instead of "Bet you Mack, he's back in town."
The people mentioned in this song are all characters in The Threepenny Opera... except one. Lotte Lenya was the wife of the song's co-writer Kurt Weill (she played Jenny in the original production). When Louis Armstong recorded the song, he was looking at names of the characters in the play and thought Lenya was a character, not a cast member. Subsequent versions of the song were based on Armstrong's lyrics, so this mistake lived on.
Darin's version was the 59th #1 hit of the Rock Era. It entered the charts at #59 and was the second best selling song of... 1959.
One of the trumpet players on this song was Doc Severinsen, who would later lead Johnny Carson's band on The Tonight Show.
This song was the subject of a Season 3 bit on The Muppet Show in the episode where Lesley Ann Warren guest starred. In the sketch, Dr. Teeth plays the song when he is interrupted by Sam the Eagle, who declares it "an appalling song of gore and violence. Dr. Teeth then convinces him that the lyrics are jive, and the song is actually about a man buying pillows for his wife.
The BBC Radio 4 program, Ella in Berlin, recalled a famous concert appearance by Ella Fitzgerald in February 1960 in Berlin when the American performed this song for the first time. Ella had learned the words on the plane from Stockholm, but halfway through her performance, she forgot the lyrics and began to improvise exuberantly in rhyme. The Queen of Jazz never missed a beat, making it clear she was making it up as she went along:
Oh what's the next chorus, to this song, now
This is the one, now I don't know
But it was a swinging tune and it's a hit tune
So we tried to do Mack the Knife
Oh Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong
They made a record, oh but they did
And now Ella, Ella, and her fellas
We're making a wreck, what a wreck of Mack the Knife
It may have been a wreck, but the crowd loved it - many in the audience didn't speak English anyway. Released as a single, this was the last version of the song to chart, coming in at #27 in June.
McDonald's used this song in the late '80s to promote their dinner specials as "Mac Tonight." They skipped the lyrics about killing a guy and dumping his body in the water in the versions used for the commercials.
Among the musicians on Darin's version were Hank Jones (piano), Barry Galbraith (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass), and Osie Johnson (drums).