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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 6 appearances.
This was a US Top 40 hit for 7 different artists: The Dick Hyman Trio, Richard Hayman and Jan August, Lawrence Welk, Louis Armstrong, Billy Vaughn, Darin, and Ella Fitzgerald. Darin's was the biggest hit.
The Threepenny Opera was playing on Broadway when Darin's version was released.
Darin's biggest hit, this song spent 9 weeks atop the Hot 100. Its run was interrupted briefly by the Fleetwoods' "Mr. Blue." (thanks, Brad Wind - Miami, FL)
This won Record Of The Year at the 2nd 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 30th show and took the award, the song was still at #1 in America. Darin also won for Best New Artist at the ceremonies.
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 for the 1954 off-Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera. These translated lyrics 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."
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.
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.
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