Mack The Knife

Album: That's All (1959)
Charted: 1 1
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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 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:

    (German original)
    On a beautiful blue Sunday
    Lies a dead man on the Strand

    On the sidewalk, Sunday morning
    Lies a body oozing life

    (German original)
    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).
  • Jimmy Buffett sang this as a duet with Frank Sinatra for Sinatra's 1994 Duets II album. The two didn't share a studio session, though. Like the other duets on the album, Buffett's part was added to Sinatra's already recorded vocals.

Comments: 57

  • Firebird7479 from PhiladelphiaThe Four Seasons performed a live concert that was recorded around 1963. It was eventually released in 1970 as "Brotherhood of Man". They perform a song called "Mack the Knife" but the lyrics are somewhat different. It seems to be a song about the song. Some of the lyrics include: "They use to call him Mack the Knife. He'd cut you into bits. The people that he use to hit now run to by his hits...Yes the man that everybody called the meanest guy in town, now plays at all the better spots"...AND "Mack gave up slappin' folks around and took up slappin' bass." AND "My name is Mack the Knife and I'm the leader of the band. Because I found my other life was getting out of hand. The guns went bang my friends would hang and violence I can't stand, so I gave up all that blood shed and formed myself a band."
  • Jimmy Bucketsz from Holland Bucks Co. Pasublimely murderous
  • Frederic from VirginiaLotte Lenya was Kirt Weill's wife and she played the part of Jenny in The Threepenny Opera.
  • Tom from UsaAre all the women in this tune: Minnie Driver, Sookie Tawdry and Lottie Lenya; really only symbols for prostitutes and thieves? There was a radio station in Denver, CO where an announcer had stated the women named, were 'torch singers' at night clubs in Chicago, at one time. Marlene Dietrich, was a BlackGlama photo-shoot and was discovered while she was a 'torch singer' and also modeled and became a BlackGlama Mink Legend (New Yorker Magazine- What Becomes A Legend Most?), along with: Carol Burnett, Angela Lansbury, Pearl Bailey, Raquel Welch, Shirley Mac Laine, Judy Garland,Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, Beverly Sills, Helen Hayes, Liv Ullman, Barbara Stanwyck and all the rest. Which singer actually introduced these three names TO the lyrics? FRANCINE NYC, NY -- what credible website do you access to get these specific pieces of data? Wish there were more songs that actually tell a complete story, like 'Mac The Knife', in the jazz, night club domain --- smooth, easy to dance to and catchy.
  • Mark H from TonontoWhen Darin was in the studio recording the '59 version each take was better than the last. There were about 10-15 takes, each take had more and more 'Darinisms' - making up lyrics - improvising - going off track. After all the takes everyone - even Darin - agreed the last version could not be improved - and this is the version we hear on the radio - Darin from '59.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn December 2nd 1959, Bobby Darin was the surprised guest on the NBC-TV program 'This Is Your Life'...
    At the time his "Mack the Knife" was in its eighth of nine weeks at #1* on Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart; it had entered the chart on August 24th and it stayed on the Top 100 for exactly a half-year {26 weeks}...
    * "Mack the Knife's" nine weeks at #1 were not consecutive; between its 6th and 7th week in the top spot, "Mr. Blue" by the Fleetwoods moved into the #1 position for a one week stay.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn September 4th 1959, due to two recently stabbings in N.Y.C., the city's radio station WCBS-AM decided to banned from its playlist all versions of "Mack the Knife"...
    At the time Bobby Darin's covered version of the song was at #43 on Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart; a little over four weeks later on October 5th it peaked at #1 {for 9 non-consecutive weeks} and it stayed on the chart for a half-year {26 weeks}...
    Between 1958 and 1973 Bobby had forty Top 100 records; ten made the Top 10, with his next biggest hit being "Dream Lover"*, it peaked at #2 {for 1 week} in 1959...
    * The week "Dream Lover" was at #2, the #1 record for that week was "The Battle of New Orleans" by Johnny Horton.
  • John from UsaI find it strange that most people who record this song don't use the original English lyrics, but use those used by Louis Armstrong, which include an ad lib with Lotta Lenya in the list of women, because she happened to be in the studio as a consultant for Louis as she was the composer's wife. Wouldn't most people recording an album research the songs?

    I also find it odd that some of Bobby's biggest hits are up tempo, upbeat sounding songs about women who live awful lives and die young in awful ways. Here is Mack the Knife, Clementine, Artificial Flowers. I just realized that "Young Lovers" from "The King & I" is sung for a couple that are slaves that die soon after the song in the play. I have a collection of songs that are "happy" misogyny... It all started with "Delilah" by Tom Jones, but Bobby Darin heads the list now.
  • Valérie from Santo Domingo, Dominican RepublicThere's a salsa inspired by this song (music and lyrics). It's sung by Ruben Blades and called "Pedro Navaja" (Peter the Jackknife).
  • Edward from Henderson, NvIn the same big band style as "Mack the Knife," Bobby Darin also did "My Darling Clementine," and "Hello Dolly." (Look out, ol' Dolly's back!)
  • Randy from Houghton Lake, MiI was about 3 years old when this was #1 but I remember hearing it and have always liked this song.
  • David from Cape Town, South AfricaThe song isn't about heroin although since the song references crime their could always be drugs.
    The song was written in German during the early 20s and it got translated into English. Louis Armstrong probably made it famous 1st in English.
    The 'culprit' in the song is Macheath (Mack the Knife) who in the song kills quite a few people (as well as a rape)
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyAs stated above this song remained at No. 1 for nine weeks. Became #1 on 10-05-1959 for six weeks then "Mr. Blue" by The Fleetwoods became #1 for one week and Bobby reclaimed #1 for next three weeks!!!
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyIn 1956 alone five different versions of this song made the Billboard weekly Top 100; The Dick Hyman Trio, Richard Hayman & Jan August, Lawrence Welk, Louis Armstrong, and Les Paul & Mary Ford...
  • Francine from New York City, Nysukey tawdry and jenny diver were characters in the Beggar"s Opera, the original play from which Three Penny Opera is based.They have those names because they were streetwalkers and thieves. polly peachem is the wife of capt. macheath, the main character of the play.
  • Joe from Austin, TxI just discovered this site and it is great. I had to chime in on Mack The Knife.

    One of Brecht's favorite tools was his "Verfremdungseffekt". This translates as "defamiliarization effect", often mistranslated as "alienation effect".

    Hat Brecht was trying to do with songs like Mack The Knife was break the trance that auidences watching a play could fall into. He wanted to shake them out of the narrative - the suspension of disbelief which makes films and plays work - and remind them that they were watching a play. This is not real. Brecht would also attempt this by using lights or even the reading of stage cues from the script aloud.

    You are watching The Threepenny Opera and suddenly this song shows up with very odd lyrics. VERY strange lyrics in context to the rest of the play.

    Does it work as Brecht intended? You decide.

  • Lalah from Wasilla, AkI agree with Jude. The lyrics were better comming out of ol' Satchmo.
  • Roger C. from St. Louis, MoLotte Lenya is a character actress. You may best recall her as Col. Kleb of SMIRSCH in the film "Dr. No."
  • Susan from Cutler Bay, FlWhen did Darin's Mack the Knife go GOLD? When in 1959?

  • Dean from Sydney,Frank Sinatra nailed this one...
  • Tina from Norcross, GaThis song is also used in the movie "Quiz Show".
  • Francis from Philly, Paa Diver is a old early 20th century slang term for a theif.
  • Eric from MaastrichtThe infamous Doors did this song, too
  • Matthew from Milford, MaLucy Brown? Lucy Round? *gulp* Marcus Belnades had better be careful!!!
  • Dirk from Nashville, TnPeople associate this song with Bobby Darin, which is OK. Bobby made the song swing like a Sinatra tune. He even sings it like Sinatra (at a time when Sinatra was more interested in being a movie star than a singer). Listen to the original Threepenny Opera version of the song some time and you'll immediately realize that Bobby Darin's producer probably never heard it. Louis Armstrong deserves the credit for figuring out how to turn a weird German show tune into a hip jazz tune. But if you want to be honest about it, Mack The Knife is really part of the identity of Bertolt Brecht. Brecht was a radical in 1920s Germany. His plays were insane and avant garde. He loved to push the envelope on what theater audiences were comfortable with. Had he lived 75 years later, he probably would've been playing in the band Korn... Interestingly, Brecht had a lifelong curiosity about American gangsters. He finally moved to the USA in the 1950s with an eye toward working in Hollywood. But he was persecuted here as a suspected communist during the commie witch-hunt days, and he got p*ssed off and returned to Germany... but to communist EAST Germany, because he really was a communist.
  • Bobpape from Austin, TxI meant, was DIVER really her last name?
  • Bobpape from Austin, TxFirst of all, many of the ambiguous or obscure words and phrases in Rock songs DO NOT refer to drugs, even if the artists WERE known druggies! You people gotta get off your druggie mindsets and get real! ( This comming from a former big druggie, by the way!)
    I researched the info given by Neil in N.Y., and he is absolutely correct. However----- I'm a little confused. What about Sukey Tawdry? And in the opera, was Tawdry really Jenny's last name?
  • Walter from Antwerp, BelgiumThe original title used in the 1928 german play 'Dreigroschenoper/Threepenny Opera' was 'Die Moritat von Jackie Messer', translatable as 'The Murder Ballad of Jack The Knife'. To contrary belief, 'Alabama Song' (Doors/Bowie) did NOT appear in it, but was written instead for another Brecht/Weill play called 'The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny', which premiered in 1930.
  • Sam from Davenport, 5 songs that you think AREN'T about drugs...

    "Five'll get you ten" is common gambling parlence. It means that if you bet 5, you'll get ten back, or 2:1 odds. It's saying that it's such a sure thing that Mack is back in town that you would get ten back if you bet five on it.

    As to "Tawdry" and "Diver", you're correct, those are adjectives...they are also pretty good character names for prostitutes, who should form a line "on the right", now that Mack is back in town with money to burn.
  • Katrina from Pullman, Wato Mandy, Calgary, It's not on "It's Time" it's on his "Caught in the Act" DVD for the "Caught in the Act" Tour
  • Darrell from Eugene, United StatesI do not know if this has anything to do with "Mack the Knife", but Bobby Darrin resembled accused JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald at one time.
  • Caladbolg from Reston, VaThe Doors "Alabama Song" was also from the Threepenny Opera.
  • Justin from L.e.harbor, United StatesHey Jon in L.A. "Five'll get you ten, Old Macky's back in town" Ten what? Apples?
  • Justin from Little Egg Harbor, NjThe word "Tawdry" is defined as shameful or indecent, cheap or gaudy. "Diver" is to drop sharply, plummet etc. or as in a dive like a lowdown place. These are not real people nor characters, but adjectives describing people to whom "the line form on the right, now that Mack is back in town"
  • John from L.a., CaTo Justin in Little Egg Harbor, NJ:

    Mack the Knife *is* about heroin, but you shouldn't go around telling everyone about it. So keep quiet when you find out that "Close to You," "It Had to be You," and "You're the One I Love" are also all about heroin.

    Popular misconception: "Cold Turkey" is *not* about heroin. John Lennon wrote it after a botched Thanksgiving dinner that Yoko tried to cook.
  • Edith from Birmingham, AlThis song is best sung by Frank sinatra. I love how they make the song so upbeat, way better than bobby darin's.
  • Melissa from Glen Head, NyI love the song...we've spoke about all the other characters, but who is Sukey Tawdry??
  • Mandy from CalgaryMichael Buble does this song on his album "It's Time". He does a really good job on it. I think its cool how a new artist can bring back old classics, and make them popular.
  • Justin from Little Egg Harbor, NjThat's why there's never a trace of red. No blood.
  • Justin from Little Egg Harbor, NjMack the Knife is Heroin. Listen to the song with that in mind and you'll be convinced. Listen to Louis Armstrong's version and remmember heroins role in the Jazz community. There's no two ways about it.
  • Neil from New York City, NyI'll attempt to correct some of the outlandish "facts" reported about the song "Mack the Knife" at this site. The statement "Lucy Brown, Lottie Lenya (sic)...were record executives wives" gave us all a big laugh. The women mentioned (Lucy Brown, Polly Peachum,Jenny, etc.) are characters in the original "Begger's Opera" on which Brecht based his "Dreigroschenoper." Lotte Lenya was, of course, the composer Weill's wife. She was never an opera singer. Originally a trapeze artist and dancer, in the 1920s and 30s she had a soubrette or light soprano voice and recorded music from the original German production in the early 30s and also appeared in the first movie version. By the time she recreated her original role of Jenny on Broadway in the 50s her voice was described as "one octave below laryngitis."
    The Blitstein lyrics in English are much more polite and sunny than Brecht's originals which describe the exploits of the gangster Macheath which include robbery, rape and arson. The Broadway production during the height of McCarthyism did much to tone down the sharp satire of the original and Bobby Darin's pop single took off what little edge was left. Edge or not it is still one of the 20th Century's most famous tunes.
  • Barbara from Massachusetts, MaAh! My very FAVORITE song of all time. I think it was the 2nd 45 I ever bought and I had the paper cover with a photo of Darin on my bulletin board!
    Artificial Flowers is another AMAZING song from Darin. By all means find it if you don't know it. It came from a Broadway musical "Tenderloin" about the Tenderloin District in NYC in the early years of the 20th C. and the ladies of the night and the corruption of the times. If you are a sleuth you can get the original Broadway album.

    Lotte Lenya's raw and compelling voice is on several albums - her version of "September Song" is haunting.

    -- Barbara, Concord, MA
  • James from Vidalia, GaDick Clark also told Darin to ease off on the big band stuff and go back to what was working for him: namely teenie bopper stuff like Splish Splash. Then this hit big and Clark said it reminded him he doesn't know everything about music.
  • Alden from College Park, MdI love Darin's and Armstrong's version, but Ella Fitzgerald's is my favorite. It's taken from a live recording where she forgets the words and makes up choruses on the spot and then proceeds to do musical impersonations of Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong which are spot on and hilarious. If you want a fun take on the song, seek this single out.
  • T.bone from Tempe, AzAlso: here is a re-post of the play transcript.
    btw: Jenny's last name WAS diver. p3c
  • T.bone from Tempe, AzHere is all the info you ever wanted to know about Mackheath aka mack the knife.
  • Jude from Thomasville, GaI'm not knocking Bobby Darin, but this song belongs to the great Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was certainly not a polished singer like Darin, but once Satchmo wrapped that gravelly bass around a song, it sounds like it was written just for him. You recognize that voice instantly. Armstrong also rolls the list of MacHeath's girlfriends around his tongue so there's no question about what's going on here,.
  • Cheryl from Two Harbors, MnHelp - we are disputing content of "Mack the Knife" - explain what actually occurred according to lyrics. Need ASAP! Thanks!
  • Brian from Leicester, EnglandLottie Lenya is buried in the musician/composer part of Vienna city cemetary.
  • Martijn from Helmond, NetherlandsLotte Lenya was not an opera singer. In fact Weil had her sing this because he was charmed by her untrained voices. So charmed in fact that she even became his wife. Her German version of the song is much starker and rougher than the American versions.
    The German rock singer Udo Lindenberg did a heavy rock version (also in German) with screaming guitars and all.
  • Keith from Slc, UtSammy Davis, Jr., performed this song as the theme for a film before Darin hit the charts with it. Darin used a much smoother timing, making Davis' version seem rushed and choppy, like music from a carneval.
  • Tony from Carteret, Njthere was another song from Bobbie Darin I believe it was Artifical Flowers which was another Great Bobbie Darin song
  • Noam from Ein Zivan, Israeland another thing: in a special version, recorded by frank sinatra and dean martin the name "polly peachem". in the play, she is mackheat's wife.
  • Noam from Ein Zivan, Israellucy brown is another charcter from the threepenny opera. she is one of the many women in mack's life. he is also seeing a woman named jenny, thoue, as much as i remember, her last name was never said to be "diver."
  • Gene from Hammond, InThe German version of this song was featured as incidental music during the silent comedy skits on Ernie Kovacs' show "Take A Good Look" in the early 1960's.
  • Rick from Melbourne, FlLotte Lenya was the wife of the songs composer Kurt Weill, she also played the villian Rosa Klebb in the James Bond movie From Russia with Love.
  • Randy from Beaumont, TxThe women mentioned (Lucy Brown, Lottie Lenya,....etc) were record executives wives. Lenya was also an opera singer.
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