Making ROOTS AND BRANCHES: “Mack the Knife”

When Bobby Darin’s version of “Mack the Knife” hit the charts in August 1959 I had just turned six and was on the cusp of first grade. It’s fair to say that “Mack the Knife” owned the charts that fall and winter, charting for 26 weeks and spending  nine of them (nine!) at Number One.

I heard it on one of my dad’s AM stations in Chicago, like WBBM. The minute I heard it, I was hooked. Soon it was everywhere.

It’s amazing how kids that age can really sink their teeth into pop music.  At five, Lenne hosted her dance birthday party featuring her fave pop songs of the day.  She still has the mixtapes she made with me for those events, including her deejaying between the tracks, “This one goes out to…Eliza!” It’s funny how a pop song can stay with you for a lifetime.

And for me, Darin’s “Mack” was one of those songs. His voice was just so there. So fifties. So perfect. His final money note, on “…(back in) TOWWWWWWWWN!”epitomized male belting in that era. To say the song made Bobby Darin would be a huge understatement.

While Darin makes the song swing with his voice alone, arranger Richard Wess built on that swing until it reached its crescendo in the final verse, repeating the final lick no less than four times through “TOWWWWWWWWWN.” It is a contender for the quintessential swing jazz standard of the fifties. And they did it in one take.

“Mack” was a no-brainer for my list of all-time songs I wanted to sing, but, like “Till There Was You,” it was a genre-stretcher for me. I researched a number of versions of the song and learned how transformational the 1954 Marc Blitzstein translation of the song was. Blitzstein’s translation fueled Louis Armstrong’s 1955 hit single of the song. On that session Lotte Lenya herself was in the studio with Armstrong, who ad-libbed the shout-out, “Look out Miss Lotte Lenya.” She played Jenny Diver in the original Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht 1928 version of The Threepenny Opera,as well as off-Broadway in the U.S. Lenya was Weill’s wife from 1926-33 and 1937 until her death in 1981.

The “Mack” of The Threepenny Operawas a dirge. It’s existence as an American classic via the Armstrong-Darin-Fitzgerald tradition is an anomaly in relation to its previous theatric existence. And in that transformation we receive the incongruity of this hep-cat murder ballad related in this happy-go-lucky manner.  But there you have it. Something to make a six-year old go…”What?

My version of the song begins with a transcription of the Darin version, complete with the five chromatic key changes that he introduced to the song.  I found a lovely chord transcription online by Tim Stoll, of Lockport, New York, that helped shape up the chordal formations.

This is my only solo vocal on the album. The song starts in Bb and ends in D. It’s amazing that an average high baritone like myself can handle the range required through that many half-steps up, but Darin planned it perfectly. It’s still easy to hit my own final “TOWWWN.” (It’s shorter than Darin’s.)

Taking Liberties, or Not

The Blitzstein translation has been fiddled with over the decades and I’m also guilty of that, but I’ll never say where. The truth is Armstrong, Darin, Fitzgerald, Sinatra, (and Sting) all took huge liberties. I noticed Sting’s tribute verse in a live version of the song and wrote one of my own.

I thought my little tribute verse was a contender. It fit the swing of the song perfectly. So I blithely recorded it in my version, figuring I’d handle the licensing later.

Later only came during mixdown, when my licensing company informed me that one of the two publishers (both powerhouses) refused to license the song with the tribute verse. I pleaded, begged and offered (real) cash, to no avail. 

I had to scramble at the last minute, salvage some additional clarinet lines from the clarinet outtakes to create an instrumental final half-verse. I actually have a mixed and mastered version of the song with the illicit verse, so if you’re ever over for dinner…

So, if I’ve piqued your curiosity, here are the lyrics to the tribute verse:

Lotte Lenya, Brecht and Weill / Beggar’s Opera, Weimar style
I’m sure Macky, when he heard it / was thrilled to death, and flashed that smile.

Macky’s back!

Clarinet and Cabaret for Me

My instrumental arrangement gave a passing nod to the Wess arrangement, but is centered more in a small cabaret ensemble. My arrangement needed stellar clarinet, which was supplied by Patrick O’Keefe, of the new music ensemble Zeitgeist, based in St. Paul. I wrote out a rough template of his part, from which he composed a masterful improvisation as the lead solo instrument in the ensemble. He also played a couple parts on bass clarinet.

Patrick helped me with the transcriptions for the brass parts I wrote and road-tested the draft for me. As I have mentioned  elsewhere, part of the impetus behind the album was songs I’ve always wanted to sing and the other part was to test my wings as an arranger. “Mack” was a no-brainer on both counts.

The brass and woodwinds arrangement echoes the Hess arrangement  in line 1 of verse 2, “When the shark bites, with his teeth, dear…,” harmonizes it, and then takes off on its own. Jon Pemberton, piano soloist on “Life in the Fifties,” handled the trumpets from my charts and Tom Wells handled the trombone to create our little brass section.

This song has the least guitar of any song I’ve ever recorded, but that rhythm part blocks out the core of the arrangement. The walking bass part I recorded lends jazz standard vibe to the project. The bass plays the rhythm straight with slight one and three emphases—standard kick drum territory— allowing the drums more freedom to accent, syncopate and swing in contrast.

John O’Reilly Jr. on drums kicked our swing into high gear with a rich variety of accents syncopations, snare rolls on the transitions between verse A and B parts, and tom riffs that illustrate the hanging half-step chord at the end of each verse signaling a key change. It’s a great little jazz standards ensemble.  If you were to play all the parts live it would take an octet.

Hep-cat Mannerisms Make It Pop for Bobby

I’ve always been amused by Darin’s hep-cat ad libs:

  • “Oh the shark, babe…”
  • Ooh Sunday morning uh huh…”
  • “…just oozing life…eeek” (?)
  • “down by the river doncha know…”
  • five’ll get ya ten ole’ Macky’s back in town…”

I just wanted to ground it a bit and pare it back to the lyric, without the mannerisms.

A song is always in the ear—and the era—of the beholder. And so this nearly 100-year-old song from Weimar Germany comes to us transmogrified, almost unrecognizable from its original intention…or not?

It’s always been about the juxtaposition of privilege and violence, “society” and criminality, and the pervasiveness of horrible transgressions that infuse daily life, including “a body oozing life” as encountered on a Sunday morning stroll.

Though Armstrong and Darin we get the carefree antihero, without a morality clause assigned to the shady topic of his expertise. That’s more modern even than Brecht and Weill, who were going for social critique. Brecht put a note of moral rectitude in some revisions of the moritat (murder ballad). But Bobby Darin fully defined the song for the 50s and (so far) ever after.

Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” ranked Number 3 on Billboard’s All Time Top 100 Singles chart. That’s a fair bit of immortality right there. And despite one current copyright holder’s stinginess, this song is headed for public domain immortality and will probably be around for hundreds of years, far from its roots in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera from which it sprang, intriguing us with its incongruities and attracting the children. And I’m pretty confident its American hep-jazz rebirth will retain its hold on the song for a long time. Thanks, Bobby!

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