Murder & Music: Unravelling Mack The Knife

Jazz songs are famous for being re-interpreted by a huge range of different artists, but perhaps Mack The Knife is the only one which spans opera, early jazz, big band crooners, boy band pop and even a McDonalds commercial…

Whilst the song ‘Mack The Knife‘ takes its origins from the medieval murder ballad, we pick up the story in the early 20th Century with composer Kurt Weill whose work ran from stage productions to classical music.

Denounced for his political views, and as a renowned Jewish composer, Weill’s days in his native Germany were numbered; as the Nazi party gained a strong political foothold, he had little option but to leave Germany.

March 1933 found Kurt Weill in Paris where he had the opportunity to work again with the playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht on the satirical ballet, The Seven Deadly Sins. His stay in the French capital was short lived though.

A month later he arrived in New York, where his most well-known work, The Threepenny Opera was given its Broadway debut…

The Threepenny Opera

Written in 1928, The Threepenny Opera received a mixed reception and the Broadway run lasted only thirteen performances.

It did, however, produce one of Weill’s most endearing songs in ‘Mack the Knife’.

The Threepenny Opera was an adaptation of a play written two hundred years earlier by John Gay called The Beggar’s Opera which itself is based on the story of the thief Jack Shepherd.

As with all good stories, by the time Kurt Weill had written the music and Brecht provided the lyrics, the villain of the piece and his crimes had become significantly more violent and unpleasant, hence the song’s title.

Given its full title of ‘The Ballad of Mack the Knife’ or as it was originally titled in German, ‘Die Moritat von Mackie Messer’.

The term moritat describes a medieval murder ballad (from the Italian ‘cantastoria’) where a singing storyteller tells tales of crimes and murders…

An Eventual Smash Hit: Mack The Knife

With the grizzly nature of the lyrics depicting a knife-wielding murderer, it must have been a big surprise when Mack The Knife eventually became a popular hit song.

Mack The Knife - facts

Only added last minute to the original 1928 production, and performed in English first for its failed Broadway debut in 1933, it would be the mid-fifties (and sadly after the death of Weill in April 1950 from a heart attack) that it achieved commercial success.

So what happened?

As with all great songs, it seems that ‘Mack the Knife’ was one of those tunes which would not simply disappear from public memory.

An early 20th Century ear-worm, if you will…

Louis Armstrong and Mack The Knife

The 1955 recording of Mack The Knife by Louis Armstrong ensured that the song rose to the ranks of most famous jazz songs where it has stayed ever since.

Earlier versions of the song had been recorded, most notably by soprano saxophonist and clarinettist Sidney Bechet, but they had all been instrumental recordings.

Louis Armstrong’s addition of lyrics – recorded for Columbia Records at the behest of producer George Avakian – changed everything.

Avakian had become interested in the music of Kurt Weill after seeing a production of The Threepenny Opera, and especially in ‘Mack the Knife’.

Searching for a jazz musician on the label to record the song, he first approached band leader and trombonist Turk Murphy who officially recorded it first, 6 days before Armstrong took the mantle.

On 28th September, under the watchful eye of Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya, he cut both an instrumental and vocal version of the song. The final released version was spliced together from both.

As an interesting side-note, he allegedly recorded a duo with Lenya which was not made available commercially.

Because of the violent nature of the lyrics, several radio stations refused to play Armstrong’s version of Mack The Knife; an attempted ban didn’t prevent the record selling well and reaching #20 on the Billboard’s Top 100 chart and #8 in the UK.

More Mack The Knife Hits

Even more successful was the version of Mack The Knife by Bobby Darin, an America musician who performed in multiple genres including jazz, swing, Rock’n’roll and pop.

In a big band swing version that took the charts by storm, the recording made the Billboard Top 100 chart hitting the No.1 spot and is arguably the most popular version of Mack The Knife of all time.

An instrumental version of the song known under the title ‘Moritat’ was also recorded by the tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and appeared on his ground-breaking recording Saxophone Colossus, widely credited as one of the best jazz albums of all time.

Recorded on 22nd June 1956 Tommy Flanagan on piano, bassist Doug Watkins and master drummer Max Roach, the rendition showcases the melodic and harmonic strength of the song in a more modern context.

It catches Rollins at a turning point in his career, showcasing a staggering command of rhythmic and melodic improvisational. Perhaps nowhere before or since, has Weill’s song been put through its paces quite like this.

Other notable versions of ‘Mack the Knife’ have been recorded by jazz singers such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin as well as more commercial modern acts like Michael Bublé, Robbie Williams and Westlife.

It’s Ella Fitzgerald’s version, though, which adds another layer of history to the song; forgetting the lyrics, she launches into a cleverly improvised scat singing which showcased both her fast-thinking musical skill and her knack for entertaining.

NPR took up the story…

Fast forward to the 21st Century and a whole host of modern jazz musicians have taken up the challenge of Mack The Knife, including recordings by Maria Schneider, Monty Alexander and Chad Lefkowitz-Brown.

Translating & Interpreting Mack The Knife

Outside of the jazz arena, Mack The Knife would undergo multiple translations and reinventions over the years.

From the original German lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and the English translation by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky, the song was also translated into French by André Mauprey and titled ‘La Complainte de Mackie’.

The French writer and composer was particularly enamoured of The Threepenny Opera and who translated many of the songs into his native language.

Further interpretations would appear in 1976 in a production of The Threepenny Opera by the New York Shakespeare Festival with lyrics by Ralph Manheim and John Willett. In this instance, the song was titled simply ‘Moritat’ and served as extension of the story with a new set of lyrics.

In 1994, a further interpretation of the song was featured in a London production by the Donmar Warehouse theatre in Covent Garden. The translation by Robert David MacDonald and Jeremy Sams aimed to bring the original concept and meaning of the song, and it altogether much darker in its interpretation.

Mac Tonight

Perhaps most surprising is how a tune about a medieval murderer made it’s way into the marketing of on of the world’s most famous commercial brands.

In the late 1980s, McDonald’s launched an ad campaign for the Big Mac featuring a character named Mac Tonight – a word-play on ‘Mack The Knife.’

Identifiable by his moon-shaped head, sunglasses, and piano-player, this character was brought to life by actor Doug Jones in one of his earliest Hollywood roles, with his voice provided by Roger Behr.

Initially introduced as a strategy to boost dinner-time sales by McDonald’s licensees in Southern California, the character’s appeal resulted in the campaign going national in 1987.

Legal disputes with Bobby Darin’s estate led to the end of the commercials and Mac Tonight’s retirement in 1989.

Ending The Story of Mack The Knife

Sometimes smash hits arrive from the most unlikely of places.

Eschewing the traditional tales of love or lust, it’s the story of how a song about an old murderer could stand the test of time and work it’s way into a variety of musical genres and touch a mainstream audience.

But that’s exactly what Mack The Knife did, and if you haven’t checked out your favourite versions of the tune for a while, maybe now’s the time!

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