It’s the 1950s, you’ve had a big hit that’s resulted in you gaining a huge fan following, particularly of teenage girls who wish they could be your Dream Lover – how do you follow it up? Well, if you’re Bobby Darin, you release a swinging celebration of a serial killer. Darin’s version of Mack the Knife remains the most famous version – and there are a lot out there.
Mack the Knife was originally known as Die Moritat von Mackie Messer. It was composed by Kurt Weill, with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, for their play Die Dreigroschenoper, known over here as The Threepenny Opera. The song was written at the last minute before it’s premiere in 1928, to introduce the killer Macheath. The song was first introduced to US audiences in 1933, but it was Marc Blitzstein’s 1954 version, with less graphic lyrics to appeal to conservative America, that’s still in use today. In 1956 the US charts were awash with versions of Mack the Knife, with the first by The Dick Hyman Trio. Jazz supremo Louis Armstrong was responsible for the first version with vocals. In addition to the female victims listed in the song, Armstrong ad-libbed a mention of Lotte Lenya, the widow of Kurt Weill, who had starred in the original production, and the then-current off-Broadway version, who was present while Armstrong recorded. This was left in Darin’s version by mistake, and most subsequent versions on account of Darin’s being considered the essential recording.
Darin fell in love with Mack the Knife while watching The Threepenny Opera in 1958, and worked the song into his live act. Fresh from the success of Dream Lover, Darin was given more freedom over his sound, and his desire to move away from the teen-pop that had made him famous helped him to surprise his audience by making Mack the Knife the opening track on his next album, That’s All. This was the first time a major pop idol had tried to change tack to such an extent. However, even Darin wasn’t sure about releasing such a statement of intent as a single, and it was Atlantic Records co-founder, and Darin’s producer Ahmet Ertegun that ordered its release. As was usually the case in Ertegun’s career, he was right to do so.
Darin should never have doubted Mack the Knife‘s potential really. Granted, the lyrics are easily the darkest there had ever been at number 1, even after being cleaned up for the US, but I can imagine a lot of listeners weren’t even taking notice of the words, as it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the music. Darin really is on fire here, and there’s no wonder even Frank Sinatra, who recorded his own version, believed Darin’s was the best. He sounds smooth, assured and in his element, and the band really knock it out of the park with a punchy performance. By the time you reach the end, you’re rooting for Mack to take another life. Or was that just me? This is one of the decade’s very best number 1s, in my eyes.
Mack the Knife hit the top spots in the UK and US, and later won him two Grammy Awards. He followed it with the equally memorable Beyond the Sea. He continued to experiment with genres, trying his hand at country, and still charted highly. He also acted on TV and met and fell in love with Sandra Dee (yes, that Sandra Dee) on the set of his first film, Come September (1961), in which they starred together. They married and had a son, and starred in further films, but divorced in 1967.
Around this time, Darin had become increasingly politically active. He had his first hit in two years in 1966 when he covered folk singer Tim Hardin’s If I Were a Carpenter. He befriended Robert F Kennedy, worked with him on his presidential campaign and was at the Ambassador Hotel the night he was assassinated. This, and learning of his true parentage (more here) resulted in him becoming a recluse for a year. Upon his return to public life he set up his own record label, Direction Records, releasing folk and protest music.
In the 70s Darin had remarried and had several TV shows, but his health problems began to catch up with him. Some think his drive and desire to cram so much into his life came about due to his weakened heart, which was caused by rheumatic fever when he was eight. Darin suspected he was likely to die younger than most, and unfortunately he was right. He first had heart surgery in 1971, and had to be administered oxygen after live shows. He suffered from sepsis in 1973, which further weakened his heart, and following an operation that lasted over six hours, Darin died in recovery, aged only 37, but he had more than left his mark. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hal of Fame in the 90s, and is remembered as one of many bright young talents of rock’n’roll’s early days that went too soon, who refused to be pigeonholed and whose desire to experiment proved influential. His life was immortalised in the 2004 biopic Beyond the Sea, but unfortunately the star, director, co-writer and co-producer was Kevin Spacey, so you can expect the film to be culturally erased from history now.
Written by: Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht/Mark Blitzstein (English lyrics)
Producer: Ahmet Ertegun
Weeks at number 1: 2 (16-29 October)
Spandau Ballet guitarist Gary Kemp – 16 October
Actress Niamh Cusack – 20 October