60 Years of "Mack the Knife"

If I say "Mack the Knife," what do you think of? Some might think of Bobby Darin, who topped the charts and won a Grammy for "Record of the Year" for his version in 1959. Others might think of Ella Fitzgerald, who charmingly forgot the words during a live version in Germany and improvised a series of new choruses that earned her a Grammy, too. There will be some who think of Frank Sinatra, who finally got around to recording it in 1984 and made it into a memorable powerhouse closer for the final decade of his career.

But as great as those three versions are, I think it's safe to say that they wouldn't have existed without Louis Armstrong's hit recording of it from September 28, 1955, 60 years ago today. And it's safer to say that Louis Armstrong's version wouldn't have existed without the one and only George Avakian.

How did it end up in the hands of Avakian and Armstrong? First, we have to go back to 1928 when Kurt Weill and Bartol Brecht combined to write "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" for their musical drama, Die Dreigroschenoper. Here is Brecht himself singing it on record in 1929:

(Am I the only one who can't stop thinking about Ernie Kovacs?)

Sounds familiar, right? And fans of Armstrong's version should have enjoyed the descending banjo riff that starts around 1:30 as it would be re-imagined by Billy Kyle behind Pops. In 1933, an English version of Die Dreigroschenoper opened in America as The Threepenny Opera but it closed in ten days. "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" got new English lyrics but I'm not sure if they survived the short-lived run.

Flash forward to 1954: The Threepenny Opera was about to embark on a popular off-Broadway run with fresh lyrics translated into English by Marc Blitzstein. The Blitzstein lyrics became the "Mack" text, as heard on Gerald Price's rendition of "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" from the Original Broadway Cast recording in 1954:

The off-Broadway production featured Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, who appeared in the original German production of Die Dreigroschenoper in the 1920s and had been singing "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" in German for years. Now she put her own spin on the Blitzstein lyrics and would end up winning a Tony for her performance, a rarity for an off-Broadway performance. Here's Lenya's English version from the Decca Original Cast album (again, listen for the descending riff, now on piano!):

The success of The Threepenny Opera led to a revival of interest in Lenya and the music of Weill. Between July 5-7, 1955, Lenya recorded an entire album of Weill compositions in Hamburg for release by Philips as Lotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill. Philips was the European subsidiary of Columbia Records so it made sense that Columbia would also release the album in the United States, issuing Lotte Lenya Sings the Berlin Theater Songs of Kurt Weill in November 1955. And who is the head of Columbia's pop album department? None other than George Avakian.

In preparation for the release of the album, Avakian latched onto "The Ballad of Mack the Knife." The October 29, 1955 issue of Billboard shed more light on how exactly Avakian was led to this material: through his wife. "It all began last winter when Anahid Ajemiaan, the classical violinist, gave the first American performance of the late Weill's Violin Concerto, which she subsequently recorded for M-G-M. Miss Ajemian's husband, George Avakian, became interested in Weill's music as a result and was particularly taken with the 'Three Penny Opera,' which, in an English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein, has been holding forth at a local off-Broadway theater and which also had been recorded by M-G-M." Thus, Avakian had the melody in his head and he was determined to get the right artist to tackle it for Columbia. I don't usually do this, but allow me to quote myself. This passage is from my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years:

By late September 1955, with the All Stars in top form, good news was in the offing for the many fans of Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats:  George Avakian would oversee Armstrong’s recordings over the course of the next year. Joe Glaser was more than pleased with Avakian’s work.  After Satch Plays Fats was finished in May 1955, he had written to the producer: “It’s wonderful to know the record date was a good one and assure you I appreciate your kind efforts in my behalf.” Avakian and Glaser spent much of the summer in friendly correspondence about music, baseball and of course, Armstrong.  In one of his letters, dated September 19, Avakian wrote:  “If possible...I would like to have Louis record the Kurt Weill ‘Moritat’ (‘Ballad of Mack the Knife’), which we were not able to record in Hollywood. I realize it will be next to impossible to do so because Louis will have so many things to do in the three days before he leaves for Europe, but I will save some time late at night in our 30th Street Studio in case one session is possible. This number is all arranged, and I have the score and complete parts in my office. It would, of course, be a hit in Europe because of its great familiarity to European audiences.” 

On September 28, 1955, two days before the All Stars left for a three-month tour of Europe, Avakian got his wish and recorded Armstrong singing and playing a tune that would become one of the biggest hits of his career. The previous year, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (original title: Dreigroschenoper) had a revival in New York. The musical play featured Weill’s murder ballad, “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” which Columbia had already recorded as a honky-tonk piece replete with banjo. Marc Blitzstein’s English version retitled it “Mack the Knife,” and Avakian thought it could make a catchy pop song, but everybody he showed it to—-including Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis—-said, “George, what can I do with eight bars over and over, from a German opera yet? And how about those lyrics, man?” One of the musicians Avakian offered it to was Dixieland trombonist Turk Murphy. Murphy said he’d do it, and wanted to write an arrangement for Armstrong at no extra charge. “Brilliant me!” Avakian remembered. “I had never thought of Louis Armstrong.” Murphy and Avakian recorded a quick run-through of it and played it for Armstrong while the trumpeter was appearing in San Francisco. “So we played the acetate for Louie and showed him the arrangement,” Avakian says. “And Louie’s reaction was marvelous. He broke into a big smile as he listened to the lyrics and he said, ‘Hey, I’ll record that. I knew cats like that in New Orleans. They’d stick a knife in you as fast as say hello.’”

Back to the blog. As seen above, Avakian wrote to Glaser on September 19 but not wanting to wait for an answer, Avakian went ahead and recorded Lenya singing "Moritat von Mackie Messer" in the original German with Turk Murphy's band on September 22. After Louis recorded his version, Avakian shelved this one but it was eventually released in 1956 and became a hit in German. Here's Lenya and Murphy:

I find that version fascinating because it's more or less the famous Armstrong recording but with the completely different two-beat feel of the Murphy band before they swing out lightly and tightly in the last chorus. After a few days, Glaser answered that Armstrong would be available on September 28, just before leaving for a three-month European tour. It was a packed house in Columbia's studio that day. Louis was there along with the All Stars, featuring brand new clarinetist Edmond Hall. Lotte Lenya was also on hand, as we'll hear in a few minutes. And during the meeting with Murphy, the trombonist had given his arrangement to Armstrong, who gave it to valet Doc Pugh....who promptly lost it. Thus, Murphy, too, had to be summoned to the studio with a duplicate.

With this crew assembled, not even Avakian was sure of what he wanted.  Session tapes survive with take after take being recorded with different feels and even tempos. In fact, as the band got comfortable with the song, Avakian first had them attempt it at as an instrumental at a slower-than expected tempo. This was called as "take 2" on the session tapes and was eventually issued on a Book-of-the-Month LP set:

I like it but you can hear a little hesitation in Louis's short solo as he's still feeling his way around the song. Recording it as instrumental is also an interesting idea, especially with the potentially controversial English lyrics by Blitzstein. Avakian also had Turk Murphy record an instrumental version of his arrangement, while Dick Hyman recorded an instrumental take on it for MGM around the same time as Louis's session. Hyman's version, featuring the pianist whistling and playing a "harpsichord piano" ended up being a hit itself.

But how could Louis pass up those lyrics and all the memories they conjured up? Eventually, he gave it a whirl and by takes 7 and 8, he was "cooking like a king" in Avakian's words on the session tapes.
Some things were worked out on the fly: Avakian suggested Louis humorously change the line "droppin' down" to "droopin' down" and inspired by the presence of Lenya in the studio, had Louis substitute "Lotte Lenya" for "Polly Peachum" when reeling off the names of Mack's victims. 

When Avakian got the takes he wanted, he put a pair of headphones on Louis and had him overdub a trumpet obbligato behind his vocal, just as he had done on Avakian's Plays W.C. Handy  and Satch Plays Fats. Eventually, Avakian got out his razor blade and tape and made splices, including one to seamlessly follow Louis's "Take it, Satch" with the concluding ensemble. Here's the finished product, again, recorded 60 years ago today: 

The results were released as "A Theme from the Threepenny Opera (Mack the Knife)" and the rest is history. That is the definition of a hit record, my friends. For me, it'll always be an important track. 20 years ago around this very time, early October 1995, I went to the Ocean County Library and stared at the imposing rack of Louis Armstrong cassettes. Seeing Louis in The Glenn Miller Story had turned me upside down and I needed more--but what? I grabbed a compilation called 16 Most Requested Songs, assembled by George Avakian in the 1990s. "Mack the Knife" was track one and from the opening, "Dig man, there goes Mack the Knife!" I was hooked. 

Why did it become a hit? Many reasons. There's the song itself, for one thing. As Avakian's aforementioned quote made clear, many jazz musicians turned it down because there wasn't enough meat and it was too repetitive. Well, that's almost the very definition of pop music! Louis's warm reading of the melody is instantly memorable while his somewhat warmer telling of the tale of the this cold-blooded killer should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever read Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. In just about every chapter of that book, Louis wrote about killers, street fights, violence, jail, you name it, but all with a twinkle of awe and admiration and never once a feeling of regret or self-pity. He talks about "Mack" like it's Black Benny, getting great backing from the All Stars, with Barrett Deems very tasty on the brushes and Billy Kyle putting a swinging touch on that old descending riff (not to mention the terrific trumpet obligato). And that last jammed outchorus is pure joy. David Ostwald has always begged and pleaded with me to find a version where Louis plays two choruses at the end but alas, no such version survives. No worries; it's pretty much perfect as it.

The record became a hit but before we get carried away with Louis's later versions, we're not through with the events of September 28, 1955 yet. With Lenya in the studio, Avakian had a seemingly can't-miss idea: pair Louis and Lenya on a new duet version of "Mack the Knife"! Unfortunately, the idea turned out to be a big-miss idea, though a fascinating one. Again, allow me to quote from my book:
 At the same session, Avakian came upon the idea to pair Armstrong up with Lotte Lenya, Weill’s widow and a theater legend in her own right. There was one problem, however, with the execution of his plan, as Avakian recalls. “The performance didn’t come off because Lenya just had no sense of jazz rhythm,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it.” Rehearsal tapes exist of Armstrong, the gutbucket crooner with the gravel voice, teaching the Tony award-winning performer how to phrase properly. “It’s horrible,” Avakian says of the rehearsal. “I never wanted anybody to hear it.”iv As painful as it was to Avakian, the recording is nonetheless fascinating:  one hears Lenya struggling mightily with a half-note rest, as Armstrong patiently coaches her through it. Lenya herself was immortalized in the song by Armstrong when he listed her as among Mack’s victims, an inclusion to appear in future versions by Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra, among others.

Avakian had to work like hell to make something suitable and as always, he succeeded with a passable, if a little strange duet recording:

Eventually, as Avakian alluded to, Sony went digging in the vaults and found the entire Louis-and-Lenya "Mack the Knife" sequence on the original session tapes--and released it all, first on a Bear Family boxed set and eventually on Sony Classical's CD reissue of Lenya Sings Weill. You can understand Avakian's trepidation at something like this seeing the light of the day but I find it totally fascinating and endearing. Here are the session takes:

I love how lovingly Louis coaches Lenya through that half-note rest. There's no frustration, no laughing (except when Lenya's show some self-deprecating humor). Seemingly each member of the All Stars takes turns their time in demonstrating how to play it. Poor Lenya just has zero jazz feeling at all but she's a game sport. When she finally nails it at the end, Louis cheers like a proud papa watching his child take its first steps. And I love Louis's emphatic repetition of the word "boom" to demonstrate the rest; years later, when audio was released of Howlin' Wolf teaching the younger London blues acolytes how to play his music, that was his syllable of choice, too. 

With that out of the way, Louis embarked on his famed Ambassador Satch tour. Avakian told him that "Mack the Knife" would go over big in Europe but once again, Doc Pugh left the arrangement at the session and Louis had to go through the tour "Mack"-less.

Meanwhile, Avakian went to work on his "Mack the Knife" Columbia blitz. On October 29, Billboard published an article about Columbia being poised to release Louis and Turk Murphy's respective singles. With the headline, "Unorthodox Events Lead to 2 Disks," the article reported, "An unorthodox chain of events will result this week in two unusual single record issues by Columbia. Both will feature 'Mack the Knife,' the opening song from the Kurt Weil 'Three Penny Opera,' and the artists are jazz stars Louis Armstrong and Turk Murphy, in vocal and instrumental versions respectively." 

Finally, Armstrong's single was released in early November. Again, Billboard first covered it in its November 19, 1955 issue, writing, "Trick lyrics sell this tune from Weill's 'Three Penny Opera.' The Satch comes thru in the usual great style with his own blowing dubbed in behind the singing."(Multiple reviewers made comments on the song’s lyrics. One in Gramophone discussed “Mack’s” “unnecessarily long, and in places, revolting lyric that might easily incite impressionable teenagers to violence (and has had that effect in America, I understand.)”At the same time, Avakiaan was getting Lenya ready for her Columbia "debut." Lotte Lenya Sings the Berlin Theater Tunes of Kurt Weill was released in late November and got a rave review in Billboard in the December 3, 1955 issue.

Avakian was making his push but the real surprise was Dick Hyman's instrumental version hitting the top of the pop charts at the end of the year. Armstrong's own version eventually rose to the number 20 slot on the pop singles chart, being assessed as "a fair seller" in a 1957 issue of Billboard. But to this day, Avakian maintains that "Mack the Knife" sold more copies than generally known--many more copies. Why? Because the "Columbia Record Club" was the sweeping the nation and Louis was a big part of it in 1956. Avakian told me that the Record Club didn't measure individual sales but he assured me that Armstrong's "Mack the Knife" "sold in the millions" just through the Record Club alone. Louis was even on the cover of the May 1956 Columbia Record Club Magazine.

(Side note: the flip side of "Mack the Knife" was a new recording of "Back O'Town Blues," recorded at the same session. That tune was credited to Louis and his old music director, Luis Russell. Luis's daughter, the fantastic singer Catherine Russell, told me that the royalties on that "Mack the Knife" single were so huge, Luis was able to buy a brand new Cadillac off of them alone!)

Louis and the All Stars returned home at the end of December 1955 to find themselves enjoying the perks of a hit record--if only they remembered it! “Opening night at the Fountainbleu in Miami,” Avakian wrote about Armstrong’s return to the United States, “Louis fielded requests for his hit with charm and ‘come back tomorrow, folks, and we’ll lay it on you!’ That evening, he took the band down to the hotel coffee shop, armed with five dollars worth of dimes and a stack of blank music paper. They fed the jukebox over and over, copying their own parts . . . and that’s how Louis Armstrong got to play his multi-million seller-to-be for the first time in public.”

Avakian remembered Armstrong appearing at the Fountainbleu in Miami but in actuality, he was at Ciro's in Miami from February 9-19. This is undoubtedly where "Mack the Knife" made its debut in the All Stars' repertoire. The Ciro's engagement was cut short due to Armstrong suffering from eye problems. After a stint in the Eye and Ear Infirmary and a trip to California to finish filming High Society, Louis embarked on a tour with Woody Herman on March 9, 1956. 

On March 17, the tour found itself in Carnegie Hall. Louis performed his new hit and even dedicated it to George Avakina. Avakian wasn't recording the concert but Stephen Temmer of Gotham Audio was. This is only my speculation but I believe Temmer must have heard the Avakian dedication, thought George would appreciate it and sent him just that performance on tape. Not only did Avakian appreciate it, he ended up issuing it on 1957's Satchmo the Great LP, giving it a venue and performance date of Lewisohn Stadium, July 14, 1956 to cover up the fact that the Carnegie Hall show wasn't an authorized recording.  All such details and stories can be found in my notes to last year's 9-CD Mosaic Records Armstrong boxed set, along with the audio. Here 'tis, the first surviving live "Mack the Knife":

It's a fantastic performance and an electric one, the band and audience energized by the new hit. It was part of the show now; I can never guarantee a statement like this but it sure as hell seems like it was performed at every live Louis Armstrong show until his final engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria in March 1971. Because it wasn't an improvised showpiece like "Indiana" or "Royal Garden Blues," it's not worth sharing every surviving performance. But the routine did change a few times over the years and it's worth taking a tour of those versions, most of which survive on video. So without further ado, here's the first surviving footage of Louis performing "Mack the Knife," done for Edward R. Murrow's theatrical documentary Satchmo the Great and filmed in London in May 1956 (I can only imagine what  it looked like in Empress Hall with Murrow's camera right up in Louis's face like that! A zoom can only do so much, right?)

Back in the States, Louis performed it at the Chicago Concert of June 1, at Newport on July 6 and at Lewisohn Stadium on July 14; all three versions are on the aforementioned Mosaic box. However, I should spend a minute on the only "live" version released at the time by Columbia, that from Newport. Avakian the visionary knew that Newport was blowing up so he recorded a variety of Columbia acts at that year's Festival. But Avakian being Avakian, he also wanted to present the best possible performances from a musical standpoint so if that meant doctoring up studio recordings to sound "live," then so so be it. 

As chronicled in my Mosaic notes, Avakian ran into trouble during Armstrong's Newport set because the trumpeter sang the entire time into a Voice of America microphone, making his vocals unusable for his eventual Columbia At Newport album (shared with Eddie Condon). Avakian could have used the opening and closing instrumental portions of the Newport performance on the LP but instead, had a version from an impromptu Lewisohn Stadium rehearsal/session that was more exciting. BUT (are you still following me), on the Lewisohn version, the electric was switched off momentarily so a half chorus of the vocal wasn't even captured on tape.

So without useable vocals from Newport or Lewisohn, where to turn? Why, to the September 28, 1955 studio session, of course! I'm almost embarrassed that I didn't hear this until I began working on the Mosaic set but here's how Avakian issued. The announcement is Newport...the opening choruses are Lewisohn (Dale Jones on bass)....the vocal is an unissued alternate from the studio date (listen for Arvell Shaw on bass and the sudden drop in tempo)....and the rideout is once again Lewisohn! Phew, that's a lot of splicing!

Before we start the video marathon, I did want to share one more mysterious studio recording of "Mack the Knife," this one featuring a duet between Louis and Velma Middleton! The circumstances behind this recording are a mystery. The late Armstrong discographer Jos Willems sent me a copy and he thought it might have been an outtake from a Columbia recording session. However, George Avakian was adamant that he never recorded a Louis-and-Velma duet.

So where does it come from? As always, I find myself playing detective but without a surefire explanation this time. When I started working for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I noticed that Louis had this version on acetate disc and dubbed it to reel-to-reel tape multiple times. The first time was on a tape obviously made up of acetate recordings, most featuring Louis's brother-in-law, singer Charlie Phipps. First, was Phipps singing "I Love You, Samantha" from High Society with the exact backing from the filmed version. Louis must have been given an acetate to rehearse from and Phipps recorded a vocal on top of it. Next followed Phipps singing "You Make Me Feel So Young."

But then came the Louis and Velma duet on "Mack the Knife." So could it have been made privately around the time of High Society? That's my guess, though there's no date or any indications of this being a professional recording. Still, here's Louis and Velma, having a lot of fun (and more success than poor Lotte Lenya!):

Okay, with that out of the way, grab some popcorn and get ready for a marathon of "Mack the Knife" videos! By 1959, "Mack" was noticeably gaining some speed in the tempo department. This tends to happen when a band has to perform a hit song night after night but I also wonder if Bobby Darin's exciting version inspired the more freewheeling feel (Louis owned Darin's version on reel-to-reel tape). Here's the All Stars swinging it in Stuttgart, Germany in 1959:

In 1962, Louis seemed to make a conscious decision to slow down some of the songs he had been performing for years, such as "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Now You Has Jazz," "La Vie En Rose" and "Mack the Knife." Here's "Mack" in Munich that year at a bouncing tempo reminiscent of the 1955 original, but now, in a sign of pacing, with only one chorus up front :

One year later, the routine had changed almost completely. The tempo was even slower--compare it to the 1955 original and it sounds like slow motion--but there's something new to look out for: an improvised second chorus! As could be heard on that 1962 German version, Louis was starting to play around a bit during the outchorus, coming up with some new phrases including that one chromatic run into the stratosphere. Maybe he felt like getting a little more creative but starting here in 1963, Louis would play one chorus of straight melody followed by an improvised chorus.

But there's another new development: the song now ends with the vocal. As much as I loved that swinging rideout, it makes sense to end on the triumphant "Now that Mackie's back in town!" Here's the earliest surviving version with the new routine, from Australia in March 1963:

Louis tinkered with his second chorus for a while and seemed to perfect it by the time of his Iron Curtain tour of March 1965. Here he is in East Berlin turning out a wonderful little solo the second time through. Also, listen for the rhythm section really lock in midway through the vocal, swinging comfortably at this tempo with effective "Count Base-Eee" accents:

After the Iron Curtain tour, Louis underwent dental surgery that led to the slow decline of his chops. He was no longer able to do what he did in 1965 but he still continued to come up with nice variations in that second chorus, as can be heard on this version from Juan-Les-Pins, France in July 1967:

By the summer of 1968, Louis had lost a lot of weight and seemed happy with himself and his band. All of a sudden, tempos on things like "The Saints" and "Mack the Knife" regained their 1950s speed. Here's the All Stars in London in July 1968, taking "Mack" at a more sprightly clip with Louis once again creating a swinging second chorus, similar to the one from 1967 but sounding stronger and more swinging at this tempo:

Those would be the last trumpet notes that survive on Louis Armstrong's long association with "Mack the Knife." After laying off for nearly two years after two stints in intensive care, Louis returned to television and occasion live performances. Multiple "Macks" survive from the final year of Louis's life, but never with a note of trumpet, even on nights he played otherwise. Of all the final ones, I like this one from The Flip Wilson Show in October 1970. Louis looks resplendent in his tuxedo and the band really works up a head of steam behind him (is that Clark Terry playing the obligato midway through?):

And that concludes this 60th anniversary look at Louis Armstrong's history with "Mack the Knife." Yes, some people will always associate it with Bobby or Ella or Frank (or if you're a serious jazz fan, Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry and others) but to paraphrase Dizzy Gillespie, "No Louis Armstrong--and George Avakian--no 'Mack the Knife.'"


RICHIE said…
I had to take the day off to get through this post but it was worth it. Avak the Knifes splicing is masterful, the tempo changes through the years brought new life to the simple tune and Louis delivers right up to the vocal only versions. Your time is appreciated by all of us who love everything Pops. I have a new found respect for MACK THE KNIFE!
Thanks Ricky.
My brushes are ready for the first chorus!
The trombone section approves of this post.

Thank you Ricky!

On a side note, this makes me want an ebook version of your book with audio and video examples. No problem! Haha. I may as well have just requested Misty after you just finished your last song of the evening. sorry.

Thanks a lot for this fascinating story about the genesis and evolution of Satchmo's Mack the Knife!
One little remark on the early history of the tune in Germany: Bertolt Brecht did not sing the tune in the first stage version (premiered at Berlin 31st Aug 1928) - this was the famous jewish actor Kurt Gerron (who came to death in concentration camp in 1944) - nor did he the first record of it - which did Harald Paulsen in 1928, who was playing the role of Maceath in the original stage cast, but not that of the singer of the 'Moritat' (old German word for street ballad). (Wrote myself a few lines about the tune's history for a school band youtube clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PT0gxLn9fag , but in German only.)

What is really fascinating: the rehearsal clip of Louis & Lotte Lenya. Thanks for that ... it is unbelievable ! ...

It is definitely one of Satchmo's most imposing achievements what he got out of this, musically spoken, rather "spartanic" tune. And this is not alone due to Turk Murphy's arrangement (who definitely wasnot sure if the simple melody alone would be enough - listen to his added interludes an many key changes in his own recording from 1955).
best regards from Germany,
Admin said…
This was the second Armstrong famed song I learned to play in music class on my trumpet. The first being Hello Dolly. My music teacher knew I was a fan of Louis and taught me to play this.

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