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My 10 Favorite Versions of "Mack the Knife"

"Mack the Knife" was composed by Kurt Weill and its lyrics written by Bertolt Brecht. The original lyrics were written in German for the 1928 music drama, Die Dreifroschenoper, or in English, The Threepenny Opera. It’s a song about a murderer who charms and steals from his victims before killing them. It’s amazing that such a dark song became so popular, but that's probably due to its upbeat, catchy melody.

"Mack" has been sung by many artists, and below are my ten favorite versions of the song, presented in chronological order. Please notice how each of the individual performers put their own spin on the tune to make it their own.

1. Lotte Lenya (1954)
2. Louis Armstrong & Lotte Lenya (1955)
3. Bing Crosby w/Bob Scobey's Frisco Jazz Band (1957)
4. Bobby Darin (1959)
5. Dean Martin (1959)
6. Ella Fitzgerald (1960)
7. Michael Bublé (1999)
8. Robbie Williams (2001)
9. Westlife (2004)
10. Ian Emmerson (2010)

1. "Mack the Knife"—Lotte Lenya (1954)

"Mack the Knife" was written by Weill for his wife, Lotte Lenya, who starred in the German productions that initially gave this song its legs. The first English-language translation of The Threepenny Opera was in 1933, but that run only lasted ten days. It wasn't until 1954 that The Threepenny went mainstream.

Marc Blitzstein staged the production that year, and it played Off-Broadway for over six years. One of the main reasons for its success was because he brought back Lenya to star. His translation of the song and her delivery are the basis for all the versions to follow.

2. "Mack the Knife"—Louis Armstrong & Lotte Lenya (1955)

The Off-Broadway success of The Threepenny Opera led to a few covers, most notably by the great Louis Armstrong. He recorded the track on September 28, 1955, with Lenya in the studio. Her presence inspired him to add her name to the list of Macheath's female victims. We hear Satchmo call out the names of Jenny Diver, Sukey Tawdry, Lucy Brown, and then finally, "Look out, Miss Lotte Lenya."

The same day Armstrong cut the single version of "Mack the Knife," he also recorded a duet with Ms. Lenya, which didn't come out until years later. On October 25, 2003, NPR broadcast that duet as part of Weekend Edition Saturday.

3. "Mack the Knife"—Bing Crosby w/Bob Scobey's Frisco Jazz Band (1957)

Bing Crosby recorded "Mack" for his first album with RCA Victor, 1957's Bing With A Beat. It was actually a concept album with Bing tackling hot jazz and dixieland arrangements by Scobey's Frisco Jazz Band.

Fun fact: "Mack" was the second Kurt Weill song covered by Crosby. He recorded Weill's "September Song" in 1943 and then recorded it again for the BBC on September 12, 1977. It was one of the final songs he ever performed, as he passed away a month later from a massive heart attack.

In 1959 Bobby Darin took the song by the scruff of the neck and turned it into the swing classic widely known today. Unlike the Brecht-Weill original, which remains in the same key throughout, Darin’s version changes key, chromatically, no fewer than five times, ratcheting up the tension.

— David Cheal

4. "Mack the Knife"—Bobby Darin (1959)

Bobby Darin decided to perform this song after he saw a performance of The Threepenny Opera. He recorded "Mack the Knife" in one take on December 19, 1958, and according to lore was reluctant to release it as a single. Good thing he relented, because the song hit #1 and stayed there for nine weeks, earning Darin Grammys for Record of the Year and Best New Artist. While other versions are as good—see Robbie Williams below—Bobby Darin forever owns "Mack the Knife."

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Fun fact: Darin added the "Five'll get ya ten/Old Mackie's back in town" part. It was originally translated as, "Bet you Mack, he's back in town."

5. "Mack the Knife"—Dean Martin (1959)

Dean Martin's version is almost exactly the same as Bobby Darin's, which makes sense since Deano recorded it for the Startime TV variety show on November 3, 1959, at the peak of the single's popularity. The only twist I was able to spot on this one was that he changed "Lucy Brown" to "Charlie Brown."

6. "Mack the Knife"—Ella Fitzgerald (1960)

Ella Fitzgerald recorded "Mack the Knife" on February 13, 1960 for the Ella In Berlin album. One of her most acclaimed performances, she memorably forgets the lyrics to "Mack" and starts vamping, including a funny imitation of Louis. The rendition was so good that she received Grammys for Best Female Vocal Performance (Single) and Best Vocal Performance, Female (Album).

7. "Mack the Knife"—Michael Bublé (1999)

In 1999, a young Michael Bublé appeared on the Variety Show of Hearts Telethon to sing "Mack the Knife." The performance was in support of special needs kids living in British Columbia, Canada. Bublé puts his own spin on "Mack" by imitating Ella Fitzgerald imitating Louis Armstrong!

8. "Mack the Knife"—Robbie Williams (2001)

Robbie Williams is an English singer/songwriter, and this version of "Mack the Knife" was recorded for his 2001 DVD, Live at The Royal Albert. As definitive as Darin's version is, Williams takes the song to another energy level. You can tell he loves this song—his enthusiasm is infectious!

9. "Mack the Knife"—Westlife (2004)

Westlife is an Irish boy band who recorded "Mack the Knife" for GMTV, a British morning TV show, on October 29, 2004. I like how the singers take different verses, but then they harmonize on each other's lines throughout. Solid performance.

The band recorded "Mack" for their 2004 album, ...Allow Us to Be Frank, a tribute to Frank Sinatra and classic '50s/'60s lounge music.

10. "Mack the Knife"—Ian Emmerson (2010)

Ian Emmerson is a guy I stumbled upon on YouTube. He sings this song while playing the ukulele. He's not famous yet but made my top ten list. Take a listen.

Bonus "Mack": Mac Tonight

Mac Tonight was a mascot introduced by McDonald's restaurants in 1986 to advertise McDonald's late-night hours to adults. He had a crescent moon for a head, wore a suit and sunglasses, and was depicted as being a jazzy lounge singer. Basically, he was nightmare fuel. His name was obviously a play on "Mack The Knife," and the song was changed to include McDonald's-themed lyrics. Which, I'm sure, is exactly what Kurt Weill would've wanted.

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Comments

john farley on September 17, 2016:

Bing Crosby & The Bob Scobey's Frisco Jazz Band version from 1957?

TycoonSam (author) from Washington, MI on June 13, 2016:

Thank you Luis!

LUÍS CARLOS on April 30, 2016:

I am a big fan on this song, and i love this compilation great

TycoonSam (author) from Washington, MI on September 02, 2014:

OhMe, Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed!

Nancy Tate Hellams from Pendleton, SC on September 01, 2014:

Love this song especially Dean Martin. Sure enjoyed this and didn't know the story of the song so thought it was very interesting.

D.Juris Stetser from South Dakota on December 19, 2013:

Really well researched, and entertaining ! Love learning about the darker aspects of the original 'Mack" Voted Awesome, Interesting Useful, and they should have a "Just Plain Wonderful' button. Thanks so much for sharing this !

TycoonSam (author) from Washington, MI on December 22, 2012:

Thanks Ralph! So that's where the line "Lotte Lenya and Lucy Brown comes in. Thank you so much for sharing.

TycoonSam (author) from Washington, MI on December 22, 2012:

Thank you Tammy! It's always a pleasure when you stop by.

Ralph Deeds from Birmingham, Michigan on December 16, 2012:

Great hub on a great song, but you missed the greatest performer Lotte Lenya who sings it in German. As I recall she was Kurt Weill's wife. Here's a link to Lotte singing Mack the Knife:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPG9GcykPIY

Wikibio--Lotte Lenya http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotte_Lenya

Tammy from North Carolina on December 16, 2012:

I had to vote for the original. Very cool hub. This is a classic time from a classic bygone era. Very enjoyable.

TycoonSam (author) from Washington, MI on November 01, 2012:

Stessily, That's great about your father's music collection! I wish I was exposed to a wider variety of music at a younger age.

Thanks for the comments and compliments!

stessily on November 01, 2012:

TycoonSam, My father had an amazing musical collection, so I grew up on both "Mack the Knife" and "Threepenny Opera". "Mack" has been a persistent favorite for me throughout life; I fell in love with it at first hearing, sung by the late, great, unforgettable Bobby Darin. It's a song I feel completely comfortable singing a cappella and have done so in a canoe in the pristine Wisconsin northern wilderness, enchanting even my hard-core rock music devotee boyfriend.

Thank you for introducing Westlife's performance; I was unaware of it, and I love it!

I would also add that I think that Kevin Spacey gave a fantastic rendition of "Mack" in "Beyond the Sea". From my perspective, his performance in the movie honored Bobby's memory.

Your tribute to "Mack the Knife" is greatly, greatly appreciated. It is well done!

Appreciatively, Stessily

TycoonSam (author) from Washington, MI on October 25, 2012:

Thank you grillrepair. I will have to look up Pirate Jenny.

Pretty cool on making the recording too, I bet it was fun!

grillrepair from florida on October 25, 2012:

i did my thesis work on brecht in college and all the songs brecht and weil did were like this. Pirate Jenny is as good as Mack The Knife but they are all fun, catchy and dark as only a proud communist politically active artist living in east Berlin can be.

although i heard it closed i went to a "musical library" in sarasota, florida once that had anything, everything and procured a recording of the helene weigel original recording. a thrilll for me although i do not know the language.

TycoonSam (author) from Washington, MI on October 13, 2012:

Thank you darkprinceofjazz I will look that one up.

darkprinceofjazz on October 13, 2012:

I like Sonny Rollins' Instrumental from the 1956 album Saxophone Colossus, the track is renamed "Moritat" on the album.

TycoonSam (author) from Washington, MI on October 13, 2012:

Thank you Jools!

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on October 13, 2012:

Interesting hub. I had no idea that Mack the Knife had such a dark meaning and was amazed to find it was part of an opera first. Your choices are great. I think Darin's version is the best but I like all of those you chose; Michael Buble is amazing as is Ella and I really like Robbie William's version because he does 'swing' really well. Voted up and shared.

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