The shark has such teeth, dear: From Mackie Messer to Mack The Knife

He has travelled a long way, through space and time. Ever since his first appearance in Germany in 1928, the story of Mack The Knife has been told by many artists.

It all started in 1928, when Bertold Brecht wrote the piece Die Dreigroschenoper (in English: The Threepenny Opera). The play with songs tells the tale of Macheath, or Mackie Messer, who marries Polly Peachum, something which upsets her father in such a way that he wants Macheath to be executed. The first song sung in the play is the Moritat von Mackie Messer, which compares Mackie to a shark and then goes on telling what he did. It was written on special request of Harald Paulsen, the actor playing Mackie Messer, as he wanted something to warm up the public for his spectacular entrance.

And so it all started. Kurt Gerron played the role of ‘Ausrufer’ in the opening performance of the play, accompagnied by a street organ. However, he wasn’t the first to record it. In fact, his version was first recorded two years later, in 1930, then accompagnied by a band. The first recorded version was made in 1928 and sung by Harald Paulsen, the man who played Mackie Messer. The writer of the play, Bertold Brecht, also took a chance and recorded the song in 1929.

However, probably the best known German version of this song was recorded in 1930 by Lotte Lenya. She was the wife of Kurt Weill, who wrote the music to the songs of the play. She also played in the first performance, as Jenny.

So far, the song was in German. The play got to Broadway in 1933 for the first time, then of course in English. George Heller sung the song, but it wasn’t called Mack The Knife yet. Instead, it sticked to the original title, interestingly translated as The Legend of Jackie Messer.

The title The Ballad Of Mack The Knife was given in 1954. A new version of the play got to Broadway and the song was reworked by Marc Blitzstein. This version was sung by Gerald Price, who would be the first in a long list of names.

Interestingly, this list of names can be found in almost any version of the song ever since. At the end of the song, the names of Jenny Diver, Lucy Brown and Sukey Tawdry are named, which are all characters in the opera. But on top of that, the name Lotte Lenya appears, who, as already shown, played in the opera and recorded the song. The reason for this is quite simple. Louis Armstrong mistakenly took her as a character of the opera as well and included her in the lyrics, which were used again and again for some time. His version was also the first to appear out of the context of the opera. With the Blitzstein version, which was a weaker version than the original, the song made its way to the hit parade.

It were these lyrics that Bobby Darin recorded in 1959. Darin was known for his rock ‘n roll songs like Splish Splash, so the song wasn’t a very obvious choice. However, he knew to bring it to the audience and as a result he got a number 1 hit in the US with the song.

A very famous performance of the song was made by Ella Fitzgerald, who sang it live in Berlin in 1960. She did a great job, but forgot the lyrics and so the song would be legendary because of the improvisation she does on it.

Many other versions would follow, including a version by Frank Sinatra with the orchestra of Quincy Jones. It’s a polished version, almost unrecognizable from the original song it once was.

Interestingly, some artists also try to bring it back to the song it once was. Sting recorded the song and tried to put it back in the political context it had in the time of Brecht. However, the critics weren’t very amused and the public didn’t recognize the song, too. The show Sting was in stopped after two months and the versions after him would (apart from the version by Nick Cave) present a polished, nice jazzy song.

After all, the shark had sharp teeth, but in the cause of time, they got polished, bit by bit…


There is a live version by the Doors, which includes quite a piece of Mack the Knife. The Doors were heavily inspired by Bertold Brecht, which was shown in their recording of the Alabama Song, which came from another opera of Brecht: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. The Alabama Song would later also be recorded by Bette Midler and by David Bowie.




Posted on May 25, 2018, in FlinterFiles Music Stories and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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