Programming note: Steyn's Song of the Week can now be heard weekly on Serenade Radio, every Sunday at 5.30pm British Summer Time. If you missed today's show, you can hear the repeat at 5.30am Monday UK time - that's 9.30pm Pacific Sunday evening on the West Coast of North America, or Monday lunchtime in Australia.
Alternatively, there's a second repeat at 9pm Thursday, which is 4pm Eastern.
~Fifty years ago this month Louis Armstrong died. Ten years ago this month Frank Foster died. The two men are connected by this week's song:
Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jack-knife has MacHeath, dear
And he keeps it out of sight...
Here's Louis on TV with Flip Wilson in late 1970, a tad over six months before he died and still bursting with life. The intro is fun:
You'll almost certainly know Satchmo's famous record of that number. And even if you don't, if you saw Sinatra live in the last years of his six-decade career, you'll know it in an entirely different version. It was Frank's last crowd-pleaser, the last song to takes its place among the arrangements he'd been singing for forty years and to stay in his book right until he hung up his hat in 1995. By the end, most of Sinatra's stage repertoire came from the classic albums of the Fifties ("I've Got You Under My Skin", "Come Fly With Me") and the big hits of the Sixties ("Fly Me To The Moon") and the Seventies ("New York, New York"). Most of those arrangements were written by Nelson Riddle ("You Make Me Feel So Young"), Billy May ("Luck Be A Lady"), Gordon Jenkins ("It Was A Very Good Year") or Don Costa ("My Way"). But by the time Frank got to "Mack the Knife", most of those guys were gone. The last entry to the Sinatra songbook - indeed, the one that often closed the show, the killer finale that could fill any soulless rock stadium and have the crowd cheering to the rafters - was added to his repertoire in 1984, and the man who got the gig to write the chart was a terrific sax player called Frank Foster.
Foster was the arranger who'd revitalized the Count Basie band, and eventually took it over. He wrote the instrumental "Shiny Stockings", a Basie staple that Ella Fitzgerald came pretty close to turning into a bona fide song:
Frank Foster had a long if intermittent history with Sinatra, including the marvelous tenor solo on the Chairman's early Sixties remake of "Pennies From Heaven" with the Basie band. But his biggest service to Sinatra was that 1984 arrangement of "Mack the Knife", which confirmed "Mack"'s position as the Weimar Republic's biggest ever pop hit.
Which was pretty odd, considering the Weimar Republic had been out of business for a half-century by then.
Kurt Weill died in 1950, so he never heard Louis Armstrong's or Frank Sinatra's records of his tune. The former was released a few months before Bertolt Brecht's death in 1956, but it doesn't sound particularly the bag of East German radio programmers, so I'd be surprised if Bert was familiar with it. Any song that can embrace both Bert Brecht and Frank Foster has to have something going for it, and, for its composer in particular, "Mack The Knife" is a song that proved (posthumously) transformative. A German Jew, Kurt Weill left Berlin when the Nazis came to power and, after brief sojourns in Paris and London, eventually arrived in America. When Life described him, in 1947, as a German composer, Weill wrote to protest:
I do not consider myself a 'German composer'. The Nazis obviously did not consider me as such either, and I left their country (an arrangement which suited both me and my rulers admirably) in 1933. I am an American citizen.
And no equivocating, hyphenating multiculti mumbo-jumbo either. From 1936 on, he spoke and wrote only in English - even to his wife, Lotte Lenya. He Americanized his name, too. Whenever I used to discuss Weill on the BBC in London, their dread Pronunciation Unit would insist that he be called "Koort Vile". In vain, I would point out that the man himself, who's surely entitled to a say in the matter, pronounced it, from the moment he arrived in New York, Curt While; that his lyricists and other Broadway contemporaries all refer to him as Curt While; and that Maxwell Anderson begins his lyric to Weill's first American pop standard, "September Song" (1938), with a sly play on his composer's name:
Oh, it's a long, long while
From May to December...
The "long while" is in contrast to Anderson's writing partner: a curt while.
A man's name is as central to his identity as you can get, but, since his premature death, even that's been taken away from Weill. In a remarkable act of cultural appropriation, he was in effect posthumously extradited to Berlin and reGermanicized - as the in-house composer for the decadent vamping soundtrack of Weimar. The composer's personal and professional efforts to assimilate were in vain: He worked with Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash, Alan Jay Lerner; he wrote musical comedies for Mary Martin and Danny Kaye. "He was very interested in money," sneered the conductor Otto Klemperer. "He got too involved in American showbusiness and all the terrible people in it."
To listen to twits like Klemperer, you'd think that Weill, torn between the devil and the deep blue rinse of Broadway matinée ladies, should have stuck with Hitler as the lesser evil. Better a death camp in the Fatherland than a camp death on Broadway. To such critics, Bertolt Brecht got it right: He loathed America, and couldn't wait to get back home and found the Berliner Ensemble. Poor old Weill wanted to be part of the Irving Berliner Ensemble, part of the glorious American tradition of Kern, Gershwin, Porter and Rodgers. And he came close, not only with "September Song" but with "Speak Low" and "Lost In The Stars". But in the end he never sounded more American than when, nine years after the composer's death, Bobby Darin put a hey-ma-I'm-swingin' Sinatra vocal to a Louis Prima shuffle and made a Vegas über-showstopper out of a gloomy Berlin cabaret ballad:
And so it was that two pillars of German leftist theatre, both deceased, hooked up posthumously with a young rock'n'roller barely out of his teens and took a moritat - a murder ballad - to Number One on the Billboard pop charts. Bobby Darin's "Mack The Knife" was not just a hit record but a great record (the "definitive" version, as Sinatra called it). It won the Grammy for Record of the Year; it came in at Number Three on Billboard's All-Time Hot 100; it regularly figures high in lists of the best records in the history of pop music; on the BBC's "Desert Island Discs" Simon Cowell named it the greatest hit of all time; and most nights of the week you can wander in to a karaoke bar almost anywhere on the planet and find some Darin wannabe makin' with the finger-snaps as he relates MacHeath's catalogue of crimes. That 1959 arrangement, by Richard Wess, has a lot of miles on the clock, and it's still going strong - and still sounding about as American as a Berliner Ensemble chap can get. Well, unless you count a later stage of its transformation:
It's the great taste
Come on, make it...
For a "German composer", it doesn't get more American than that.
In fact, Mack the Knife pre-dates Weill, and Weimar. Back in 1728, he was Captain MacHeath, the central figure in The Beggar's Opera by John Gay. Two centuries later, Weill and Brecht hit upon the idea of updating it: Die Dreigroschenoper retains most of Gay's characters - MacHeath, Polly Peachum - and keeps the action in London, but puts a Brechtian spin on things. Gay's MacHeath was a rogueish highwayman; Brecht's is a crueler figure. But in late August 1928, a few days before the show's opening in Berlin, it occurred to the authors that they had a problem. They'd cast as MacHeath an actor called Harold Paulsen and he was such a charmer that he wasn't quite conveying the amoral ruthlessness of the character. What to do? Brecht figured the easiest way was to have someone come on right at the start of the evening and explain to the audience what an evil bastard the guy is. And so the opera opens with a Moritat - a lugubrious Teuton equivalent of one of those Cole Porter laundry lists in which an accumulation of examples all make a single point, that "You're the Top" or "Anything Goes". In Brecht's version, the Moritat singer begins by comparing MacHeath to a shark and then cataloguing his crimes: a murder on the Strand, the disappearance of a wealthy man, the fatal stabbing of a woman, a missing cabbie, a fire that kills seven children, the rape of a young widow...
For the 1930 film version, Brecht wrote an additional verse, summing it all up:
There are some who are in darkness
And the others are in light
And you see the ones in brightness
Those in darkness drop from sight.
In other words, the wealthy glitter in the daylight while in the shadows terrible things happen to poor people and nobody cares or even sees. Brecht bashed out his original text overnight, brought it to the theatre in the morning and handed it to Weill, who returned the following day with the tune. He got it, he said, from the sounds of the Berlin traffic while riding home on the streetcar. On the other hand, Brecht told his chums that he'd come up with not just the words but also the music (he made the same claim for "Alabama Song"). He certainly liked it enough to record it, with extravagantly rolled "r"s. Whoever composed it, there's not a lot of it - just sixteen bars, repeated over and over, while various four-line verses are sung over the top. And it's not a lyrical sixteen bars, like, say, "Lovely to Look At", but a rather robotic seesaw, with three of the four lines strung on the same three notes - E, G and A (if you're in the original key) - and the only variant (the third line) starting the same pattern a tone lower.
As for those in darkness dropping from sight, that was pretty much what happened to the "Moritat" in the film. The movie allows Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife, to reprise her role as Jenny, but does some very strange things with the music, starting with the overture. The picture opens up the play by starting with MacHeath spotting Polly Peachum and following her down the street to the accompaniment of the "Moritat". It's dramatically effective, but it kind of throws away the song. The film was not a hit in America. As for the play, in 1933 it came to the Empire Theatre in a translation by one of the producers Gifford Cochran, and featuring a young Burgess Meredith: He didn't get any older during the show; it ran for - count 'em - twelve performances. But it marked the first time Die Dreigroschenoper was given the name The Threepenny Opera.
All but unknown in the English-speaking world, the "Moritat" was a hit song in Germany and other parts of Continental Europe:
That was the very first recording, in 1929, from Harold Paulsen with the Orchesterbegleitung. Pre-Hitler, you could hear it pretty much any night of the week from the house bands in Berlin cabarets. But for a foretaste of the number's future listen to an old 78 by something called the Haller Jazz Revue Orchestra. It's a two-part medley of songs from Die Dreigroschenoper, and the B-side starts with a 30-second blast of Polly Peachum's second-act solo "Das Lied von der Unzulanglichkeit" and then starts in on the "Moritat" - first as heard in the show, then in the somewhat stiff foxtrot of a London dance band, next, as Will Friedwald puts it in his book Stardust Melody, with "three soprano saxophones, in the manner of Fletcher Henderson, followed by more hot, pumping trombone":
It's still unmistakeably Weimar but Friedwald identifies this recording as "the first indication that the song might make it on its own, removed from the Dreigroschen context."
Except that it didn't. For the next two decades, "Mack the Knife" remained yoked to "the Dreigroschen context", which in turn was yoked to the discredited Weimar Republic and then to the rise of Hitler, and war and a lot of other sweeping tides of history that left it beached in an obscure corner on the sands of time that few people were eager to revisit, least of all for the purposes of uncovering a pop and jazz standard. That "Mack the Knife" came back at all is due to an unlikely intersection of equally unlikely supporting players.
The first was Marc Blitzstein. He made his name in 1937 with a blockbuster bit of sub-Brechtian leftie agitprop, The Cradle Will Rock. A few years back, Tim Robbins made a film of the (near) same name, Cradle Will Rock, which was the story of the making of The Cradle Will Rock, because not even Tim Robbins would be so foolish as to try to breathe life into that leaden plonker of a show. Nevertheless, Cradle started Blitzstein on a short but productive career as a composer of "Broadway operas": I once introduced a live performance on the BBC of his Regina, based on Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, and rather enjoyed it musically. But as a young man Blitzstein had studied in Berlin under Schoenberg, had seen the first production of Die Dreigroschenoper and had been, from that moment, a huge fan of Kurt Weill. In 1950, while working on Regina,he wrote, just for personal pleasure, an English lyric to "Pirate Jenny". Weill and Lotte Lenya both liked it. Shortly thereafter, Kurt Weill died, and at his funeral Marc Blitzstein performed another Dreigroschen tune with his own English lyric. One thing led to another. "I had reached the point of no return," he said. "I had to do it all." Pretty soon he had a full text, and Weill's all but unknown Threepenny Opera was en route to an off-Broadway engagement at the Theatre de Lys.
Enter the second critical figure in the transformation of "Moritat" into "Mack": a man called George Avakian. In the late Forties, Avakian had written a column on music for Mademoiselle magazine, then edited by George Davis. The years go by and George Avakian goes to work at Columbia Records and eventually winds up in charge of the pop and jazz division. Meanwhile, his old editor, George Davis, meets a young widow called Lotte Lenya, and marries her. The two Georges' paths diverge but they stay friends and keep in touch. And so George Davis naturally invites George Avakian to the first night of his wife's new show - the first New York performance in over 20 years of The Threepenny Opera, with Lotte Lenya reprising in English the role she famously created in German a quarter-century earlier in Berlin: the lady of ill repute Jenny Diver. Miss Lenya was over 60 at the time, but she's a game gal. By the way, that off-Broadway production is the only musical I know to star two wives of Broadway composers - Kurt Weill's widow plus the future Mrs Frank Loesser, Jo Sullivan.
And thus it was that on March 10th 1954 George Avakian happened to be sitting front and center in the stalls when the curtain rose on the premiere of the new Threepenny Opera, and the "Streetsinger" came out and sang for the first time Marc Blitzstein's words:
Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jack-knife has MacHeath, dear
And he keeps it out of sight...
George Avakian wasn't paying much attention to the words, only to the tune. And he realized that, underneath the plot and the text, a great jazz tune was trying to break out - built on the mesmeric quality of the sixth interval, the same device that underpins "The Sheik of Araby", "The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else" and a zillion other "catchy" pop songs. "I kept thinking what a great jazz musician could do with it," he said, and, when he got hold of the sheet music and a cast recording, he passed the song along to Columbia's top artists, starting with Erroll Garner and Dave Brubeck. Both pianists turned him down. So did every other instrumentalist on the label. Avakian so believed in "Mack the Knife" that he started slipping it to his rivals' rosters, but they all passed on the song, too.
Enter the third crucial link in the number's transformation: Turk Murphy. Turk led a six-piece trad jazz combo out on the West Coast, and Avakian figured they'd make "Mack" sound like a Dixieland version of Weill's original Berlin pit band. Turk Murphy had a better idea. "I know the perfect guy to do this song," he said to Avakian, "but I'm not going to tell you. Come out to Los Angeles." They met at the Tin Roof, where Murphy was playing, and still refusing to divulge the name of his "perfect guy". Instead, they climbed into a car and drove over to the Mocambo, and there on the marquee Avakian read:
Appearing Tonight: Louis Armstrong And His All-Stars
"Of course!" said Avakian. "I don't know why I hadn't thought of that myself." Despite his love for the song, he'd assumed that the lyric was too bloodthirsty for anybody to want to sing, and that its only future was as an instrumental. I mean, who would you give lines like these to?
When the shark bites, with his teeth, dear
Scarlet billows start to spread
Fancy gloves, though, wears MacHeath, dear
So there's not a trace of red...
Patti Page? Guy Mitchell? Avakian had never considered for a moment that any singer would want to do the song. But for all its obvious faults, as Will Friedwald points out, mid-Fifties pop certainly liked to celebrate diversity. Anything could be a hit, and often was. And some of it was quite good, and a lot of it was foreign (Georges Auric's theme to Moulin Rouge) or pseudo-foreign ("Come On-a My House"). Why not "The Ballad of Mack the Knife"? In Louis Armstrong's dressing room at the Mocambo, Avakian got out Gerald Price's cast recording and put it on Satch's record-player:
On the sidewalk, Sunday morning,
Lies a body oozing life
Someone's sneaking round the corner
Is that someone Mack the Knife?
Armstrong's face lit up. "Well, I'll be!" he said. "I used to know some cats like that in New Orleans."
In the studio, they made a couple of small amendments. For example, Marc Blitzstein had written:
From a tugboat by the river
A cement bag's dropping down...
Avakian suggested to Armstrong that "drooping" would be funnier. Pops agreed. The Blitzstein text also contains a verse that has no equivalent in the original German. It's little more than a recital of the dramatis personae:
Suky Tawdry, Jenny Diver
Polly Peachum, Lucy Brown
Oh, the line forms on the right, dear
Now that Mackie's back in town...
Avakian proposed singing the name "Lotte Lenya" instead of "Polly Peachum", and so with various ornamentations - "Look out, Miss Lotte Lenya!" (Bobby Darin) - it has mostly stayed ever since. Thus, thanks to the composer's widow's subsequent husband's former columnist, Lotte Lenya is now best known as the only Bond villainess (Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love) who turns up in a Bobby Darin Number One pop song.
In the end, Louis Armstrong's wasn't even the first American jazz recording. When MGM got wind of Satch's version for Columbia, they rushed out an instrumental by Dick Hyman that outsold Armstrong in 1955. In fact, if you want to be a purist, the first real jazz version was Sidney Bechet's Complainte de Mackie, recorded in Paris the previous year. After decades in obscurity, the world seemed to be discovering "Mack the Knife" all at once. But it was Louis Armstrong's interpretation of Brechtian drone as cheerful Dixieland that became the template for all that followed. Indeed, it changed the title of the song: After the Armstrong record, Chappell Music changed the published sheet music from "The Ballad Of..." to plain old "Mack The Knife":
Just as Satch's namecheck of Miss Lenya is a nod to the song's composer, its New York production and its Berlin origins, so in 1984 Frank Sinatra's belated rendition includes an extra verse with a convenient capsule of the song's English-language history:
Ol' Satchmo Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin
They did this song nice - Lady Ella, too...
From Satchmo (1955) to Darin (1959) to a famous live recording of Ella Fitzgerald (1960), in which she (claims to) forget the words and substitutes lines about Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin "making a record" of "Mack The Knife" while she's only making "a wreck" of it. In fact, to Brecht-&-Weill groupies it was the Darin record that was the wreck - a "complete bastardization", in one critic's dismissal. Darin built on the Armstrong version - retaining the "droopin'" cement bag and the Lotte Lenya lyric - but, as Will Friedwald notes, adding the famous shuffle rhythm that owes less to Louis Armstrong and more to his fellow Louises Prima and Jordan. By the time he was through with it, Darin made the Armstrong take look formal and respectful by comparison. There was a long unreleased recording of the Armstrong session in which George Avakian brought in Lotte Lenya to duet with Satchmo. This version, alas, does not include the outtakes in which Miss Lenya, who swings like an outhouse door (as they used to say), tries in vain to groove with the band while Armstrong exhorts her to loosen up:
She hung in there till the end, but she wouldn't have lasted eight bars on that Darin recording. "Mack The Knife" in its English form is basically seven identical 16-bar stanzas. And, good as those sixteen measures are, it has the potential to get a bit dullsville. So the arranger, Richard Wess, borrowed heavily from Nelson Riddle's bag of tricks. Unlike the single modulation in Armstrong's version, Bobby Darin and Dick Wess step up half-a-tone almost every verse, from B flat to B to C to D flat to E flat. That trick alone makes "Mack" sound no longer sardonic and commentative (as in the show) but active and happening: This Mack jumps. Add to that the way Wess builds the orchestration - just rhythm at first (like Riddle on Sinatra's other Mack, "Ol' MacDonald"), then saxes, muted trombones, bongos thumping in the fifth verse, trumpets coming in for the sixth, and the whole band cookin' for the final stretch, until we get to the singer's improvised outro:
Look out, ol' Mackie is back!
Darin liked that so much he reprised it for the end of "Hello, Dolly!":
Look out, ol' Dolly is back!
Even that was a kind of tip of the hat to the show. At the Theatre de Lys each night, at the conclusion of the song, Lotte Lenya as Jenny Diver would intone: "That was Mack the Knife." Pre-Darin, singers had generally favored spoken intros to the number - as if a song about a character in a theatrical drama and his blood-soaked contribution to the plot required a bit of perfunctory exposition:
You can't beat Bing Crosby's affable hipsterese:
Lay way back, you cats! Dig in! Bivouac! Mr Mack is movin' in!
Indeed, he was. A song that had languished in obscurity for its first half-century was taken up in its second by almost all the most influential American vocalists - Armstrong, Crosby, Fitzgerald and Sinatra. If Darin isn't quite in that league, his blockbuster had more impact on the song than anybody. For one thing, he had the measure of Marc Blitzstein's lyric - which, under the novelty of its subject matter, is a bit lazy. As Will Friedwald writes, "Whenever he translated a line and came up a beat short, he threw in the word 'dear', mostly just to take up the space. It serves for emphasis, and it serves to mark time":
Oh, the shark, has pretty teeth, dear
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jackknife, has MacHeath, dear...
Etc. I've sung "Mack The Knife" just once in my life, on the radio. And, without planning it aforehand, I found myself omitting all Blitzstein's "dears". When Weill scholars complain that Darin and Armstrong and Sinatra aren't as "spikey" as the Teuton original, you'd be surprised how spikey it can sound if you just dump the "dears" and end each line with those tough masculine rhymes - "teeth"/"-Heath", etc. I'm surprised nobody does it like that. Darin opted, naturally, to make the "dears" into "babes":
Y'know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe
Scarlet billows start to spread
Fancy gloves, though, wears old MacHeath, babe
So there's never, never a trace of red...
Much better. And, once he's on top of that, the usual Darin hipster flourishes come into play: "Five'll get you ten ol' Mackie's back in town." Actually, now I think about it, although they became "all the usual Darin hipster flourishes", they weren't back then. He was still virtually a kid when he sang "Mack" - 22 years old. To most of the world, he was the teen idol of "Splish Splash" and "Queen Of The Hop". But he had big plans. Interviewed by Billboard in September 1958, he announced his intention to go beyond rock'n'roll:
It's the only way to build a future in this business. In night clubs, I lean to other things... I even do 'Mack The Knife' from The Threepenny Opera.
It was Number One for nine weeks in the fall of 1959. At 23, Bobby Darin was headlining in Vegas. He was a young man in a hurry, with good reason. He'd been in poor health all his life. On December 10th 1973, he called 911, and an ambulance took him to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He slipped into a coma and died of congestive heart failure ten days later. The composer, lyricist and English-language lyricist of "Mack The Knife" had all died young. But Weill, Brecht and Blitzstein were in their fifties. Bobby Darin was 37.
Look out, ol' Mackie is back!
Not on stage, not snappin' his finger and doin' goofy Tommy Sands jokes and mixing great Billy May swing charts with daft peacenik folkie dirges. Bobby Darin's "Mack" has never gone away, but, without his live presence, there arose a sustained effort to wrench the song from his cold dead hands. I once heard Sinatra introduce "Mack" on stage by saying it was "by Weill and Blitzstein. Sheesh. Sounds like a law firm." If they had been, they might have sued. Instead, in the Eighties, English public theatre companies and gloomy Teuton chantoozies began championing the "authentic" Weill & Brecht. That meant Marc Blitzstein, friend of Weill and Lenya, and a hardcore Communist who only quit the party because he found them insufficiently cool about his homosexuality, tended to get written off as some Tin Pan Alley journeyman sloughing off pseudo-hepcat bowdlerizations for the crooner community. By then, poor old Blitzstein wasn't around to protest. In 1964, in Martinique, after an ill-fated sexual encounter with three Portuguese sailors, he was robbed and beaten, identifying his murderers shortly before expiring in hospital.
And so, in his absence, productions of The Threepenny Opera began discarding Blitzstein's text for something tougher:
See the shark with teeth like razors
All can read his open face
And MacHeath has got a knife, but
Not in such an obvious place....
Ralph Manheim and John Willett's words, as sung by Sting, and also by Raul Julia in a film adaptation. For the 1994 Donmar Warehouse production in London, Jeremy Sams offered:
Though the shark's teeth may be lethal
Still you see them white and red
But you won't see Mackie's flick knife
Cause he slashed you and you're dead...
Nice. But in the end Darin's "Mack", in the words of his producer Ahmet Ertegun, is "just one of those forever records". And, just to finally settle the question of "Mack" the ring-a-ding-dinger, Sinatra and Frank Foster show up. It was 25 years after Darin. In 1984, Frank Sinatra was working on the LA Is My Lady album, and his producer/conductor Quincy Jones suggested he take a crack at "Mack". Frank wasn't entirely persuaded. "I still think you can do a version that would be distinctively yours," Jones told him. He had Frank Foster, the arranger, write in Sinatra's unusual self-doubt in one of the extra verses, after the hat-tips to his predecessors:
Ol' Satchmo Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin
They did this song nice - Lady Ella, too
They all sang it with so much feeling
That Ol' Blue Eyes can't add nuthin' new...
To which Jimmy Buffett, in the 1994 Duets version, responded:
Oh, yes, you do!
It was the last great showstopper added to the Sinatra book - after "The Lady Is A Tramp", "My Kind Of Town", "My Way", "New York, New York", one final blast to blow the roof off whatever rock barn or sports arena on the edge of town he happened to be playing in on those endless nights on the road in the late Eighties and early Nineties. And by the time he and the boys were through with it, he'd added plenty new, including the definitive wind-up - Mackie as a meaner "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" (the bit of Jim Croce fluff that had given Sinatra some mileage in the Seventies) with a soupçon of the role Frank turned down in The Godfather:
When I tell you all about Mack the Knife, babe
It's an offer, uh, you cannot refuse...
This is Mack the Loan Shark, coming to collect:
...yeah, he's badder, badder than ol' Leroy Brown!
You better lock your door
And call the law
He's come back to town!
I quoted those words in Broadway Babies Say Goodnight. Some fellow in Faber & Faber's legal department erroneously sent the manuscript to the Brecht estate for approval, and a few weeks later a letter from Brecht's son's lawyer arrived from Germany saying he was declining permission to quote those words. I told Faber, "Nuts to that." The Brecht estate had no interest in those lines. They're not Brecht's words, they're not a translation of Brecht's words, they're not even sung to Weill's notes which were originally created as a setting for Brecht's words. Instead, both the words and almost all the notes were written by Frank Foster. And that was my one and only conversation with Mr Foster - when I called him up to ascertain who contributed what to Sinatra's version of "Mack The Knife" in order to enable Faber's legal department to tell Bertolt Brecht's lawyer to take a hike. So, thanks to Faber's solicitors, I wound up getting straight from the horse's mouth a blow-by-blow account of the final stage in the Americanization of Mackie's "Moritat" - from Satchmo's Dixieland joviality to Darin's Vegas shuffle to Sinatra's hard Basie swing.
Frank Foster's contribution to "Mack The Knife" is preserved in Sinatra's vocal - kind of. Quincy Jones put together an all-star band for LA Is My Lady, and Foster decided to name-check a few of them for one of the additional choruses:
We got George Benson
We got Newman Foster
We got the Brecker Brothers
And Hamp bringing up the rear
All these bad cats and more
Are in the band now
They make the greatest sounds
You ever gonna hear!
Oddly enough the one musician who doesn't rate a namecheck is the one who who made the most memorable contribution to that first Sinatra studio recording: the bassist Major "Mule" Holley. It's Holley who's doing that scatting along with the bass in the mix at the start of the track. "What the hell is that?" asked Frank, looking over the score before the session. "Don't worry," said Quincy Jones. "You'll like it." He did:
He was still settling into the chart there. So here's Frank on telly not long afterwards (my memory seems to think it was a Dionne Warwick show) having a grand old time with the song - notwithstanding an audience clapping along as if they're at a square dance:
Most of those bad cats are recognizable enough: Lionel Hampton, George Benson... But what instrument is Newman Foster playing? Well, if you're transcribing the lyric, it should be "Newman - comma - Foster", as in trumpeter Joe Newman and tenor man Frank Foster. Even in his hour of glory, as instrumentalist, arranger and special-material lyricist, Frank Foster was too modest to take a full bow. So let's give him one now: Frank Benjamin Foster III, born September 1928 in Cincinnati, Ohio; died July 2011 in Chesapeake, Virginia. A bad cat who was very good at what he did - and who added the last nightly showstopper to Sinatra's stage act.
~If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we now have an audio companion, every Sunday on Serenade Radio in the UK. You can listen to the show from anywhere on the planet by clicking the button in the top right corner here. It airs thrice a week:
5.30pm London Sunday (12.30pm New York)
5.30am London Monday (2.30pm Sydney)
9pm London Thursday (1pm Los Angeles)
Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn's Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we've done the same for our musical features merely to provide some mellifluous diversions in this age of lockdown and looting. Just click here, and you'll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Liza Minnelli to Loudon Wainwright III; Mark's interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse's lyrics, John Barry's Bond themes, sunshine songs from the Sunshine State, and much more. We'll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you'll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from house arrest without end and revolution on the streets.
If you're a Mark Steyn Club member and you disagree with any or all of the above, feel free to metaphorically lower him in cement into the East River via our comments section. As we always say, membership in The Mark Steyn Club isn't for everybody, and it doesn't affect access to Song of the Week and our other regular content, but one thing it does give you is commenter's privileges. Please stay on topic and don't include URLs, as the longer ones can wreak havoc with the formatting of the page.
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