Category: Single of the week

I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag (Country Joe McDonald & the Fish)

Bruce Springsteen’s Born in The U.S.A., Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin and Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up are all recognised protest songs and there are thousands more but one singer who is always associated with protest songs is Country Joe MacDonald. He never had success in the UK, but his 1967 song Feel I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag was a powerful statement during the Vietnam War.

According to his biography, The origin of the name appears to have come from the band’s manager, Ed Denson, who coined the phrase drawing from Mao’s saying about ‘the fish who swim in the sea of the people,’ the Country Joe part has many variations but popularly refers to Joe’s parents having named him Joe after Joseph Stalin, whose nickname during World War II was Country Joe.

Joe was born in Washington in 1942 and moved to California where he attended school, but he preferred to play music, so formed a number of bands as well as working in a guitar store during the day. He met guitarist Barry Melton when they were both members of the Instant Action Jug Band in 1964.

In 1965, some of the members of the Berkeley Campus, where Joe was studying, were organizing a series of demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and the organisers always provided entertainment either before or after the march to keep people’s attention, so Joe formed The Fish seeing it as an opportunity to play music and support the protest. The line-up comprised, Barry Melton on guitar, David Cohen on organ, Bruce Barthol on bass and harmonica and Gary ‘Chicken’ Hirsh on drums.

Music played an important role during the Vietnam War and it was a way for young musicians to get their views across, Joe and his band recorded Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag which became popular on college radio stations but did little else outside of that environment. The song, which has a very upbeat 1920s ragtime feel but with lyrics that are very dark and satirical, also has an element of humour with lines like, ‘Well come on all of you big strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again. He got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Vietnam’ and some helpful advice with the commentary, ‘Well come on generals let’s move fast – your big chance is here at last. Gotta go and get those reds, ’cause the only good commie is one that’s dead, and you know that peace can only be won when you blow them all to kingdom come about the War.’

Joe has stated that he blames American involvement in Vietnam on several groups: the government, zealous military commanders, greedy arms manufacturers and capitalists – even parents who encourage or allow their sons to enlist. Joe, who had once served in the US Navy, said that he wrote the song in about an half and a hour after it popped into his head.

The song’s title also served as the title for their second album and when the song was performed live, it was usually preceded with the Fish Cheer which involved Joe shouting to the crowd, ‘Gimme an F… Gimme an I… Gimme an S… Gimme an H…’ but the height of Joe’s fame must have come at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 when The Fish Cheer consisted of an uncensored ‘Gimme an F… Gimme a U… Gimme a C… Gimme a K…’ Joe explained in an interview with the Independent how he came to perform at Woodstock, “It almost never happened. It was all a mistake. I was just hanging around the stage, Richie Havens had finished, and there was nothing going on. I went on with my guitar and it was like, ‘Here’s this guy who’s going to sing’, but no one paid any attention. I played Janis and Tennessee Stud and then I walked off stage. I asked my tour manager if he thought it would be OK if I went back on and did the cheer and he said yeah. So I went ‘Give me an F!’, and they all yelled ‘F!’. A month or so later Michael Wadleigh (the director of Woodstock) showed me the footage in this little studio in LA, and after that it kind of became my fate. It’s not exactly what I wished my musical career to be, but it happened. I hated it for a long time, because you can’t think about me without thinking about the Vietnam War, but later I met a lot of Vietnam vets and they told me they’d sung the song in Vietnam, and now I’m involved in doing a lot of healing work with veterans’ groups.”

The band appeared in a 1971 film called Zachariah which was about two gunfighters who separate and experience surreal visions on their journey through the west but split up soon after. There was a brief reunion in 1977 that incorporated a small tour.

Joe tried in the late-90s to reform the band but he said, “I’ve been totally unsuccessful in trying to get the original Country Joe and the Fish together again, so I’ve pretty much accepted the fact. Chicken Hirsch is in Oregon now and big in the T-shirt business and Barry Melton is a lawyer and a part-time musician and he’s not into playing with the other original members, though he’ll still play with me as a duo. The band was like a family, and that was the biggest enjoyment I got in music.”

One young musician who witnessed that performance at Woodstock was a 20 year-old Billy Joel. He was not impressed with the song as he explained in an interview with Howard Stern, “This hippie comes on stage and starts going, ‘1-2-3, what are we fighting for,’ and I’m thinking, ‘this song sucks. It wasn’t even about the lyric, it sucked as a song.”

One other interesting fact about Joe is that he has a daughter called Seven.

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Tell Laura I Love Her (Ricky Valance)

Back in the sixties, the BBC had no issues narrating or broadcasting the works of Homer, Shakespeare and Dickens’, a lot of which are strewn with corpses, but the BBC steadfastly refused to play records connected with death and so one way to court controversy was to make a so-called ‘death disc’. Some examples of these would have been, Ebony Eyes (Everly Brothers), Teen Angel (Mark Dinning), Leader of the Pack (Shangri-Las) and Terry (Twinkle). Perhaps the best known was Tell Laura I Love Her, the story of a dying stock-car racer’s love for his girlfriend.

The song was co-written by Ben Raleigh and Jeff Barry before he teamed up with Ellie Greenwich, “It was my first hit – in 1960, the story is about a young guy who is in love – with Laura,” Jeff explained. “He has no money and he wants to be able to buy his girl some gifts. He sees a sign for a stock car race with a prize of $1000, he joins the race to get the money and gets killed. It’s a real teen angst story. I wrote in 1959, I didn’t even own a car then. I was a Brooklyn cowboy, in fact I still wear a cowboy shirt, and when I sat down to write the song I originally saw it as a sign for a prize for winning a rodeo, not many people know that there was a rodeo every year in Brooklyn of all places and I went regularly. I played the first version of the song to my publisher Arnold Shaw, he said, ‘that’s interesting, but the guy is gored to death by a Brahma Bull.’ I forgot to mention that detail, ‘Who can relate to that?’ That was obviously true so I changed it. Stock car race had the same three syllables as ro-de-o and still fit in the melody and people could relate to it. I was told there would be a fuss in England about whether they would play it on the radio because of the content, but I was too excited about getting airplay in the US to worry about it.”

The death disc had been around for a while as Russell Clarke explained on a BBC documentary, “The first one I came across was by a group called The Cheers and it’s called Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots and it’s about a motorcyclist, who is a bad guy and the good girl falls in love with him and he rides off and has a firey crash and dies but they don’t find the body or the bike, they only found his clothes. Ironically, it was released in the US the same week that James Dean died in a car crash in 1955 and the radio DJs wanted something morbidly appropriate to play and this was the song they chose, and this was the song that started the death disc craze.”

There seemed to be an appetite for sad songs at the time and the songwriters revelled in it. Tell Laura I Love Her was originally given to American singer Ray Peterson. Peterson’s first hit had been The Wonder of You, which 10 years later would become a monster hit for Elvis Presley.

Decca records picked up Peterson’s version in the UK and it got one play on the BBC before panic ensued and the top brass at the label then decided it could not be released, citing it as ‘too tasteless and vulgar for the English sensibility.’ Talk about wasting money, they had pressed up 25,000 copies, obviously without realising its sentiment, and promptly had them all destroyed.

Step up Ricky Valance, who was born David Spencer in 1936 and had sung in a church choir before joining the RAF at 17. He explained how he chose his stage name, “I was sitting in a flat in Bedford Hill in London and all of a sudden horse racing came on the television and I heard Colonel Valance – a horse trainer and Ricky is a name I’ve always liked anyway and so Ricky Valance I became.”

He began his singing career after leaving the service three years later. Norrie Paramor at EMI signed Valance to record a cover. Paramor played his a few bars of the Peterson original and Valance said later, “I thought he’d done a great job on it, but he sang it a lot slower than I did and I thought there’s no way I’m going to copy anyone, Norrie said, ‘You were a choir boy weren’t you?’ I said ‘yes’, so he said, ‘sing it as a hymn’, and I sang the title in that style and he said, ‘that’s it.”

Ricky recalled to Spencer Leigh, “I had a lot of faith in that song because it stirred something in me. I wasn’t surprised when it was a hit because the melody was so beautiful, it’s a song in a lifetime, one of those songs you never can match.” He added, “When you’re close to an audience you get wrapped up in your song, I address the words as they were meant to be addressed and that’s one of the secrets I think.”

At the same time, another version of the song had been recorded by Top Rank label artist John Leyton, who recalled “The first song I ever recorded was Tell Laura I Love Her but unfortunately for me Top Rank got taken over by EMI who already had their own excellent version by Ricky Valance and they didn’t want mine as well, so mine was basically put in the bin and Ricky went to number one.” Johnny, however, just under a year later, would top the chart with Johnny Remember Me – another death themed disc.

Valance was the first male singer from Wales to top the chart but second overall as Shirley Bassey had beaten him to February 1959 with As I Love You.

It was Ricky’s only hit and therefore he is the true definition of a one hit wonder, how did he feel about that? “I hated being regarded as a one-hit wonder, though. I sold 40,000 copies of some of my other records.” Those other records were Jimmy’s Girl and Movin’ Away, but his return to death discs with Bobby (a girl in hospital) and Six Boys (all of them pallbearers at a girlfriend’s funeral) didn’t work. Ricky Valance has sung both country and gospel music and, most appropriately, has toured in the musical, Leave Him to Heaven.

Ricky spent many years living in Spain but in recent times moved back to the UK and currently lives, with his wife Evelyn, in Skegness where he still, occasionally, makes some live appearances.

The song also, naturally, inspired an answer version which was recorded by Marilyn Michaels as Tell Tommy I Miss Him, also in 1960. Two other covers of the answer song were also recorded, one by Laura Lee and, the other, more famously, by Skeeter Davis.

If you were wondering what ever happened by Ben Raleigh, he wrote many songs which were covered by the likes of Lesley Gore, Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis and The Monkees, but most famously, in 1969, he composed the theme tune to Scooby-Doo. He died in a house fire at his home in Los Angeles in 1997 aged 83.

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The Devil Went Down To Georgia (Charlie Daniels Band)

So many times and song becomes a big hit and is remembered for years and then you find out that it was a last minute thought. Many people I have interviewed tell me that a particular song was just going to be an album filler because there wasn’t enough material and it turns out to be the biggest song of an artist’s career. This week’s choice is one of them songs.

Charlie Daniels was born in Wilmington, North Carolina in October 1936 and as a teenager learned fiddle, mandolin and banjo, so when he graduated in 1955 he formed his first rock and roll band. He tried his hand at song writing and in 1964 wrote a song called It Hurts Me which Elvis Presley recorded as the B-side on the UK top 10 hit Kissin’ Cousins. He then went solo but lent his services to a number of musicians including playing for The Marshall Tucker Band, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan on his Nashville Skyline album.

In 1973, now having formed the Charlie Daniels Band, he released his first single, Uneasy Rider, which crept to the dizzy heights of number 67 on the country chart, but more unbelievably reached number nine on the rock chart.

After a few years of little happening he got the backing of Hank Williams Jr who, with his massive fan base, advised his followers to check out Charlie Daniels saying, “He was one of the best country rockers in the business.” In return, Charlie asked Hank to record some tracks with him which Hank duly obliged. All of a sudden, Charlie Daniels was big news.

Charlie stated that if he was ever going to make it big, now is the time. “We were in the studio cutting the Million Mile Reflections album and I felt we needed a fiddle song to round out the album,” Charlie recalled. “At that point we kind of hit a wall , so I decided to take a two-day break and then come back and finish up the session. During that break I thought a lot about finding the right fiddle tune. I just had this idea. The Devil Went Down to Georgia, which came from an old poem called The Mountain Whippoorwill that Stephen Vincent Benet wrote many, many years ago, that I had in high school. He didn’t use that line, but I started playing, and the band started playing, and first thing you know we had it down. I decided that this time Johnny and Satan would face off with bows instead of harps.”

The standoff between the devil and Johnny sound like a real battle between two different musicians, but Charlie revealed that he played both parts, “The Devil’s just blowing smoke, if you listen to his part, there’s just a bunch of noise. There’s no melody to it, there’s no nothing. It’s just a bunch of noise. Just confusion and stuff. And of course Johnny’s saying something. You can’t beat the Devil without the Lord. I didn’t have that in the song, but I should have. He added, “I have always believed that the very best things happen off the cuff and it’s true of this song.”

The song was released in September 1979 and got to number 14 in the UK and number three in the US singles chart. There is one lyric difference, in the US version he says, ‘I’ve told you once you son-of-a-Bitch’ whereas the UK version refers to him as a ‘son-of-a-gun’ because, typically, the BBC thought it was a bit near the mark for daytime radio.

The song earned him a Grammy for Country Vocal Group and won him Single of the Year and the Country music Awards. The band appeared in the 1980 film Urban Cowboy that starred John Travolta where, as well as performing the Devil Went Down To Georgia, they played Falling In Love For The Night, Texas and Urban Cowboy Breakdown.

In 1993, the song was revived and reworked by another country fiddler, Mark O’Connor. It was the sequel and this time features invited country stars Travis Tritt, Marty Stuart, Johnny Cash and Charlie Daniels himself. O’Connor plays Johnny’s fiddle solo and Marty Stuart is the voice of Johnny. Charlie Daniels plays the Devil’s fiddle solo and Travis Tritt is the voice of the Devil. Johnny Cash is the narrator who tells about the epic duel which is now called The Devil Comes Back to Georgia.

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Hey Nineteen (Steely Dan)

Yelling out for a Paul Hardcastle UK number one hit – could be a cryptic crossword clue for this week’s single of the week, but what is Hey Nineteen by Steely Dan all about? Let’s find out.

Steely Dan were essentially the duo Donald Fagen (vocals & keyboards) and Walter Becker (guitar & bass) who formed the partnership in 1972 and used an ever-changing cycle of musicians. They took their moniker from the name of a female sex toy featured in Naked Lunch by William Burroughs. “We had to come up with a name in a hurry and Walter and I were both Burroughs fans, though he was not known at the time,” Fagen explained in an interview with Mojo. “It was an in-joke, who’s going to know what Steely Dan was? We figured that, like most of our bands in the past, it would fall apart after three months, so we didn’t think much about it. The name had less to do with sex than a rebel spirit, a beat consciousness that we grew up with.”

They originally met in the late sixties whilst attending Bard College in New York. The first band they put together was called Bad Rock Group and their drummer was another fellow Bard member, Chevy Chase. If you listen to their third album, 1973s  Countdown to Ecstasy, the track My Old School talks all about it.

Hey Nineteen is taken from their eighth album Gaucho in 1980 which featured 32 different musicians on the album and ones heard on Hey Nineteen are, Hugh McCracken on guitar, Rick Marotta on drums and both Victor Feldman and Steve Gadd on percussion. Other notable musicians on the album are Mark Knopfler, Joe Sample, Michael McDonald, Patti Austin and David Sanborn. One of the engineers, Roger Nichols devised a drum machine which was showcased on this track. They even gave it a name, Wendel and it was used to record the drum part and play them back with absolute precision? Incidentally, the only musician to have played on all eight albums was Victor Feldman. Feldman, who died in May 1987 aged just 53, was a British Jazz musician who had played with the Glenn Miller Orchestra when he was 13 years old.

Gaucho means Latin-American cowboy but meant in this context they’ve used it as a play on the French word gauche meaning socially awkward or uncomfortable with other people, especially the young and inexperienced.

Becker and Fagen were 30 and 32 respectively in 1980 and the song tells of an ‘older’ man trying to seduce a 19 year-old girl and realising they have nothing in common except sex and drink. He talks about ‘That’s ‘Retha Franklin’ explaining that ‘She don’t remember Queen of Soul’. He says she thinks he’s crazy and says they can’t even dance together. Then plying her with the Cuero Gold (tequila) and the fine Colombian (possibly coffee but more likely marijuana). This was not the basis for a serious, meaningful and long-lasting relationship!

Although released as a single it failed to make the UK chart, it did, however, reach number 10 in the States. They were unlucky in the UK singles stake with their best showing being Haitian Divorce which reached number 17 in 1976, Do It Again only just crept into the top 40 the year before and FM (No Static At All) and Rikki Don’t Lose That Number both failing to make the top 40 altogether. In 1989, De La Soul sampled Peg, a track from their 1977 album Aja, on their hit Eye Know.

In 1981, they stopped recording with Fagen launching a solo career but they reunited in 2001, the same year they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Also, that year they received honorary degrees from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where their music is a large part of the curriculum.

Tragedy struck on 3rd September 2017 when the musical world lost Walter Becker who succumbed to oesophageal cancer. According to Scott Bernstein at Jam Base he said, Hey Nineteen was the third most played song of the band’s live performance career. Live performances of the tune would usually include a portion in which Walter Becker bantered with fans about a variety of topics. Sometimes, Becker would tell a story involving the city where the Dan was playing. Other times he’d take aim at Ticketmaster and the high price of tickets. Most times he’d encourage the audience to imbibe tequila. Regardless of the topic, Walter would always fit his incomparable wit and humour into the ‘rant.’

One of Walter Becker’s last performances took place at Humphrey’s By The Bay in San Diego on April 18. The evening featured a version of Hey Nineteen in which Walt cracked up the crowd throughout his speech. Becker seemed to know the end was coming and gave tons of props to his band, told a bit of the history of Steely Dan and praised the audience. At nearly five minutes, the San Diego Hey Nineteen speech displayed Walter Becker wasn’t just a world-class songwriter, composer and guitarist, he was also one hell of a human being.”

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Inside Looking Out (Grand Funk Railroad)

What do Frijid Pink, Grand Funk Railroad and Santa Esmeralda all have in common? No? They were all one-hit wonders with covers, and longer ones at that, of songs the Animals had a UK hit with. The first two were with heavy rock versions, the latter was a disco version. This week I look at Grand Funk Railroad who, in America, were for more successful than in the UK with 20 hit singles, including two number ones and sales of over 20 million albums, but, this week’s choice, Inside Looking Out, didn’t even make the Billboard Hot 100.

The band were a trio formed in 1968 in Flint, Michigan and comprised lead singer/guitarist Mark Farmer, drummer Don Brewer and bass player Mel Schacher and their name was inspired by the Grand Trunk Railroad which is the American branch of the Canadian National Railway which runs between Chicago, Illinois and Port Huron, Michigan. Farmer and Brewer had both been members of Terry Knight & The Pack whose most successful hit was a cover of Ben E. King’s I (Who Have Nothing) and Schacher had served as bassist with ? And The Mysterians.

Farmer wanted a career in football but after breaking a finger and suffering from bad knees and then being expelled from night school, he took up music. Once the band were established, they decided to employ Terry Knight, who had also been a radio DJ in Detroit, as their manager. The first gig he got them was at the Atlanta Pop Festival where they played to 125,000 people for free. Some gig!

In 1971, they covered The Animals’ 1966 hit Inside-Looking Out, but in a slower tempo and altering a few lyrics, most notably the line ‘When my time is up be my rebirth, like I was worth on God’s green earth’ which became ‘When my time is up, you’ll be my reefer, life gets worse on God’s green earth’ sneaking in a drug reference.

The song itself is loosely based on a song called Rosie which was an African American Prison Work Song. In the 1920s and 30s prison camps, especially in the deep south like Mississippi, they had inmates who used to work for 12-15 hours a day chopping trees, cutting cane and shovelling gravel as well as other menial back-breaking jobs and to help them pass the time and get through the day, they would make up songs. Alan Lomax (the song’s co-writer) and his father John (an American teacher and musicologist) and gone to visit some of these prisons in the 1930s and Alan said, “These songs belong to the musical tradition which Africans brought to the New World, but they are also as American as the Mississippi River. They tell us the story of the slave gang, the sharecropper system, the lawless work camp, the chain gang, the pen.” Alan visited other prisons 10-12 years later and found much of the same work ethic but with the added heartbreak of prisoners having to endure harsh beatings and various other violent treatments. He visited more prisons as late as the 1970s and although some of the violence had lessened, they were still singing songs like Rosie which clearly has stood the test of time as a prisoner’s anthem. Given the circumstances Alan, who was involved with a number of other prison songs, decided not to release an album of them for about 10 years.

The Animals’ version ran to about three minutes and 40 seconds which was quite long for a mid-sixties song, but the Grand Funk version clocked in at a whopping nine and half minutes and thus to fill one side of a seven-inch single if had to play at 33 ⅓ rpm.

Grand Funk Railroad had problems with their manager and in March 1972 decided to sack him. In return, Knight began filing lawsuits for various things and it all got very ugly. The band employed an Attorney called John Eastman who was Linda McCartney’s father, to help sort the situation, however, in the interim period, they lost momentum. Once sorted they added a fourth member, organist Craig Frost, and in 1973 released the Todd Rundgren-produced album We’re An American Band of which the title track became their first of two American number one hits, the other, in 1974 was a blistering rock version of The Loco-motion.

The band broke up in 1976 with Farmer deciding to spend time with his family on his 1500-acre farm in Michigan whilst Brewer and Schacher formed Flint who released just one album before calling it a day.

They have made the occasional reunion but none as big as in 1997 when, for the first time in 20 years, the threesome were on stage together embarking on a world tour with a tri-city concert raising money for the Bosnain-American Relief Fund to provide money for the war-torn area.

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Mack The Knife (Bobby Darin)

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The BBC’s rules about banning songs, or ‘restricting’ them, as they now call it, have always been a bit ambiguous. Any song in the forties and fifties which mentioned anything to do with religion was refused airplay, clearly foul language would not be aired (obviously there are a few exceptions where nobody noticed) and, in the early sixties, there was a wave of ‘death’ discs which were deemed unsuitable. As time has gone on, most of the rules have been relaxed and nowadays there are clean radio edits of most rap material, which is lucky otherwise Radio One wouldn’t have much output. However, going back to ‘death’ songs and things that slipped through the net, Tom Jones’ Delilah is one example, but more blatant, about out and out murder was the 1959 chart topper Mack the Knife.

The song was from a show originally known as Die Dreigroschenoper or The Threepenny Opera in English by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht which was based on John Gay’s 1728 work The Beggar’s Opera. The show first opened in Berlin 200 years later in 1928 and is set in a Victorian London where an appalling man called Macheath went about his nasty business. The show starred Kurt Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya as Jenny Driver and Harold Paulsen as Macheath, a gangster in the Berlin underworld.

Mack the Knife was the famous song from the show, but it wasn’t supposed to be in it. Originally called Morität Von Mackie Messer (meaning The Criminal Record of Mack the Knife in English) wasn’t part of the show. It was a last minute addition because, according to David Cheal in the Financial Times, only a few days before the show opened at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm the production’s egotistical star, Paulsen, insisted that he be given a grand introduction. Therefore, Brecht and Weill quickly wrote a scene-setting Morität, with barrel-organ accompaniment, bigging up the frightful deeds of Mackie Messer. The man singing that original introduction was Kurt Gerron, who therefore recorded the original version. The song makes little sense outside the musical but that did not stop it becoming a hit song and covered by numerous people including Lotte Lenya herself in 1930.

The show was a slow burner for a couple of years but by the early 1930s it was flying. As Hitler rose to power, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were forced into exile and in 1938, in the Düsseldorf exhibition; Weill was labelled a composer of ‘degenerate music’.

In 1952, the show went to America and first played at the Brandeis University in Massachusetts with an orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The following year some of the lyrics were translated into English by Marc Blitzstein just before opening off-Broadway in a production which again featured Lotte Lenya. Blitzstein’s translation certainly softened Mack the Knife from being an out and out serial killer to a roguish gangster. Having said that, Blitzstein’s story is still intense as he refers to the blood scene as ‘Scarlet billows start to spread’ and the excuse about the cement bag being there just for the weight. In 1961, the show moved to Greenwich Village in New York.

In 1955, Louis Armstrong recorded his version for the jazz world and he was the one who added ‘Miss Lotte Lenya’ into the lyrics as an ad-lib by mistake because he was looking at a cast list of the show and thought Lotte Lenya was a character not the actress, hence this error has lived on. Louis’ version was a ‘friendly’ version as it didn’t included some of Mack’s terrible crimes, one being about a woman who was raped in her sleep.

Bobby Darin, in 1958, went to a production of the The Threepenny Opera in Greenwich Village and decided to perform it in his live shows. He turned it around and did it in the swing way nobody else had and it was very well received. The following year when Bobby Darin was considering an album of standards, That’s All, his friend, Buddy Greco, told him that he was going to record Mack The Knife. Darin urged the record company to get his version out quickly and beat Greco to it. Darin describes Macheath’s talent with a jack-knife and his ability for disposing of the bodies in a disguised way certainly omitting the verses about rape and bomb explosions. His final ‘Look out, ol’ Mackie is back’ was a master touch. The album was released in May 1959 just when Darin’s previous hit, Dream Lover, featuring Neil Sedaka on piano, was climbing the chart. Mack the Knife was so popular in his live shows that it would be ridiculous not to release it as a single and thus, like Dream Lover, it went all the way to number one.

Darin’s version of the song built in tension and this was done dramatically with five key changes in the song. It has become a standard and has been covered by the likes of Les Paul, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr, Connie Francis, Sting, King Kurt, Nick Cave, Marianne Faithfull and Robbie Williams, but none give it the tension as much as Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington who performed a searing version at the Jazz à Juan festival in 1966 where Fitzgerald manages 11 key changes.

In 1960, Buddy Greco eased into the charts with his version of The Lady Is a Tramp and he made a resolution never again to tell another singer what he was working on.

Going back to Ella Fitzgerald, the Radio 4 documentary, Ella in Berlin, recalled the time when Ella, who had only learned the words on the way to a show in Berlin, had forgot some of them halfway through performing it. So, being the professional she was, she began to improvise vivaciously in rhyme. The Queen of Jazz never hid the fact and began singing:

‘Oh what’s the next chorus, to this song, now, this is the one, now I don’t know, but it was a swinging tune and it’s a hit tune, so we tried to do Mack the Knife. Oh Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong, they made a record, oh but they did, and now Ella, Ella, and her fellas, we’re making a wreck, what a wreck of Mack the Knife.’

She probably wasn’t too bothered as the majority of the German audience probably couldnt speak English anyway.

Oh, and talking of murder, the song was used in a 1980s advertising campaign for McDonald’s hamburgers sung as Mac tonight but missing out the bit about the murder and then dumping the body.

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