Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife (1959, Atlantic)
Why It’s Perfect: There are two kinds of killers in pop culture – the type you hate and pity, and the type you can’t help but admire, regardless of the morally suspect nature of their actions. Our boy Mack has managed to elude capture for almost three-hundred years on the strength of his rakish charm and callous cruelty, but it hasn’t done it without help. Bobby Darin’s career-highlight 1959 rendition of Mack the Knife is considered the definitive pop reading of the Brecht/Weill classic, and even today it oozes enough cool that, if said cool could be bottled and sold as an over-the-counter aphrodisiac, it could get the entire chess club laid. Darin’s version eschews the sinister, carnivalesque atmosphere of Lotte Lenya’s famous Threepenny Opera take, presenting instead a take on our killer that’s more in line with John Gay’s irascible Macheath than Brecht’s vicious Mackie Messer. You can tell that Bobby’s enjoying himself from the way he seems to savour the flavour of the pulpy lyrics, rolling each word around his mouth a little before consenting to report each new indiscretion. It sounds like every word is breathed through a grin.
Conductor Richard Wess’ sashaying big band arrangement is tailor-made for Darin’s trademark croon, the sparse percussion-driven intro leaving the man all sorts of room to get a little intimate with the listener before the brass builds to its show-stopping climax. Great jazz vocalists have a rapport with the band uncommon in other forms of pop music which seems to me to be derived from the way jazz ensembles work with a featured soloist. There is an agreed-upon tone and basic structure to start with, but the real task of the band is to be sensitive to their leader’s interpretive choices and to find the best way to complement them. When it works, as it does with Mack the Knife, there’s a wild spontaneity to the music, a spontaneity in this case worthy of its title character. Bobby Darin’s on his game, folks; the line forms on the right.
Defining Moment: Gotta be that wild finale, Darin in full voice hollering “Mackie’s back in tooooooooowwwwnnnn,” as the brass section windmills itself into a lather behind him. It’s one of the grandest finishes in all swing, and then Darin caps it off, no sweat: “Lookoutol’Mackieisback!” It’s the moment that made him a legend, and for a new generation of listeners, continued the legend of the irresistibly dangerous Macheath.
On a personal note, it’s also the one part I always butcher in my otherwise respectable karaoke versions. Can’t win ’em all, Francheteau, can’t win ’em all.
Other Great Songs by Bobby Darin: Often reckoned as something of an also-ran, Bobby Darin in fact had many hits through the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Some of my favourites include the adrenalized melodrama of Artificial Flowers and soft focus rock ‘n’ roll classic Dream Lover, which is for my money one of the catchiest songs of all time. And of course there’s Beyond the Sea, his sublime swing version of the Chanson classic La Mer. Beyond the Sea itself is a sure-shot Perfect Pop Single by any measure, pure brass class and effortlessly smooth romance.