Mack the Knife

Mack the Knife

"Mack the Knife" or "The Ballad of Mack the Knife", originally "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer", is a song composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht for their music drama Die Dreigroschenoper, or, as it is known in English, The Threepenny Opera. It premiered in Berlin in 1928 at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. The song has become a popular standard recorded by many artists, including a US and UK number one hit for Bobby Darin in 1959.


  • The Threepenny Opera 1
    • French translation 1.1
    • 1954 Blitzstein translation 1.2
    • 1976 Manheim-Willett extension ("Moritat") 1.3
    • 1994 translation 1.4
  • Popular song 2
    • Parodies 2.1
  • Selective list of recorded versions 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6
  • . 7

The Threepenny Opera

A highwayman Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (who was in turn based on the historical thief Jack Sheppard). The Brecht-Weill version of the character was far more cruel and sinister, and has been transformed into a modern anti-hero.

The play opens with the moritat singer comparing Macheath (unfavorably) with a shark, and then telling tales of his robberies, murders, rapes, and arson.

The song was a last-minute addition, inserted just before its premiere in 1928, because

Selective list of recorded versions

The song has been parodied numerous times. Steve Martin parodied "Mack the Knife" in his opening monologue to the premiere of Saturday Night Live's third season in 1977. In the mid-1980s, McDonald's introduced Mac Tonight, a character whose signature song was based on "Mack the Knife". There also exists a skit on the Muppet Show, where the characters play upon the sinister nature of the lyrics.[13] American political parodists the Capitol Steps used the tune for their song "Pack the Knife" on their 2002 album When Bush Comes to Shove.


The chorus to the song "Haifisch" (shark) by Rammstein is inspired by "Mack the Knife".

Tito Puente also recorded an instrumental version. Salsa musician Rubén Blades recorded an homage entitled "Pedro Navaja".[12] Brazilian composer Chico Buarque, in his loose adaptation of Threepenny Opera (Ópera do Malandro), made two versions called "O Malandro" and "O Malandro No. 2", with lyrics in Portuguese. Liberace regularly performed a variant in which he played the song successively in five styles: as originally written, in the style of a Johann Strauss waltz, as a music box, in a bossa nova rhythm, and in what Liberace considered a popular American style.

Other notable versions include performances by Dave Van Ronk, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tony Bennett, Marianne Faithfull, Nick Cave, Brian Setzer, Kevin Spacey, Westlife, and Michael Bublé. Swiss band The Young Gods radically reworked the song in industrial style, while jazz legend Sonny Rollins recorded an instrumental version entitled simply "Moritat" in 1956. A 1959 instrumental performance by Bill Haley & His Comets was the final song the group recorded for Decca Records.

Grammy Award. Robbie Williams also recorded the song on his 2001 album Swing When You're Winning, and performed it as the first song after the arrival of the Queen during the Diamond Jubilee Concert in 2012, referencing Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie.

Brecht's original German language version was appropriated for a series of humorous and surreal blackout skits by television pioneer Ernie Kovacs, showing, between skits, the soundtrack displayed on an oscilloscope.[11]

"Mack the Knife" was introduced to the United States hit parade by Louis Armstrong in 1956, but the song is most closely associated with Bobby Darin, who recorded his version at Fulton Studios on West 40th Street, New York City, on December 19, 1958 (with Tom Dowd engineering the recording). Even though Darin was reluctant to release the song as a single,[8] in 1959 it reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and number six on the Black Singles chart, and earned him a Grammy Award for Record of the Year. Dick Clark had advised Darin not to record the song because of the perception that, having come from an opera, it wouldn't appeal to the rock & roll audience. In subsequent years, Clark recounted the story with good humor. Frank Sinatra, who recorded the song with Quincy Jones on his L.A. Is My Lady album, called Darin's the "definitive" version. Billboard ranked this version as the No. 2 song for 1959.[9] Darin's version hit #3 on Billboard's All Time Top 100.[10] In 2003, the Darin version was ranked #251 on Rolling Stone's "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list. On BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, pop mogul Simon Cowell named "Mack the Knife" the best song ever written. Darin's version of the song was featured in the movie What Women Want.

"Mack the Knife"
Single by Bobby Darin
from the album That's All
B-side "Was There a Call for Me"
Released August 1959
Format 7"
Recorded December 19, 1958 at Fulton Studios, New York City
Genre Pop, jazz
Length 3:11 (Album version)
3:04 (Single version)
Label Atco (U.S.)
London (UK)
Writer(s) Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht
Marc Blitzstein, Turk Murphy (English version)
Bobby Darin singles chronology
"Dream Lover"
"Mack the Knife"
"Beyond the Sea"

Popular song

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.

A much darker translation by Robert David MacDonald and Jeremy Sams into English was used for the 1994 Donmar Warehouse theatrical production in London. The new translation attempted to recapture the original tone of the song:

1994 translation

This version was performed by Lyle Lovett on the soundtrack of the 1994 film Quiz Show. Darin's and Lovett's versions play over the opening and closing credits, respectively. This interpretation was later also recorded by Sting and Nick Cave in the later part of the 1990s.

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.

In 1976, a brand new interpretation of "Mack The Knife" by Ralph Manheim and John Willett opened on Broadway, later made into a movie version starring Raúl Juliá as "Mackie". This version, simply known as "Moritat", is an extension of the story with completely new lyrics that expound upon the tales of Macheath's trail of activity. Here is an excerpt:

1976 Manheim-Willett extension ("Moritat")

Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln
Und die andern sind im Licht
Und man siehet die im Lichte
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht.

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.

The rarely heard final verse—not included in the original play, but added by Brecht for the 1930 movie—expresses the theme and compares the glittering world of the rich and powerful with the dark world of the poor:

Blitzstein's translation provides the basis for most of the popular versions we know today, including those by Louis Armstrong (1956) and Bobby Darin (1959; Darin's lyrics differ slightly), and most subsequent swing versions. Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, the star of both the original 1928 German production and the 1954 Blitzstein Broadway version, was present in the studio during Armstrong's recording. He spontaneously added her name to the lyrics ("Look out, Miss Lotte Lenya"), which already named several of Macheath's female victims. The Armstrong version was later used by Bobby Darin.

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.

The song was first introduced to American audiences in 1933 in the first English-language production of The Threepenny Opera. The English lyrics were by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky.[6] That production, however, was not successful, closing after a run of only ten days. In the best known English translation, from the Marc Blitzstein 1954 version of The Threepenny Opera, which played Off-Broadway for over six years,[7] the words are:

"A Theme from The Threepenny Opera (Mack the Knife)"
Single by Louis Armstrong
B-side "Back O' Town Blues"
Released 1956
Format 7"
Recorded New York
28 September, 1955 [5]
Genre Jazz
Length 3:25
Label Columbia 40587
Coronet KS-349 (pictured, reached Nº1 in Australia)
Writer(s) Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, English lyrics Marc Blitzstein, arr. Turk Murphy

1954 Blitzstein translation

The song was translated into French as "La complainte de Mackie" by André Mauprey and Ninon Steinhoff and popularized by Catherine Sauvage.[4]

French translation

  Literal translation

Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne,
Und die trägt er im Gesicht.
Und Macheath, der hat ein Messer,
Doch das Messer sieht man nicht.

And the shark, it has teeth,
And it wears them in the face.
And Macheath, he has a knife,
But the knife can't be seen.


  • 1965 Ben Webster on the album Stormy Weather
  • 1968 The Doors on the album Live In Stockholm
  • 1981 The Psychedelic Furs on the B-side of the single "Pretty in Pink", the 1994 album Here Came The Psychedelic Furs: B Sides and Lost Grooves, and the 2002 re-release of their self-titled first album
  • 1984 Frank Sinatra on the album L.A. Is My Lady
  • 1985 Sting on the album Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill
  • 1986 Dagmar Krause on the album Supply and Demand
  • 1988 Ute Lemper on the album Ute Lemper sings Kurt Weill
  • 1990 Roger Daltrey on the film soundtrack Mack the Knife
  • 1991 The Young Gods on the album Play Kurt Weill
  • 1994 Lyle Lovett on the soundtrack to Quiz Show
  • 1995 Nick Cave on the album September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill
  • 1997 Marianne Faithfull on the album 20th Century Blues
  • 1999 Max Raabe on the album Die Dreigroschenoper, Ensemble Modern
  • 2000 The Brian Setzer Orchestra on the album Vavoom!
  • 2001 Robbie Williams on the album Swing When You're Winning
  • 2004 Michael Bublé on the album Come Fly with Me (Michael Bublé album)
  • 2004 Kevin Spacey for the movie Beyond the Sea
  • 2015 Nic Sedgwick for the RBHS event Caberet
  • See also


    1. ^ Friedwald, Will (2002). Stardust Melodies: The Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs. New York: Pantheon Books. p. 79.  
    2. ^ Farneth, David (2000). Kurt Weill: A Life in Pictures and Documents. Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press. pp. 75–78.  
    3. ^ Friedwald, Will (2002). Stardust Melodies: The Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 81–82.  
    4. ^ "Song: La complainte de Mackie at". Retrieved 8 October 2014. 
    5. ^ All of Me: The Complete Discography of Louis Armstrong By Jos Willems, p. 257
    6. ^ Threepenny Opera | IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information
    7. ^ Threepenny Opera | IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information
    8. ^ Bobby Darin interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
    9. ^ Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1959
    10. ^ The Billboard Hot 100 All-Time Top Songs (10–01) (July 2008)
    11. ^ "Ernie Kovacs – "Mack the Knife" Take 4, includes car dropping through floor.". YouTube. Retrieved 8 October 2014. 
    12. ^ on"Pedro Navaja". Retrieved 8 October 2014. 
    13. ^ """The Muppet Show: Dr Teeth & Sam The Eagle – "Mack The Knife. YouTube. Retrieved 8 October 2014. 

    External links

    • "Mackie Messer" sung by Lotte Lenya on YouTube (3:39)
    • Bertolt Brecht sings "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" on YouTube (2:48)
    • Bobby Darin "Mack the Knife" website
    • "What's the story behind 'Mack the Knife'?", The Straight Dope, 1 April 2004
    • info on the 7 Broadway productions
    • Steve Martin's comedy monologue on Saturday Night Live parodying "Mack the Knife"
    • Lyrics