Mack the Knife
by Bobby Darin
"Darin was one of the most exciting performers American showbiz has ever known, but it would be inappropriate to describe him as an original," writes Will Friedwald (Stardust Melodies 92). Bobby Darin was a pop star-turned actor who longed for legendary status, but died before he could make a truly permanent name for himself. "Mack the Knife," his first and last #1 hit, is probably his most lasting legacy. After enjoying a stint in the spotlight as the pop star of the day, Darin made some strange career turns—including his ventures into political hippie-dom in the 1960s, a turn that did not seem to suit the polished pop star or please his fans. He died of heart illness in 1973 at only 37 years old.
Darin had the charisma and the style to be a star. He was the youngest person in his time to get a main stage show in Vegas, and for a few years at his peak he drew massive crowds everywhere he went. He was smooth, sleek, and thrilling on stage. But, as Friedwald noted, Darin never quite had the originality or forcefulness to become a legend. Even his winning performance of "Mack the Knife" was influenced in obvious ways by Louis Armstrong's patently original 1956 version of the song, down to imitating Armstrong's tempo and small lyrical changes (for example, he changed "dear" to "babe" on all the same lines as Armstrong). Darin was also influenced by Frank Sinatra in his "whole swaggering approach, his swinging machismo" (Friedwald 92). Friedwald does conclude that Darin was "more than just a sum of his influences" (93), and a great pop singer in his own right. In his hands, a satirical German show-tune became the stuff of U.S. pop culture, which says a lot about his abilities as a performer who could cater well to popular tastes while maintaining the integrity of the song and its creators. If there is such a thing as a Bobby Darin legacy, "Mack the Knife" is it.