Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Positive Quiddity: Bert Kaempfert

Berthold Heinrich Kämpfert, (16 October 1923 – 21 June 1980), better known as Bert Kaempfert, was a German orchestra leader and songwriter. He made easy listening and jazz-oriented records and wrote the music for a number of well-known songs, including "Strangers in the Night" and "Moon Over Naples".


Kaempfert was born in Hamburg, Germany, where he received his lifelong nickname, Fips, and studied at the local school of music. A multi-instrumentalist, he was hired by Hans Busch to play with his orchestra before serving as a bandsman in the German Navy during World War II. He later formed his own big band, toured with them, then worked as an arranger and producer, making hit records with Freddy Quinn and Ivo Robić. In 1961, he hired The Beatles to back Tony Sheridan for an album called My Bonnie. The album and its singles, released by Polydor Records, were the Beatles' first commercially released recordings.

Kaempfert's own first hit with his orchestra had been in 1960, "Wonderland by Night". Wonderland by Night couldn't get a hearing in Germany. Instead, Kaempfert brought the track to Decca Records in New York, who released it in America in 1959; with its haunting solo trumpet, muted brass, and lush strings, the single topped the American pop charts and turned Bert Kaempfert and Orchestra into international stars. Over the next few years, he revived such pop tunes as "Tenderly", "Red Roses for a Blue Lady", "Three O'Clock in the Morning", and "Bye Bye Blues", as well as composing pieces of his own, including "Spanish Eyes (Moon Over Naples)", "Danke Schoen", and "Wooden Heart", which were recorded by, respectively, Al Martino, Wayne Newton, and Elvis Presley. For Kaempfert, little may have brought him more personal satisfaction than Nat King Cole recording his "L-O-V-E".

                                                             Bert Kaempfert in 1967

As a producer, Kaempfert also played a part in the rise of The Beatles when he signed a Liverpool-based singer named Tony Sheridan, who was performing in Hamburg, and needed to recruit a band to play behind him on the proposed sides. He auditioned and signed the Beatles, and recorded two tracks with them during his sessions for Sheridan: "Ain't She Sweet", sung by rhythm guitarist John Lennon and the instrumental "Cry for a Shadow", co-written by Lennon and lead guitarist George Harrison. Kaempfert's recording of the Beatles, even as a backing band for Sheridan, provided an impetus to their subsequent success, even though none of the Kaempfert-recorded sides resembled the music for which they became famous. On October 28, 1961, a man walked into the music store owned by Brian Epstein to ask for a copy of "My Bonnie", recorded by the Beatles, actually credited to Tony Sheridan. The store did not have it, but Epstein noted the request and was so intrigued by the idea of a Liverpool band getting a record of its own out that he followed up on it personally. This event led to his discovery of the Beatles and, through his effort, their signing by George Martin to Parlophone Records after getting clear of any contractual claim by Polydor.

Many of his tunes became better known as hits for other artists:

  • "Strangers in the Night" (with words by Charles Singleton and Eddie Snyder), was originally recorded as part of his score for the 1965 film A Man Could Get Killed. It became a #1 hit for Frank Sinatra in 1966. This was followed a year later with another hit for Sinatra, "The World We Knew (Over and Over)".
  • "Wooden Heart", sung by Elvis Presley in the film G.I. Blues was a hit in 1961. Joe Dowell's cover of "Wooden Heart" became a big hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on August 28, 1961. Bert arranged this traditional German folk song for the Presley movie.
  • His instrumental "Moon Over Naples", when given words by Snyder, became "Spanish Eyes", originally a hit for Al Martino and also recorded by Engelbert Humperdinck, Presley, and many others.
  • "Danke Schoen", with words added by Kurt Schwabach and Milt Gabler, became Wayne Newton's signature song.
  • "L-O-V-E", with words added by Milt Gabler, was a hit for Nat King Cole.
  • "Almost There", which reached No. 67 on the U.S. charts but No. 2 on the U.K. charts, was recorded by Andy Williams.
  • His 1962 movie theme from the film 90 Minuten nach Mitternacht (Terror After Midnight), with lyrics added by Herb Rehbein and Joe Seneca, became a pop ballad called "Love After Midnight", recorded by both Patti Page (1964) and Jack Jones (1966).
  • A jazzier number called "A Swingin' Safari" was the initial theme tune for the long-running TV game show The Match Game used on the NBC version from 1962 to 1967. Billy Vaughn's cover of "A Swingin' Safari" also hit the Billboard charts, peaking at No. 13 in the summer of 1962. Another 1962 single, "That Happy Feeling", became well known as background music for children's television programming, most notably that of Sandy Becker on his daily WNEW-TV (now WNYW) show in New York between 1963 and 1967.
  • The LP entitled A Swingin' Safari was heavily influenced by South African "kwela" style music, containing versions of "Zambesi", "Wimoweh", "Skokiaan", and "Afrikaan Beat", as well as the title track, which made Kaempfert an early exponent of world music. Many of the tracks were later used in the 1969 film An Elephant Called Slowly.
  • "Tahitian Sunset" was sampled extensively by the lo-fi dance artists Lemon Jelly as their track "In the Bath".

Kaempfert's orchestra made extensive use of horns. A couple of numbers that featured brass prominently, "Magic Trumpet" and "The Mexican Shuffle", were played by both Kaempfert's orchestra and by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, whose initially Mariachi style, in fact, evolved towards the Kaempfert style as the 1960s progressed.  The Brass covered "Magic Trumpet", and Kaempfert returned the favor by covering Brass compadre Sol Lake's number "The Mexican Shuffle". The latter tune evolved into a TV ad, The Teaberry Shuffle.

Many of his hits during this period were composed and arranged with the help of fellow German Herb Rehbein, who became a successful bandleader in his own right. Rehbein's death in 1979 shook Kaempfert deeply. Both Kaempfert and Rehbein were posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

In 1963 jazz trumpeter Bobby Hackett recorded a complete album with 12 Kaempfert compositions, Bobby Hackett Plays the Music of Bert Kaempfert. It has now been re-released in the United States under the Sony Records label in the Collectable Jazz Classics series, along with the album Bobby Hackett Plays The Music of Henry Mancini on a "2-in-1" CD.

In 1967 jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain recorded the album Pete Fountain Plays Bert Kaempfert in Hamburg, Germany, with musicians from Kaempfert's orchestra. It featured Kaempfert's signature hits.

In 1967 the Anita Kerr Singers released the LP Bert Kaempfert Turns Us On!, a tribute to Kaempfert, featuring the standard hits.

In 1968 jazz trumpeter Al Hirt recorded the album Al Hirt Plays Bert Kaempfert. It too featured Kaempfert’s major hits.

His success as a composer was reflected in five awards received from BMI in 1968 for "Lady", "Spanish Eyes", "Strangers in the Night", "The World We Knew", and "Sweet Maria".

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