When other record producers and A&R executives at the
labels of the day had turned them down, it was Bert Kaempfert
who gave a group known as "The Beat Brothers" their first chance to record a
single. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best
recorded "Ain't She Sweet" and "Cry for a Shadow" for Polydor, under Kaempfert's
management, in early 1961. The record was not a great seller, but Kaempfert
gets the credit for embracing "the Liverpool sound" when it was still ahead of
its time. And he'll be remembered as the recording executive who gave the band
that would soon be called "The Beatles" their first shot at recording, although
Kaempfert's own sound of music was far across the spectrum of musical genres
from the rock and roll style of the "British Invasion."
This claim to fame in the rock genre was a far cry from the
swinging but dated instrumental recordings that made Kaempfert
immensely famous in the early '60s. When "Wonderland by Night," an instrumental
only slightly more musically interesting than any of Lawrence
Welk's saccharine tunes, hit the charts big in 1961, Kaempfert
became an overnight success worldwide. By the time "A Swingin' Safari," "Afrikan
Beat," "Blue Midnight," and "Happy Trumpeter" were released as singles, Kaempfert
became a household name. To his advantage, his work with his orchestra,
populated with the most in-demand European musicians of the time, never included
a vocalist, therefore sales of records in myriad non-English speaking countries
were not an issue.
His career was not without controversy, though. The sources used for this
writing offer different stories about whether or not it was Kaempfert
or composer Ivo Robic who penned the song
"Strangers In The Night," Frank Sinatra's biggest hit before
"New York, New York." The song "Strangers In The Night" first appeared in the
score to the movie A Man Could Get Killed in 1965, under Kaempfert's
name. Kaempfert shared a Golden Globe award in 1969 with the lyricists, Charles
Singleton and Eddie Snyder.
The Child Prodigy
Berthold "Fip" Kaempfert was born in Hamburg, Germany in October of 1923. The Kaempfert household was comfortable but not well-off. At age six, what could
have been a catastrophe ended up launching his musical career. A taxicab injured
the boy - and after finding of fault the cab company's insurance carrier paid
out a whopping 500 deutschmarks as settlement. With this, Berthold's mother purchased a
and the boy eagerly practiced and studied with a local music school. (The
Songwriters Hall of Fame website embellishes the story of his musical start by
saying that he was picking out tunes on the family's parlor piano as soon as he
could walk; an untruth.)
prodigy, he graduated the Hamburg School of Music at age 16. He'd mastered the
piano prior to his graduation, but went on to study the saxophone, clarinet and
accordion. He appeared with pre-war Germany's Hans Busch Orchestra as an
instrumentalist, as well as delving into arranging and composing music. The
Busch organization toured not only Germany but other European countries as well.
The young Kaempfert was handsome in a boyish sort of way — a Leonardo diCaprio
A Musician, Even in Wartime
In the early 1940's Kaempfert was drafted into the German Navy. During his service, however, his role in the navy was nearly
exclusively working in military bands. The two websites that exist which are
supported by his estate are silent about his naval service; but also about the
fact that by 1945, Kaempfert was for several months a P.O.W.
in a Danish camp, preferring to use the derogatory term "internment." Ever the musician, he organized a band at the camp comprised
entirely of his fellow POWs.
The King of Easy Listening
One of the skills Kaempfert had that set him apart from his peers was a
special sound, "happy music," he called it. The compositions nearly always
featuring a skilled trumpeter in the foreground (ironically, Kaempfert couldn't
play the trumpet). More importantly, the time-keeping was innovative and infectious. Judicious use
of percussion made the music "sing" without being overwhelming. Often, a snare
drum and a pair of brushes were all that were used by the combo drummer (in
front of the orchestra). Finally, Kaempfert revolutionized the use of the
upright bass, instructing his bassists to pluck the strings and then mute the
note immediately, so instead of the long, booming bass tones usually heard in
the genre, one heard an infectious, simple "dry-cracking" bass tone that was far
more modern. This technique is used today by electric bass guitarists in the
funk and soul genre, occasionally with a slightly different twist than simply
muting the note, but nonetheless, here again is evidence of Kaempfert's
pioneering of musical technique.
His competition, Henry Mancini, Percy Faith, Ray Conniff, Paul Mauriat, James Last, The 101 Strings and even
Lawrence Welk, among others, never achieved the consistency of sound nor the
upbeat, bouncy style that Kaempfert did.
Over the years, Kaempfert's genre has taken on different monikers. In the '50s
and '60s it was big-band pop; by the '70s, the genre was dying out and was
called in the radio business "Beautiful Music." In the '80s and beyond, the
genre, depending upon whom is discussing it, is called "Easy Listening,"
"Lounge," or just plain cheese. The 'cheese' part may be correct, but Kaempfert's melodies have stood the test of time and have been given some
peculiar but adoring covers over the years.
INSTRUMENTALISTS OF NOTE UTILIZED BY THE KAEMPFERT ORGANIZATION: TRUMPETS: Charly Tabor, Werner Gutterer, Manfred Moch, Heinz Habermann,
Dieter Kock, Leif Uvemark, Bob Lanese, Rick Kiefer, Lennart Axelsson,
Ack van Rooyen, Greg Bowen, Laurence Flam, Derek Watkins, Hakan Nyquist;
TROMBONES: Konrad Bogdan (bass), Gnter Fuhlisch, Detlef Surmann, Georges
Delagaye, Nick Hauck, Wolfgang Ahlers, Ole Holmquist;
REEDS: Emil Wurster, Willi Surmann (father of trombonist Detlef),
Karl-Hermann Ler, Jochen Ment (also known as bandleader Jo Ment), Harald
Ende, Herb Geller, Ferdinand Povel;
GUITAR: Ladi Geisler, Karlheinz Kaestel, Bernd Steffanowski, Helmuth Franke,
Peter Hesslein, Big Jim Sullivan;
ELECTRIC BASS: Ladi Geisler, Benny Bendorff;
DRUMS & PERCUSSION: Robert Last (brother of James), Rolf Ahrens, Barry Roy
Reeves, Terry Jenkins, Wolfgang Schlter, Herbert Bornhold;
KEYBOARDS: Gunter Platzek, Peter Hecht.
A Man As Charming as His Music
By all accounts, Kaempfert was a likeable, easy-going, genuinely happy person
all of his life. He married his wife Hannelore in 1946 after a year's courtship.
The couple had two children, Doris in 1951 and Marion in 1956. All of his
promotional photos show an impeccably dressed, conservatively-coiffed, downright
dashing looking gentleman.
During the 1950s, he and his collaborators were charting very well on the
German popular music lists. "Mitternachts-Blues" (Midnight Blues) lingered for
weeks on the German charts, topping out at number 6.
Around this time Elvis Presley was stationed in Germany to serve his country
in the Army. The Presley organization took great pains to prevent interruption
of his career, so while serving, Presley also was filming a movie (G.I.
Blues) in Germany. Kaempfert was tapped to score some of the music. The brilliant use of what was
originally a folk tune provided Presley with "Wooden Heart," a hit for Presley
and also for singer Joe Dowell. His success working with Americans set his
sights on the U.S. market.
Kaempfert and his wife traveled to New York, where he sought out the help of
entertainment genius Milt Gabler. Gabler's collaboration with Kaempfert as a
lyricist and manager enriched them both. Music that had been popular in Germany
was re-released on albums of "mood music" under English titles and shook the
popular music community to its roots. The smooth, "happy" background music had
people all over the country tapping their toes and snapping their fingers.
Record after record came off the presses of the Decca label, with whom Kaempfert
was to enjoy a long-term relationship.
Back in Germany, Kaempfert heard a group of young men from Liverpool, England
called "The Beat Brothers" in a small nightclub, and signed them with Polydor.
The Beatles had been born! The Liverpool sound was way ahead of its time, so
years would go by until the group received notice from both U.K. and American
At arguably the height of his popularity in America, Kaempfert was invited by
fellow mood-music mogul Jackie Gleason to appear on The Jackie Gleason Show
Christmas week of 1967. The program earned the highest ratings in the history of
The "Happy Music" is Silenced Too Early
Although listeners may not know the titles of the tunes, nearly everyone has
heard Kaempfert-composed background music in elevators, supermarkets, dentists'
offices and other such venues. Tunes like "Strangers in the Night," "Spanish
Eyes," "Happy Trumpet," "L.O.V.E.," (Nat "King" Cole made it famous) "I Can't
Help Remembering You" (Dean Martin made this one his own) and "The World We Knew
(Over and Over)" (another Sinatra hit) were popular hits that came back as
instrumentals on countless Kaempfert albums, including two Greatest Hits
collections and another entitled Singles, released posthumously. Kaempfert's own composition, "A Swingin' Safari" became notorious for its use as background music for countless travelogue-type presentations on film and in the form of slide projections by professionals but more often amateurs.
By the late '70s, Kaempfert was as busy as ever. His pastime was spending
time on his fishing boat off of Mallorca, Spain. He'd performed four encore
performances for a London audience in 1980, and announced to his fans that he
"had no more scores, and my musicians are thirsty." He went back to Mallorca to
write more music, but was felled by a fatal stroke on June 21st, 1980. His ashes were
scattered over the Florida Everglades (at his request; he'd found quiet and
peace there late in life) a year later.
He was inducted posthumously into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1993.
Other awards included two gold singles in Germany, one U.S. gold single, and
seven gold albums. He earned 22 BMI song awards, including one for the most
performed song of the BMI repertoire in 1966 ("Strangers in the Night"). By the time of his passing, 150 million of his records had been sold.
Kaempfert's music has popped up in television commercials from time to time, most recently for ING Insurance ("A Swingin' Safari" - performed by Bert Kaempfert and His Orchestra) and for the Chrysler PT Cruiser
car ("L.O.V.E." by the group Fisher
- also used on the soundtrack of How to Lose a Man in Ten Days)
. Many years ago, Channel 5 (WFOX) in New York City
used Kaempfert's "Happy Trumpet" for a segue from the evening news into commercials.
This writeup received not one but two rather assertive responses asking that I remove certain portions for which I had no source at hand to cite. Additionally, I was less than objective regarding Kaempfert's military service during World War II. He served in the German navy. The entirety of his service was spent making music; not in combat. I was accusative and made an assertion that was based on faulty logic, and for this I apologize. It was, however, enlightening to know that Kaempfert has fans who're this
enthusiastic. I'm gonna leave this writeup as it stands now, absent
controversial issues. Now perhaps we can go out and buy the superb CD "The
Best of Bert Kaempfert" which was reissued not too long ago. If "beautiful
music" is your bag (it is mine, sometimes), the album's the best of the
genre. If you're into something else, it's like going on a musical picnic;
there's a little something there for just about everyone.
A Personal, Cultural Observation
Anecdotal and experiential observations on the part of the writer led me to a
rather unscientific conclusion. Kaempfert was perhaps a hero to the many
Americans of German heritage who felt strong ties to that heritage. During
Kaempfert's heyday, "German Clubs" had popped up all over the country, more so
in the east than anywhere else. (Of course, many towns had their Italian Clubs, Polish Clubs, etc., I don't want to single out the Germans for running clubs with ethnic exclusivity of some sort.)
The German Clubs were a haven for those who'd
survived the economic catastrophe that was post-World War II Germany, and
escaped it, seeking to find a better life in the U.S. Of course, there were
older members who'd come over long before the war, but the German Club I
remember being taken to as a young man transcended age, and focused on the
Germans' love of good food, good drink, and stories of the "old country," more
often than not seen through rose colored glasses. It was at the German Club, and
at house parties held by its members, that I recall hearing the original German
versions of Kaempfert's albums, (dismissed by the oldsters as being "too
modern") but played, and danced to, nonetheless. Men and women alike would sing
along with the words to songs which had lyrics. I long for that time; when being
of German heritage was a strong source of pride and of joy. Now, we were, of course,
sweeping under the carpet any mention of the Germany of Hitler; and the denial,
in retrospect, was in no way psychologically useful nor healthy.
My first culinary teacher was a man named Klaus Hattasch, who'd escaped the
famine of post-war Germany and made a great life for himself in the U.S., owning
restaurants (The Horse and Hound Inn in South Salem, New York; and La Bagatelle
in Greenwich, Connecticut). I was only 15 years old when I met him, but after
only 3 years considered him a mentor. He told me of the shame and struggle of
living under the Allied occupation, and of literally starving at one point in
his life, before he could scrape up enough funds to seek his fortune. Kaempfert
was mentioned as a hero of his, and Kaempfert's music was often played on the
huge reel-to-reel tape recorder at the Horse and Hound which provided background
music for dining. Kaempfert's music (even the song and album titles) epitomized for all listeners "the good life," and perhaps the soft spot in my heart for Kaempfert's music is because it was playing when I tasted my first great Grand Cru Bordeaux; when I first tried Escargot — it had subliminally become the soundtrack to my transformation from a hamburger-hungry kid to a gourmet.
As the "Beautiful Music" radio stations died out, I felt Kaempfert's music
dying with them. Today, the Lounge movement has revived interest in this
composer, perhaps more interested in the kitsch value of the music than its
musical integrity. Whenever I hear some of Kaempfert's instrumental works, I
think about Germany, my twice-removed cousins there, and recall the lovely way
of life even my humble grandmother enjoyed; a way of life
which is hard to describe, but distinctly German. For lack of a better phrase,
I'll paraphrase: "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow may be different."
UPDATE: SharQ suggested that I link all of the recordings. I am doing so (but not adding them to the "New Writeups" list). This will enable me to give a track list, chart information, alternative performer information and liner notes descriptions (where applicable) for each one. Spiregrain made the brilliant suggestion that I add a piece about how Kaempfert's music endures via its use in TV and radio, mostly advertisements. That's taking no small bit of research on my part but will be published here soon.
(U.S. Issues only)
- April In Portugal, DL-78881 (1959)
Wonderland By Night, Decca DL-74101 (1960)
The Wonderland Of Bert Kaempfert, Decca DL-74117 (1960)
Dancing In Wonderland, Decca DL-74161 (1960)
With A Sound In My Heart DL-74228 (1961)
Lights Out, Sweet Dreams, Decca DL-74265 (1961)
Afrikaan Beat, Decca DL-74273 (1962)
That Happy Feeling, Decca DL-74305 (1962)
Living It Up, Decca DL-74374 (1962)
Christmas Wonderland, Decca DL-74441 (1963)
That Latin Feeling, Decca DL-74490 (1963)
Blue Midnight, Decca DL-74569 (1964)
The Magic Music Of Far Away Places, Decca DL-74616 (1964)
Three O'Clock In The Morning, Decca DL-74670 (1965)
Bye Bye Blues, Decca DL-74693 (1965)
A Man Could Get Killed, Decca DL-74750 (1966)
Strangers In The Night, Decca DL-74795 (1966)
Bert Kaempfert's Greatest Hits, Decca DL-74810 (1966)
Hold Me, Decca DL-74810 (1967)
Bert Kaempfert's Best, Decca DL-734485 (1967)
The World We Knew, Decca DL-74925 (1967)
Love That Bert Kaempfert, Decca DL-74986 (1967)
The Best Of Bert Kaempfert DXSB-7200 (1968)
My Way Of Life, Decca DL-75059 (1968)
Warm And Wonderful, Decca DL-75189 (1969)
Traces Of Love, Decca DL-75140 (1969)
The Kaempfert Touch, Decca DL-75175 (2/70)
Free And Easy, Decca DL-75234 (7/70)
Orange Colored Sky, Decca DL-75256 (2/71)
Bert Kaempfert Now!, Decca DL-75305 (9/71)
6 Plus 6, Decca DL-75322 (5/72)
Bert Kaempfert's Best, Decca DL-75367 (10/72)
Fabulous Fifties, MCA-314 (4/73)
To The Good Life, MCA-368 (10/73)
The Most Beautiful Girl, MCA-402 (3/74)
Gallery, MCA-447 (11/74)
Live In London, Polydor 825144-2 (1974)
Golden Memories, MCA-466 (4/75)
Moon Over Miami, MCA-489 (9/75)
Kaempfert '76, Polydor 2310456 (5/76)
The Best Of Bert Kaempfert, MCA2-4100 (10/76)
Safari Swings Again, Polydor 2310494 (1977)
Tropical Sunrise, Polydor 2310562 (1977)
Bert Kaempfert Swing, Polydor 2310592 (1978)
Keep On Dancing, Polydor 2310625 (1979)
Bert Kaempfert In Concert, Polydor 2310657 (1980)
The Best Of Bert Kaempfert, MFCD-795 (1988)
- The Bert Kaempfert Orchestra (Tony Fisher and Marion Kaempfert):
http://www.bertkaempfert.co.uk/indexmain.htm (Accessed 4/23/07)
- IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0434475/ (Accessed 4/23/07)
- Songwriters' Hall of Fame:
- European Big Bands Database:
- Bert Kaempfert Good Life Music:
http://www.kaempfert.de/index_int.html (Accessed 4/23/07)
- Space Age Pop: http://www.spaceagepop.com/kaempfer.htm (Accessed 4/23/07)