Bert Kaempfert

You may have done a double-take when you saw Bert Kaempfert listed under the “songwriter” menu, thinking that he should instead be remembered as a bandleader. You might even question Kaempfert’s inclusion as a bandleader, considering the relatively narrow scope of his sound known as “happy music.”

Let us assure you this is not a misprint: Bert Kaempfert is included here for his significance as a songwriter, and for his innovations as an arranger and producer. Had Bert Kaempfert been born in the USA it is reasonable to assume that his career path would’ve been much different. American pianists born with his talent and ear for music usually grow up to be Henry Mancini or Burt Bacharach. He was, however, German-born, so he fell into the role of a bandleader who wrote and arranged as needed. He would eventually compose a small but extremely important roster of American hit songs, including #1 hits for the two most significant male vocalists of the 20th century. And just in case you weren’t convinced, we’ll explain how Bert Kaempfert — one of the all-time greats in the elevator music genre — played a key role in changing the face of pop music throughout the world.

This article was prompted by the passing of vocal great Al Martino. When our editorial staff was putting together Martino’s bio for our featured artist page, we were reminded that it was Kaempfert who penned “Spanish Eyes,” a 1965 hit which would become Martino’s signature song. That realization prompted the usual surprised reactions of “huh” and “how about that” whenever Kaempfert’s compositions are mentioned. This surprise is just as frequently followed by the “wasn’t he the German Lawrence Welk?” which is sort of odd considering Welk was born of German immigrants and sounded arguably more German than Kaempfert. But perception is reality; most remember Kaempfert for his contribution to the easy listening realm and not for his lasting significance as a composer.

In addition to “Spanish Eyes,” Kaempfert composed other “signature” songs that are an indelible part of American popular song. The most notable is “Danke schoen,” on which Wayne Newton has built a lounge act empire. Kaempfert also composed his own signature song, “Wanderland by Night,” which spent three weeks on top of the charts in 1961. And although the song has not enjoyed the same longevity as the others, Kaempfert’s “That Happy Feeling” became synonymous with television personality Sandy Becker, who used it as a theme song in the 1960s. As far as the #1 hits for the two most significant male vocalists of the 20th century, we’re referring to songs Kaempfert composed for Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.

Kaempfert more or less fell into the world of American pop when he was working on the score for a film Elvis Presley made during his years in Germany with the U.S. Army. The film G.I. Blues included a song Kaempfert adapted from a German folk piece called “Muss I Denn.” As performed by Presley, it was re-worked into “Wooden Heart.” Released as a single in Great Britain, the song rocketed to number one. In the USA, however, RCA was unconvinced that a quirky German polka tune would get any airplay, and let the song languish. Meanwhile, executives at Mercury Records, more familiar with the southeastern US market and rural record buyers in general, knew that they could make a profit on anything that smacked of Elvis. Joe Dowell, a minor vocalist signed to the Smash label, was ordered to record a cover. While RCA snoozed, Dowell’s recording sounded just enough like Elvis that it rocketed to number one stateside. Oddly enough, Elvis’ version is the recording known today, despite the fact that Dowell had the original domestic hit.

It was yet another Kaempfert movie song that would evolve into a massive hit for Frank Sinatra, although the song has swirled in controversy from the beginning. “Strangers In the Night” was a collaborative effort between Yugoslavian folksinger Ivo Robic and Kaempfert. Beginning in 1959, the two worked together on a handful of songs that would be minor U.S. hits for artists such as Dean Martin and Leslie Uggams among others. Robic often claimed that the composition was his, having performed it behind the Iron Curtain prior to its exposure in the west. Music historians point to the major differences between “Strangers” and Robic’s original; the re-working is apparently so thorough that Kaempfert was justified in claiming composition. But the controversy was by no means over.

“Strangers” had English lyrics written by Charles Singleton and Eddie Snyder for the James Garner comedy A Man Could Get Killed, which ended up not being used in the film. The song was presented to Sinatra by Sonny Burke, musical director of Reprise Records. Sinatra reportedly despised the song, and at first refused to record it. Burke persisted, and eventually prevailed upon the Chairman to give “Strangers In The Night” a shot. Supposedly Frank’s “scooby-dooby-doo” at the end was just his way of both imitating and ridiculing the melody.

The real controversy began when the song became a hit, ultimately reaching number one on both the pop and easy listening charts. It also scored Sinatra a Grammy Award, as well as Grammys for the arrangement. Herbert Rehbein, who worked on arrangements for Kaempfert during the 1960s, said that the melody was his. At the same time, a Detroit composer named Ralph Chicorel stepped forward and claimed that he had indirectly presented the song to Sinatra on a demo record. Chicorel’s claim was that 3/4 of the melody was copied, and filed suit against the King of Happy Music.

Kaempfert was at the height of his own career, riding a wave of fun instrumental recordings. His popularity was based on catchy but unspectacular tunes such as “The Happy Trumpet,” “Swingin’ Safari,” and “Afrikaan Beat.” Many of these songs were extreme re-workings of old folk sings, some of which Kaempfert recorded as well. “Swingin’ Safari,” for example, uses the same note progression as “Wimoweh,” but it is radically re-made. In fact a careful examination of some of these songs makes a strong case that, like “Danke Shoen” and “Wooden Heart,” Kaempfert really did re-work “Strangers” rather than steal it as claimed. While it’s possible that Kaempfert heard the Chicorel demo, the timing of his composition doesn’t quite jive with the claims in the lawsuit.

Riding the wave of “happy music,” Kaempfert was greatly in demand during the late 1960s. After a few successful TV appearances in the USA and Europe, he began “touring” with musicians that he used in the studio. Trumpeter Tony Fisher, who heads today’s touring Bert Kaempfert Orchestra, was arguably the star of the show. In fact Bert appeared somewhat uncomfortable when he began touring — probably because his orchestra was so talented that he was mostly window dressing. In just a short time he would be much more at ease on stage, and became quite the showman. Kaempfert would punctuate key changes with a fist pump, and generally appeared to really enjoy the “happy” sounds.

Regardless of the fact that he didn’t add anything to the live performances, his personal appeal demanded his presence at these shows. This conveniently enabled Kaempfert to avoid and postpone trial dates for a number of years; the case was eventually settled out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. As for the touring, Kaempfert eventually found he enjoyed it so much that he continued to do so right up to his untimely death.

Kaempfert’s Role in Forever Changing the Face of Pop

As promised, we’ll now explain how the King of Happy Music played a key role in forever reshaping the pop music scene worldwide.

Backtrack to the early 1960s, a time when “Wonderland By Night” was ruling the Billboard charts. With the death of Buddy Holly, Elvis in Germany, and both Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis fallen from grace, it seemed that “rock and roll” really was just a passing fad. Bobby Darin was sounding like Sinatra. Connie Francis, Bobby Vinton and Johnny Mathis were new stars; even Al Martino was rocketing back up the charts. Percy Faith was a top selling artist. Music historians point to 1960-1962 as the absolute doldrums of American pop; a sort of horse latitudes where the music simply stagnated with little to offer teenage record buyers. Oddly enough, “Wonderland by Night” is one of the songs frequently offered as proof.

The interesting thing is that during 1961 — while Kaempfert’s recordings were constantly charting in the USA — he happened to hear a rough British vocal group perform in Hamburg. Kaempfert thought their sound was energetic, spontaneous, surprising…and happy. He hired the Liverpool lads to work on a record he was producing for Tony Sheridan. Sheridan was a mid-level European pop star who didn’t have his own backing band, but pretended to. Musicians were contracted locally wherever Sheridan appeared, and the act was billed as Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers. For this reason the popular misconception is that the Beatles were first known as the Beat Brothers, but that wasn’t the case at all. They performed in Germany as The Beatles, and by coincidence made their first recordings under a similar name. Kaempfert’s contract helped legitimize the group, providing new manager Brian Epstein with tangible evidence that he presented to Parlaphone. And thus it could be said that Bert Kaempfert “discovered” the Beatles, and forever altered the path of pop music.

In many of his hit compositions, Kaempfert either borrowed heavily from or was clearly influenced by earlier songs. This is not to belittle his songwriting skills; on the contrary, he took the seeds of some rather mundane progressions and made them fabulous. One of his hits that did not follow this trend was “L-O-V-E,” recorded first by Kaempfert and then by Nat “King” Cole just prior to his death. The song features a clever lyric by Milt Gabler: “L is for the way you look at me…” and has since become a standard and possibly the most enduring song Kaempfert wrote. Interestingly enough, the song originally peaked at #81 on the pop charts, unable to penetrate the plethora of British Invasion songs, many of which are long forgotten. Gabler of course was the man who produced Bill Haley’s recording of “Rock Around The Clock,” and by accidentally leaving the input level of a microphone too high, inadvertently added the overpowering backbeat that helped launch the rock and roll era. (We’re not suggesting that rock wouldn’t have happened without Gabler, nor that the Beatles wouldn’t have happened without Kaempfert. It’s just an interesting footnote that the men who wrote “L-O-V-E” played such key roles in coincidental events that turned out to be so important in music history.)

Kaempfert’s music has survived the British Invasion that he unknowingly helped launch. His songs have been covered by hundreds of artists, and his unique melodies continue to be used whenever “happy music” is called for.

— Rick Bolger