Saturday, June 24, 2023

Charting The Bert Kaempfert Songbook

The summer of 1967 is best remembered for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and, of course, as the Summer of Love. But, as listeners at the time may recall, it is also when the German composer and bandleader Bert Kaempfert (1923-80) was at the peak of his own popularity – and, notably, right here in the United States.

Best remembered now as an easy-listening maestro who scored dozens of best-selling orchestral and mostly instrumental records in the sixties and seventies, Kaempfert was an especially prolific composer (and co-composer) of mostly “pretty” tunes that became hits for other artists, particularly popular American vocalists.

Kaempfert’s success started early in the decade when his orchestra’s cover of “Wonderland by Night” – a song, recorded in 1959, which he surprisingly couldn’t get released in his native Germany – turned in to a worldwide number one hit in November 1960. He then went on to discover The Beatles, producing the Fab Four’s earliest recordings that same year.

Embarking on a series of easy-listening records for the Decca label (in the U.S. and on Polydor in Europe), Kaempfert consistently sold well and solidified his place as a composer of catchy, memorable tunes and often beautiful, yet catchy melodies. He also waxed elegantly on jazz and swing standards – notably avoiding many of pop’s tops and the AM radio hits that so many of the other bandleaders of the day were trading in on at the time.

Kaempfert had his own hits with “Tenderly” (1961), “Afrikaan Beat” (1962 – beautifully revived forty years later in the film About Schmidt), “Red Roses for a Blue Lady” and “Three O’clock in the Morning” (both 1965).

But as a composer, Kaempfert also had a hand in such hits for Elvis Presley (“Wooden Heart,” 1961), Wayne Newton (“Danke Schoen,” 1963 and “Remember When,” 1965), Al Martino (“Spanish Eyes,” 1965), Nat “King” Cole (“L.O.V.E.,” 1964), Jack Jones (“Lady,” 1967) and, most notably, Frank Sinatra’s “comeback” hit “Strangers in the Night” (1966) – a song the legendary singer allegedly hated.

Kaempfert became relentlessly covered. Indeed, the music publisher BMI awarded Kaempfert Special Citations of Achievement “in recognition of the great national popularity as measured by over 1 million broadcast performances” for his compositions “Danke Schoen,” “Lady,” “The World We Knew (Over and Over),” “Spanish Eyes,” “Strangers in the Night” and “Sweet Maria.”

Among Kaempfert’s most popular songs, SecondHandSongs lists 312 recorded covers of “Spanish Eyes,” the 51st most popular song in 1965, and 379 covers of “Strangers in the Night,” the 21st most popular song in 1966.

While Kaempfert was nominated only once for a Grammy Award (“Strangers in the Night”) and Kaempfert (and James Last) engineer Peter Klemt was unaccountably nominated only once for his work on Bert’s album The Kaempfert Touch (1970), little wonder why Kaempfert felt unstoppable. Awards didn’t matter…sales did.

”Kaempfert predicts,” roared a Billboard magazine headline in May 13, 1967, “[a] shift to soft music.”

”I have made it a little easier,” said the composer at the time, “for both new and old vocalists of the soft-sell school to get recorded and sell their records.”

And so it was…for a few more weeks.

”Already,” Kaempfert boasted of his then-forthcoming record (…Love That Bert Kaempfert), "Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Al Martino, Andy Williams, Bobby Darin and Wayne Newton will record songs from my new album and the lyrics for these songs haven't been written yet."

For the record, Andy Williams did cover the earlier “Strangers in the Night” and “Spanish Eyes” – nothing from “my new album” – but Bobby Darin (1936-73) never issued anything written by Bert Kaempfert.

But while Bert was busting out all over, the summer of 1967 happened. That summer saw a seismic shift in popular music: from the Brill Building and folk to rock and the rise of the singer-songwriter. Suddenly, there was a whole new generation of record buyer. The “kids” of the day were no longer listening to or buying the “vocalists of the soft-sell school.”

Still, Kaempfert managed to chart with songs aimed at the “easy listening” crowd – known today as the slightly hipper “Adult Contemporary” set – at least for a few more years.

Kaempfert and his co-writers, notably long-time partner Herbert Rehbein, conceived a prodigious number of songs that became hits for English-speaking singers. This was likely facilitated by Kaempfert’s American producer and frequent co-writer, Milt Gabler. And most charted.

What follows is a list of those Bert Kaempfert compositions by others that charted on the Billboard Hot 100 (*) or on other charts that made such performances notable. Note: “AC” = the Adult Contemporary chart listing, while “UK” = the United Kingdom chart listing:

“Wooden Heart” by Elvis Presley (1961, #1 UK; 2005, #2 UK [!] – released twice in the US in 1964 and 1965, though neither issue charted)

(*) “Wooden Heart” by Joe Dowell (1961, #1)

(*) “A Swingin’ Safari” by The Billy Vaughn Singers (1962, #13, #5 AC)

(*) “Danke Shoen” by Wayne Newton (1963, #13, #3 AC)

(*) “L-O-V-E” by Nat King Cole (1964, #81, #17 AC)

(*) “Only Those in Love” by Baby Washington (1965, #73, #10 R&B)

(*) “Remember When” by Wayne Newton (1965, #69, #15 AC)

(*) “Spanish Eyes” by Al Martino (1965, #15, #1 AC)

(*) “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra (1966, #1 US/AC/UK)

(*) Weiderseh’n” by Al Martino (1966, #57, #3 AC)

(*) “Lady” by Jack Jones (1967, #39, #1 AC)

“Sweet Maria” by The Billy Vaughn Singers (1967, #6 AC)

“The Lady Smiles” by Matt Monro (1967, #11 AC)

“Sweet Maria” by Steve Lawrence (1967, #23 AC)

(*) “The World We Knew (Over and Over)” by Frank Sinatra (1967, #30, #1 AC)

“It Makes No Difference” by Vic Damone (1967, #39 AC)

“Don’t Talk to Me” by Johnny Mathis (1967, #21 AC)

“I Can’t Help Remembering You” by The Anita Kerr Singers (1967, #15 AC)

(*) “Lonely is the Name” by Sammy Davis, Jr. (1968, #93, #12 AC)

(*) “My Way of Life” by Frank Sinatra (1968, #64, #3 AC)

“The Maltese Melody” by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass (1970, #14 AC)

(*) “You Turned My World Around” by Frank Sinatra (1974, #83, #11 AC).

(*) “Wooden Heart” by Bobby Vinton (1975, #58, #23 AC)

“Strangers in the Night” by Bette Midler (1976, #45 AC)

“Spanish Eyes” by Charlie Rich (1979, #20 Country)

“Spanish Eyes” by Willie Nelson with Julio Iglesias (1988, #8 Country)

Kaempfert also penned many more songs that didn’t chart. For example, Wayne – “Mr. Las Vegas” – Newton also covered such additional Kaempfert trifles as “Don’t Talk to Me” (1965) as well as “L-O-V-E,” “Moon Over Naples,” “The Yo Yo Puppet Song” (also covered by trumpeter Al Hirt), “Wiedersehn” and “Remember When” (all 1966).

Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin took on the Kaempfert nuggets “Take Me” (1963), “I Can’t Help Remembering You” (1967) and “Welcome to My Heart” (1968) – interestingly, though, none of these were ever issued as singles.

Singer and actress Jane Morgan recorded Kaempfert’s “Now and Forever” in 1966 while Johnny Mathis put out the Kaempfert tunes “Every Time I Dream of You” (1968), “Strangers in the Night” (1969) and the 1970 album Johnny Mathis Sings The Music of Bacharach & Kaempfert. (The Kaempfert pieces from that album were issued separately as a Bert tribute LP in Europe, although, quite curiously, none of the Kaempfert tunes were ever issued as singles.)

Mathis recorded his Kaempfert tribute in Hamburg with Kaempfert’s own orchestra, although none of the Kaempfert tunes from the set were issued as singles. Singers in the 21st century continue covering Kaempfert, including Joss Stone, Marc Almond, Jon Secada, Diana Krall and Helen Schneider, who recorded a full-on tribute in her The World We Knew – The Bert Kaempfert Album (2010).

Bert Kaempfert continued recording and performing with his orchestra throughout the seventies, but his appeal as a hit songwriter had largely dissipated. Since his early death at age 56 in 1980, Kaempfert’s prodigious catalog has often been reissued on CD and is available to this day on most streaming platforms. The music of Bert Kaempfert continues to resonate in the samples of his magic by such artists as Nicola Conte, Naughty by Nature, Lil’ Kim, Chelsea Collins, G-Eazy and others.

Evergreens, all.

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