Saturday, June 10, 2023

Easy Does It: Bert Kaempfert Tribute Albums

The German composer and bandleader Bert Kaempfert (1923-80) was a singular force in music in the sixties. Not only was he the first person to “discover” and record The Beatles (and, curiously, one of the few orchestral leaders that didn’t much cover The Beatles), he also gave Elvis Presley a huge European hit, “Wooden Heart” (from the 1960 Elvis Presley film G.I. Blues).

From the early fifties, Kaempfert – a talent scout as well as bandleader – had recorded successful orchestral records in Germany. But he achieved international success and acclaim with his cover of “Wonderland by Night,” a number one hit in the United States in 1960.

Throughout the sixties and seventies, Kaempfert put out dozens of records (for the Decca label in the U.S.), all recorded in Hamburg and supervised by American producer Milt Gabler that sold very well. The mostly instrumental records were considered “beautiful music” and filed under “easy listening,” and featured Europe’s leading musicians parlaying Kaempfert’s signature sound.

Kaempfert also penned many American hits for a variety of singers from Wayne Newton, Connie Francis, Al Martino, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr. and, notably, one of Frank Sinatra’s “come back” hits, “Strangers in the Night” (1966).

Naturally, these songs were covered by other singers, jazz instrumentalists and lounge meisters spinning out easy-listening records of their own. Several artists even devoted full albums to Bert Kaempfert’s music. These albums were recorded between 1963 and 1969, during Kaempfert’s hit heyday. (Kaempfert recorded up to his 1980 death, but his records stopped appearing in the States five years earlier.)

This essay considers albums by Bobby Hackett, Anita Kerr, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt and the Living Strings. But later Bert Kaempfert tribute albums were also waxed by Johnny Mathis (1970 – recorded in Hamburg with Kaempfert’s orchestra), fellow bandleader Paul Kuhn (2003), former Kaempfert player Jiggs Whigham (2006), vibraphonist Christopher Dell (2007 – with Kaempert’s “knack bass” player Ladi Geisler on guitar) and the maestro's grandson, trumpeter Stefan Kaempfert (2011).

Bobby Hackett Plays The Music Of Bert Kaempfert (1964)

Jazz trumpeter and cornetist Bobby Hackett (1915-76) was initially (and latterly) associated with Dixieland, but earned his jazz chops in the bands of Eddie Condon, Benny Goodman and, most notably, Glenn Miller – often earning positive praise as the heir apparent to the great Bix Beiderbecke. He was also the featured soloist on many of Jackie Gleason’s mood music records of the fifties, offering a pleasing, light but soothingly sultry touch of jazz to those recordings.

Hackett’s “superbly gentle tone,” as Leonard Feather put it, made him the ideal candidate to front, if maybe not the first Bert Kaempfert tribute, then surely the first one to hit American shores.

Bobby Hackett Plays The Music Of Bert Kaempfert is a sequel to the 1963 Hackett tribute to Henry Mancini. Both discs were expertly – if not also, experimentally – arranged by keyboard virtuoso Dick Hyman, who is as responsible for the success of this Kaempfert tribute as Hackett.

Here, Hackett covers three of Kaempfert’s U.S. hits (“Wonderland by Night,” “Now and Forever” and “Afrikaan Beat”) as well as “Danke Schoen,” Wayne Newton’s 1963 American hit (Hyman covered the tune on his 1963 album Fabulous). Five of the tunes Hackett covers here come from Kaempfert’s terrific 1962 disc That Happy Feeling (released, for the most part, in Europe as A Swingin’ Safari) – emphasizing how much fun Kaempfert’s music was.

Indeed, Hackett swings this safari. His jazz roots kick Kaempfert’s music into gear while Dick Hyman’s typically quirky arrangements and various keyboard accompaniment work well here. The pair bring out the Mancini in “The Bass Walks” and Kaempfert’s melodic gift for such catchy numbers as “A Swingin’ Safari,” “Afrikaan Beat” and the appropriately “Happy Trumpeter” (covered several years later by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass as “Magic Trumpet”).

The album’s highlight is surely the imaginative and delightfully spunky “Mexican Market Day,” a supercharged take on “Market Day.” It’s a wonder how this gem – which easily could have been titled “African Market Day” – never became a hit. It seems no one bothered trying. Here, as on the other up-tempo numbers, Hyman drives the beat a little harder and faster than Kaempfert does on the original – a key to the album’s success and what Cashbox called the album’s “bright freshness.”

In addition to breezy solos from Hackett and Hyman, guitar solos add an attractive edge to this very worthy tribute (Joe Puma, George Barnes and Jimmy Mitchell are the session’s guitarists). Bobby Hackett Plays The Music Of Bert Kaempfert is among the best of the Kaempfert tributes and the closest any of these recordings come to jazz. Hackett’s Mancini and Kaempfert’s tribute discs were combined for a single – and highly recommended – CD release in 2002.

The Anita Kerr Singers: Bert Kaempfert Turns Us On (1967)

Anita Kerr (1927-2022) wrote, arranged and conducted scores of records in the sixties and seventies for herself and many others. She also led a quartet of vocalists called the Anita Kerr Singers – based in Nashville in the early sixties (mostly in a country bag), Los Angeles in the late sixties (all in decidedly easy tempos) and in Europe thereafter in a variety of secular and non-secular circumstances.

Kerr had previously recorded a tribute to Henry Mancini and would later record one to Burt Bacharach. Released in mid-1967, Bert Kaempfert Turns Us On seems to suggest the German bandleader’s hit compositions were cool – the way your dad’s music is cool to you. Popular though they may have been, these songs were most likely not embraced by the Summer of Love crowd.

The hits covered here are an impressive lot: “Wonderland by Night” (1961) for Anita Bryant (the 1960 instrumental was Kaempfert’s first international hit), “Danke Schoen” (1963) and “Remember When” (1965) for Wayne Newton, “Spanish Eyes” (1965) for Al Martino, “Love” (1965) for Nat King Cole, “Strangers in the Night” (1966) and “The World We Knew” (1967) for Frank Sinatra, “I Can’t Help Remembering You” (1967) for Dean Martin and “Lady” (1967) for Jack Jones.

But Kerr turns down the heat and volume to such a degree that what we get are pretty, though ultimately, downer dirges. It sounds all hushed and dreamy, in a way meant to lull – or scare – children or listeners right to sleep.

Among the album’s few surprises are “Two Can Live on Love Alone,” which no one else seems to have ever covered, a slightly rousing “A Swingin’ Safari” replete with a jaunty set of lyrics (credited to someone named “Tansey”) and “For Bert,” a musically clever though lyrically confusing bit of fun from Kerr and lyricist Rod McKuen.

While seven of this album’s dozen songs were recorded by Johnny Mathis in Hamburg with longtime Kaempfert arranger Herbert Rehbein in 1970 for Johnny Mathis Sings the Music of Bacharach and Kaempfert, Kaempfert himself recorded “For Bert” on his 1975 album Love Walked In (which was never released in the US). Bert Kaempfert Turns Us On has been issued on CD in several variations.

Pete Fountain Plays Bert Kaempfert (1967)

This may be the most notable, if not the best, of all the Bert Kaempfert tribute albums discussed here. Pete Fountain (born Pierre Dewey Fountaine, Jr. in New Orleans), was already a veteran of Lawrence Welk’s orchestra and the Dukes of Dixieland and owned and operated a popular club in New Orleans’s French Quarter.

In early 1967, Fountain (1930-2016) traveled to Hamburg, Germany to record his own Bert Kaempfert tribute album – with no less than Bert Kaempfert’s own orchestra! Kaempfert’s lifelong musical associate Herbert Rehbein (1922-79) did the arrangements and Bert himself provided two new tunes to the program: “For Pete’s Sake” (also the album’s single) and the marvelous, though all too-brief “Have a Ball.” Neither tune ever popped up on Kaempfert’s own recordings.

All the usual suspects are here, including the then-recent hit take of “Strangers in the Night” – listed correctly as “A Theme From The Universal Picture ‘A Man Could Get Killed’,” even though no song of that title is on that soundtrack album. But Fountain seems to be on low burn. None of the fervor or swagger of New Orleans followed him to Hamburg. While there is a pleasant addition of marimba on some tracks, the producer (Fountain’s regular, Charles “Bud” Dant, and not Milt Gabler, Kaempfert’s regular helmsman) unwisely tamped down Ladi Geisler’s signature “Knackbass” throughout.

This safari doesn’t swing hard or often enough, but when it does it’s worth hearing. “For Pete’s Sake” was featured some years back on a Bert Kaempfert CD anthology, but the full album has yet to appear on CD.

Al Hirt Plays Bert Kaempfert (1968)

Dixieland trumpeter Al Hirt (1922-99) found fame in the mid-sixties as a hit instrumentalist on such catchy numbers as “Java” and “Cotton Candy.” But he was more than just a purveyor of novelty numbers. His long career was devoted to jazz and the music of his native New Orleans as well as the popular fare of the day. In his only album devoted to a single composer, Hirt recorded this tribute to Bert Kaempfert in 1967 (officially released in January 1968).

Bert Kaempfert had previously covered Hirt’s hits “Java” and “Cotton Candy” on his 1964 album Blue Midnight. Hirt, for his part, had covered such Kaempfert trifles as “Strangers in the Night,” on the 1965 disc Al Hirt Live at the Al Hirt Club (also here) and, most notably, “Yo Yo (Puppet Song)” (a.k.a. “Monte Carlo”) on the trumpeter’s 1967 disc Music to Watch Girls By. Al Hirt Plays Bert Kaempfert (better known as Hirt Plays Bert) is a real feast, or trumpeter’s treat. While the disc’s liner note tries to convey a collaboration of Hirt and Bert – which it is surely not (the album was recorded in Nashville) – the disc surprisingly and successfully replicates a Kaempfert recording. Ace arranger Lenny Kirkland provides better than suitable arrangements and Hirt’s swinging horn really adds something muscular to the program.

Highlights include the Flamenco take on “Spanish Eyes,” the almost funky “Afrikaan Beat,” “A Swingin’ Safari,” and the surprisingly engaging “Sweet Maria” – all benefiting from Kirkland’s subtlety effective work (his lovely take on “Wonderland by Night” is worth savoring as well). Hirt masters the otherwise downbeat “Danke Schoen” in a way that must have made Kaempfert proud.

While this is hardly the Hirt-Bert collaboration it proports to be, it is far better than a merely fair approximation. It’s a shame that Hirt and Bert never actually worked together. This is another album that has never appeared on CD.

Living Strings Plus Trumpet Play Bert Kaempfert Hits (1969)

In the sixties, the budget label RCA Camden sponsored a huge number of easy-listening collections by such studio outfits as the Living Voices (for which the aforementioned Anita Kerr helmed several recordings), Living Brass, Living Guitars, Living Marimbas and Living Percussion.

The label’s best-known entity, however, was the Living Strings, which produced scads of easy-listening tributes and collections that literally became the model for what is now known as “elevator music.” These things flew off the shelves of grocery stores, drug stores and five and dimes – for those old enough to remember such venues selling LPs back in the day.

The brainchild of Ethel Gabriel (1921-2021) – one of the earliest women executives at any record label and producer of acclaimed records by Elvis Presley, Henry Mancini and Perry Como – the Living Strings was “formed” or created in 1959 and recorded dozens of albums through 1980. There was no such orchestra as the “Living Strings” per se. Studio musicians were recorded around the world to produce records that were ultimately to become known as the Living Strings.

After tributes to The Monkees, Jim Reeves and more than a few musicals – not to mention a record to help you stop smoking – the Living Strings put out an album-length tribute to Bert Kaempfert. The studio group had previously covered Kaempfert’s “Danke Shoen” on Sentimental Journey (1964) and the delightful “Jingo Jango” on its White Christmas (1968). This one was recorded in England, where Kaempfert and fellow German band leader James Last had a huge following.

Beautifully arranged by the British bandleader Geraldo and German ex-pat Bernard Ebbinghouse (John Barry, Cliff Richard), this 1969 tribute is far better than any skeptic might guess. The strings are, as expected, lush and vibrant. But the album actually swings more than expected, particularly on the usually dour “Danke Schoen,” which has a positively Count Basie vibe about it, and the almost anthemic “L.O.V.E.” Or, as the album boldly claims: “A Striking Combination of Lavishness and Spirit!” If that means anything.

Predictably, the arrangers stick with Kaempfert’s prettier tunes (which is why they were hits in the first place), but they make wise choices throughout. The set opens with a lovely take of “Spanish Eyes,” adding a marimba undercurrent that seems nicely informed by “Spanish Harlem.” It’s a whole new way of hearing this overly familiar melody. Combining the marimba with Spanish guitars gives “Wonderland by Night,” Kaempfert’s first American hit, a romantic feel straight out of an old movie.

The gorgeous “The World We Knew,” whose strings and electric bass suggest John Barry’s score to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, particularly “We Have All the Time in the World.” The ethereal “Sweet Maria” and “(You Are) My Way of Life” would also hardly sound out of place on a James Bond soundtrack as heard here.

This is a set that no doubt pleased Kaempfert – who began using more strings on his own recordings around this time. It’s easy to enjoy and among the best of the sets in this bunch. Unfortunately, Living Strings Plus Trumpet Play Bert Kaempfert Hits never found its way on to CD but is easily available and well worth hearing on streaming services.

1 comment:

Shimon Israel said...

Bert Kaempfert was very popular in South Africa in the 60s and 70s, as were many of the "easy listening" orchestra leaders of that period (e.g. Horst Jankowski, Mantovani, Frank Chacksfield, Ray Conniff, etc.) I would attribute this to the strong German culture influence on South African Caucasians, as well as the relatively more limited choices of music in that part of the world. If a South African record company and its overseas owner decided that it wasn't worth the expense of pressing an LP, you would be hard-pressed (sorry!) to even know it existed. You had to know which of the more specialized record stores was likely to import albums you didn't even know existed; and then stumble on it in a bin.

Decades ago, I happened to buy the soundtrack album "A Man Could Get Killed", which I loved for years. It was saturated with the "knackbass" - a term I only heard now; and the Kaempfert orchestra sounds absolutely HUGE, due, in retrospect I think, to some well-placed reverb. And, yes, the melody known as "Strangers In The Night" repeats several times throughout.

Thanks so much for this esoteric posting. I don't think any other American I know has ever heard of Bert Kaempfert.