Monday, July 03, 2023

Herbert Rehbein on Decca

The German composer and bandleader Bert Kaempfert looms large as a pop-song composer and maestro of exceptional easy-listening music. Nearly half a century since his untimely passing in 1980, Kaempfert’s presence in music continues to be felt.

He stands head and shoulders among the world’s best and best-known songwriters and his music continues to be covered today. And Kaempfert’s records – dozens waxed from the fifties through the seventies – are as timeless as ever.

But there’s no talking about Bert Kaempfert without mentioning Herbert Rehbein. And, sadly, too many of us – this writer included – fail to mention Rehbein’s significant contribution to music and the success of Bert Kaempfert.

Herbert Rehbein was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1922. His first contact with music was an inexpensive violin his parents gave him instead of the more expensive piano he wanted. He practiced with fervor, mastering the classics of Brahms, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.

By age 19, he was drafted in to the military but was lucky enough to get stationed on the Mediterranean island of Crete, where he served in the Music Corps. Later, he was taken as a prisoner of war, yet somehow was allowed to play the violin. Even more remarkably, he was named violin soloist and musical director of Yukoslavia’s Belgrade Radio Orchestra.

Rehbein eventually returned to Hamburg in 1952 to attend to his mother’s illness. While there, he met fellow orchestra leader, Bert Kaempfert. After several performances together, the two became friends and, eventually, songwriting partners.

By the mid-fifties, Rehbein had relocated to Switzerland, where he became musical director and principal soloist of the Swiss Radio Orchestra, a position he held for many years. He began issuing singles under his own name and accompanying Swiss singer and actor Vico Torriani (1920-98) on a series of international hits.

On record, Kaempfert and Rehbein’s partnership seems to have begun on the former’s 1961 album Lights Out, Sweet Dreams with the pairs’ songs, “Highland Dream,” “Sweet Dreams” and “Magnolia Blossoms.” Expat Rehbein is also said to have had an even greater role in the Kaempfert universe as the Hamburg-based orchestra’s principal arranger and conductor. (Albums, in those days, rarely gave credit where credit was due.)

The pair were credited with crafting a “continental sound” that made the “Kaempfert Touch” an international success in the sixties. They wrote hundreds of songs (together and with others) over nearly two decades including “My Way of Life (Over and Over)” (a hit for Frank Sinatra), the lovely “Sweet Maria,” “The Lady Smiles,” “It Makes No Difference,” “Lady” and “You Turned My World Around” (also covered by Sinatra).

Dean Martin recorded the writing partners’ “I Can’t Help Remembering You” and “Welcome to My World” while Sammy Davis, Jr. had a hit with “Lonely is the Name” and Al Martino scored with “Wiederseh’n.” The two wrote many more songs – particularly for Kaempfert records – that deserve to be much better known. Only some are noted here.

Music To Soothe That Tiger (1965)

This is cheek-to-cheek music, designed to be shared with someone you love. Sit back and turn the lights down low…you might even unlock the cage…you’ve got nothing to worry about, start the music and “hold that tiger.” - From the album’s cheeky liner notes

This album title understates the contents. The tunes and arrangements could soothe the most savage of beasts. Lush, smooth strings and brass envelop the listener into relaxation. - Billboard (February 6, 1965)

European export Herbert Rehbein guides his lush [orchestra] in a rich-sounding tour of “cheek-to- cheek” music with this outing…a beautiful package of romance-filled nostalgia. - Cash Box (March 27, 1965)

Originally released in Europe in 1964 as Bert Kaempfert Presents Love, Music To Soothe That Tiger is specifically engineered to echo those popular mood records of the fifties, particularly the records of Jackie Gleason. Although this sort of thing was still in vogue, its luster was dulled rather significantly by the breakout of the Fab Four around this time.

Rehbein goes out of his way to contrast the then-popular “Kaempfert sound” by bringing strings to the fore, swapping out Fred Moch’s trumpet for the welcome smokey after-hours tenor of Emil Wurster and, most significantly, doing away with Ladi Geisler’s signature “Knack-Bass” in favor of upright bass and acoustic guitar for rhythm support (giving the orchestra a feel of Count Basie lite).

The Kaempfert-Rehbein compositions here include “Don’t Talk to Me” (also on Kaempfert’s Living It Up! and later covered by Johnny Mathis) and “The Lady Smiles” (also covered by Matt Monroe) as well as the little known but worthy “Moon Maid” and “Dry Eyes.” Also here is Rehbein’s solo composition “I Love You So,” which Kaempfert covered a decade later on the 1975 Moon Over Miami, his final American release.

(Interestingly, all five of the previously mentioned songs were sampled in 2018 by Pit Baumgartner for the fascinating and compelling Strangers in Dub: Bert Kaempfert meets De-Phazz. “I admit that in my youth,” writes Baumgartner in his liner note, “I thought Bert Kaempfert’s music was uncool. Today I can see his quality.” His loving tribute is proof of just how cool this music is – still.)

A violinist, possibly Rehbein himself, takes the lead on “Chances Are,” “If I Had You” and “Speak Low.”

”Sweet and Lovely” b/w “Blue Beat” (1966)

Of the three albums issued under Herbert Rehbein’s name in the United States, surprisingly none bore any single releases. This means that either radio stations expressed little to no interest in Rehbein’s music or Decca wasn’t doing much to promote Kaempfert’s co-hort. Either way, this is an indication that these records did not fare particularly well.

But in 1966 Decca managed to sneak out a Herbert Rehbein single that never appeared on any album. The A-side was the old chestnut “Sweet and Lovely,” a song made popular in 1931 by Bing Crosby and also Guy Lombardo.

The song has been covered by jazz pianists Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal but was largely ignored by the easy-listening maestros – although former Jackie Gleason Orchestra soloist Bobby Hackett (who cut a Kaempfert tribute album in 1963) covered “Sweet and Lovely” in 1961.

The single is notable, however, for its flip side: the otherwise unknown Kaempfert-Rehbein composition “Blue Beat.” This all-too brief and uncharacteristic bit of Kaempfertiana is a cool, catchy mishmash of Neal Hefti’s “Batman” theme with Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” and Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk.” “Blue Beat” has somehow eluded all the many Kaempfert compilations on LP and CD, yet is well worth hearing.

Love After Midnight (1967)

A nightcap in a dimly-lit café, a slow ride through the park in a hansom cab, sweet nothings whispered in the wee small hours…Love After Midnight is beautiful music, beautifully played, certain to make lovers of us all. - From the album’s dreamy liner notes

A selection of romantic tunes performed by Herbert Rehbein and his orchestra. The sound…is full, rich, and clear, and the package should attract plenty of attention. - Cash Box (February 18, 1967)

The strings are lush and flowing, the trumpet muted and soft, and the violin crystal clear yet subduing in a beautiful program. - Billboard (March 4, 1967)

Recorded around the same time of Bert Kaempfert’s 1967 album Hold Me - which also includes versions of this record’s “Lady” and “Hold Back the Dawn” - Love After Midnight is a bit more taciturn than its predecessor: music to soothe that tiger to sleep.

Rehbein’s rather mournful violin is brought forward on more of the program than before but rather notably on “Yesterday” and the Rehbein original “A Gypsy in Manhattan,” a nice companion piece to the earlier Kaempfert-Rehbein number “Tipsy Gypsy.” This particular “Gypsy,” however, suggests a Bernard Hermann combine as much of the past (say, Vertigo) as of the future (possibly Taxi Driver).

Trumpeter Manfred “Fred” Moch (1930-2011), Kaempfert’s regular soloist at the time, is brought in to add a refreshing edge of jazz to the proceedings, much as Bobby Hackett added such flair to Jackie Gleason’s records in the fifties. Moch peps up the program considerably when he steps up to the mic, particularly on the title track, the lovely “Li’l Darlin” (a performance which likely made composer Neal Hefti especially proud), “Lady” and “A Gypsy in Manhattan.”

The record is flush with lush strings and all the better for it. The swells throughout are dreamy, and often vaguely suggestive. This sense of programming highlights what many listeners of this sort of music already knew: easy listening isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Along with the previously noted Kaempfert-Rehbein tunes, the album also features the pair’s terrific title track, which was previously recorded by Kaempfert in 1963 and included on his European compilation album Let’s Go Bowling. A particularly dreamy take of Kaempfert’s “Strangers in the Night” – a number one hit for Frank Sinatra and originally derived from a song on the soundtrack to A Man Could Get Killed - is included but it’s worth noting that Rehbein had no hand in composing the tune, even though he’s frequently credited there as Kaempfert’s co-composer.

…And So To Bed: The Love Music of Bert Kaempfert (1969)

The choice of songs offered here is dedicated to that special time when day ebbs away to a quiet close, when reality tunes out…and dreams tune in. Some of the songs are familiar favorites, popular with many of today’s top recording artists, while others are somewhat less familiar. Each, however, is a musical gem that sets a special mood, enhanced by Herbert Rehbein’s faultless musicianship. - From the album’s grim liner notes

Easy listening is not always all that easy, but with Bert Kaempfert's long-time collaborator, Herbert Rehbein, the soft sounds of easy listening are coupled with the pleasant sounds of smooth dance rhythms. If you were planning on dancing in your sleep, you would listen to Herbert Rehbein…” - Cash Box (August 23, 1969)

While it might be difficult to determine whether either of the above comments are positive or negative, there is a real sense about this album that Herbert Rehbein’s previous records, lovely as they may be, were anything but big sellers.

Marketing …And So To Bed as a Bert Kaempfert tribute album suggests that Herbert Rehbein seemed to need the more familiar name to sell records. After all, ten of the eleven songs here are as much Rehbein’s as Kaempfert’s. But it’s not even clear this was enough: Kaempfert’s popularity – at least in the United States – was beginning to wane.

…And So To Bed actually sounds more like a Bert Kaempfert record than Rehbein’s two previous efforts. Most notable of all is the inclusion of electric bass and the light touch of a drummer, both echoing the typical Kaempfert record of the period.

In addition to the soaring strings typical of Rehbein’s previous records, the leader’s violin (nicely) shares the solo spotlight with an unnamed flautist – a staple of Kaempfert albums of yore. A batch of vocalists also offer a minimal background of “oohs” and “aahs,” as was happening on Kaempfert’s records at the time as well.

The program is well-conceived too. Oddly, the one song here that Rehbein didn’t have a hand in, the well-known “Spanish Eyes,” is the album’s most significant highlight (and this listener’s first exposure to Herbert Rehbein and His Orchestra). Rehbein’s strings positively caress this most beautiful of melodies.

Other joys abound, though, too. These include the haunting “Malaysian Melody,” the otherwise too-morose “The World We Knew,” and the appropriately moody “Manhattan After Dark.”

Also included here are two numbers that don’t factor on any of the Kaempfert records: “The Times Will Change” (later covered by Johnny Mathis) and “I Can’t Help Remembering You” (covered earlier by Dean Martin). The cover versions – and not the Rehbein takes heard here – are included on the 2002 compilation The Bert Kaempfert Story: A Musical Biography.

While …And So To Bed was seemingly – and oddly – never released in Europe or Rehbein’s native Germany (or adopted Swiss homeland), it is also the last of Rehbein’s albums released in America. And so to bed, indeed.

The Rehbein Compilations

Bert Kaempfert continued to work with Herbert Rehbein throughout the seventies – even after the United States stopped issuing Kaempfert recordings in 1975. Rehbein won a 1972 competition for his Olympics theme song, “Munich Fanfare March,” recorded by German orchestra leader Max Greger (and also known as “Olympic Games March” and “Olympis-Jodler”).

Rehbein later recorded one final album under his own name in Italy (seemingly without Kaempfert), Beautiful Morning, which was issued posthumously in 1980. Sadly, Herbert Rehbein died of cancer at the relatively early age of 57 in 1979 while Kaempfert himself passed away eleven months later from complications of a stroke at the equally young age of 56.

In 1993, Herbert Rehbein and Bert Kaempfert were both inducted in to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Three of the writing pairs’ compositions - “Lady,” “The World We Knew” and “Sweet Maria” (the only song not represented on these recordings) - won music publisher BMI Awards for exceptional performances.

The emergence of the CD format and streaming technologies were very good for Bert Kaempfert’s catalog, keeping much of the bandleader’s recordings in circulation throughout much of the more than four decades that have passed since his death.

Rehbein has also seen two CD compilations of his work: Herbert Rehbein and His Orchestra: The Complete LP Collection (Taragon, 2000) and Soothing The Tiger: The Gentle Sound of Herbert Rehbein and His Orchestra (Edel, 2013). Both sets contain the entire contents of the three Rehbein albums on Decca, though neither adds either side of the 1966 Decca single.

All three of the albums discussed here are thoroughly delightful. None are exactly the same, though each bears a consistency that begged for more.

One senses, though, that Herbert Rehbein was an uncomfortable and possibly unwilling leader. He seemed happier – and certainly more prodigious – behind the scenes.

He is a genuinely accomplished writer – my guess is Rehbein was responsible for the moodier and more wistful melancholy of Kaempfert’s music (Kaempfert’s thing was swing) – as well as a sensitively seasoned arranger who was able to corral large groups of strings, horns and rhythm into a beautiful singular whole. Again, easy ain’t easy.

A lot of Kaempfert’s success is due to Herbert Rehbein. Certainly, both owe much to producer (and occasional songwriting partner) Milt Gabler for their international renown. But Herbert Rehbein was the man behind the curtain: the maker of magic. Not the face of the music, but the body and soul of it.

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