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Although he came on the scene much later than Ray Conniff or Percy Faith, Kaempfert was just as prolific and successful during his fifteen-year career with Decca. Kaempfert studied music in Hamburg and began performing professionally at the age of 16.
Conscripted into the German navy during World War Two, he played with a military band, and while a prisoner in Denmark near the end of the war, he formed his own big band. After his release, the band toured Allied officers' clubs in Germany--about the only venues available at the time. He returned to Hamburg, where the German music industry has relocated its base, and was soon busy with radio and studio commitments.
Over the next ten years, he became one of the top producers in German, introducing such continental stars as Freddy Quinn and Ivo Robic. He honed his songwriting skills and even provided a couple of tunes for Elvis Presley's movie, "G.I. Blues."
His most noteworthy production credit was perhaps not his most musically successful, but it will keep his name in the record books for the next millenium or so. In early 1961, Polydor contracted with Tony Sheridan, a British vocalist stranded, like the Beatles, trying to make enough money to get back home from Hamburg. Sheridan asked to be backed by the Beatles. Sheridan recorded "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" and "When the Saints Go Marching In"; the Beatles recorded "Ain't She Sweet" and George's tip of the hat to the Shadows, "Cry for a Shadow." Kaempfert was unimpressed with their work and released the single under the name of "The Beat Brothers," but these tracks would go down as the Beatles' first commercial releases.
Kaempfert was winding down his A&R chores by then. His recording of his tune, "Wonderland By Night" reached #1 in the US charts in 1961, and he decided to concentrate on his orchestra and recordings. Between 1959 and 1973, Kaempfert released over 30 albums for Decca.
Kaempfert was primarily a studio performer--his band rarely toured or appeared live. Many of his albums feature the melody played by trumpeter Fred Moch, and bassist Ladi Geisler laying down Kaempfert's signature rhythm line. Kaempfert and Geisler developed a special technique of plucking the string and then suppressing any sustenato, which gave the bass beat a particularly punchy sound--it's one of the strongest beats in pop music. Without it, Kaempfert would have sounded like just about any other light pop orchestra. Its effect was like a supercharge of nicotine in a cigarette--instantly addictive.
Kaempfert also enjoyed remarkable success as a composer. Two of his songs--"Spanish Eyes" and "Strangers in the Night"--are listed by BMI as having had over 4 million airplays. "Spanish Eyes" was originally recorded as an instrumental, "Moon Over Naples," but lyrics were added several years later, and Al Martino had a Top 10 hit with it as a vocal number. Frank Sinatra topped that with "Strangers in the Night," which would be his biggest hit until "New York, New York," over a decade later. Wayne Newton's biggest hit came with his cover of Kaempfert's "Danke Schoen," and "Swingin' Safari" was a staple of supermarket music and provided background music for countless home movies of summer vacations. Virtually all his albums include at least 2-3 Kaempfert originals, which adds up to a considerable body of work over the span of his recordings. In fact, a number of artists recorded all-Kaempfert albums, including Anita Kerr, Al Hirt, Bobby Hackett, Johnny Mathis, and Hildegarde Knef.
By the early 1970s, Kaempfert's musical success as assured, and he was able to pursue his own interests. He bought a large estate on Majorca and spent long vacations there, and he returned to his first love, big band music. He updated numerous swing era classics in his later albums and even brought over U.S. jazz musicians such as Herb Geller to play with him. And he began to tour regularly with a live band. His last performance, for a full house at the Royal Albert Hall, included four encores, leaving Kaempfert to tell the audience, "Iíd be happy to continue, but I havenít got any more music scores and my musicians are thirsty!" He died unexpectedly just a few days later, after returning to Majorca.
For more information about Bert Kaempfert and his music, check out the excellent website (in German and English), Bert Kaempfert Music. And if you read German, you can read the new biography,"Stranger in the Night: Die Bert Kaempfert Story, by Marc Boettcher.
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