Bert Kaempfert had almost too much talent, ability, and good luck rolled into one career to be fully appreciated, even by his own chosen audience, the lovers of fine orchestral pop music. He was one of the most successful conductors, arrangers, and recording artists in the latter field, but was also a major producer and played a key (if indirect) role in the roots of the British beat boom of the early '60s, which evolved into the British Invasion of America in 1964. Berthold Kaempfert was born in Barmbek, a working-class section of Hamburg, Germany, in 1923. He was musically inclined as a boy, and found that interest indulged by an act of fate when he was six years old -- Kaempfert was injured in a car accident and his mother used the money from the settlement to buy him a piano. He became proficient at the keyboard, and also on the clarinet and saxophone, among other instruments. He studied at the Hamburg Conservatory and although he was interested in all facets of music, Kaempfert was particularly taken with American-style big-band music of the late '30s and early '40s -- his multi-instrumental skills made him a potentially valuable commodity, and he was recruited into a pop orchestra run by Hans Bussch while in his teens, but was later drafted and served as a bandsman in the German navy, before being captured and interned as an Allied prisoner.
He founded a band of his own and later toured American military installations in Germany, at last able to play his favorite kind of music. Returning to his native Hamburg, he began performing on British Forces Network radio and writing compositions, initially using the alias of Mark Bones. Kaempfert's reputation in Hamburg attracted the attention of Polydor Records, which hired him as an arranger, producer, and music director during the second half of the 1950s. Among the talent that he brought to the company's roster was the Yugoslav pop artist Ivo Robic, who chalked up an international hit (Top 20 in America), and Viennese singer/guitarist/actor Freddy Quinn, who had a German hit with "Die Gittarre und das Meer." His own orchestra generated such hits as "Catalania," "Ducky," "Las Vegas," and "Explorer," but he had bolder, more ambitious music in mind. He arranged, produced, and recorded an instrumental entitled "Wonderland by Night," which was pretty enough but couldn't seem to get a hearing in Germany, even from his own company. Instead, Kaempfert and his wife brought the track to Milt Gabler, the legendary producer at Decca Records in New York, who arranged for its release in America in 1959; with its haunting solo trumpet, muted brass, and lush strings, the single topped the American pop charts and turned Bert Kaempfert & His Orchestra into international stars. Over the next few years, he revived such pop tunes as "Tenderly," "Red Roses for a Blue Lady," "Three O'Clock in the Morning," and "Bye Bye Blues," bringing them all high onto the pop charts internationally, as well as composing pieces of his own, including "Spanish Eyes (Moon Over Naples)," "Danke Schoen," and "Wooden Heart," which were recorded by, respectively, Al Martino, Wayne Newton, and Elvis Presley (with Joe Dowell charting the hit single of "Wooden Heart"); for an old American jazz fan like Kaempfert, however, little may have brought him more personal satisfaction than Nat King Cole recording his "L-O-V-E."
At the turn of the decade into the 1960s, Kaempfert was still busily at work in his duties as a producer. He was well aware that a new generation of listeners had come along, whose interests lay far from the beautifully crafted instrumental music that he favored, which was an outgrowth of the pop sides of such '40s artists as Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and Glenn Miller -- they preferred music drawn from country and R&B sources. He had signed a Liverpool-based singer named Tony Sheridan, who was performing in Hamburg, and needed to recruit a band to play behind him on the proposed sides -- he auditioned and signed a quartet from Liverpool called the Beatles, and even cut a couple of interesting sides of theirs, "Ain't She Sweet" (sung by rhythm guitarist John Lennon) and the instrumental "Cry for a Shadow" (co-authored by Lennon and lead guitarist George Harrison) during his sessions for Sheridan; with its pounding beat and raw singing, the former wasn't Kaempfert's kind of music, but "Cry for a Shadow," with its rich melodic line and sonorous guitar, was perhaps as close as this new music ever came to his own. The Beatles' own sides didn't emerge until a couple of years later, when events made it economically feasible to do so, but Kaempfert's recording of the Beatles, even as a backing band for Sheridan, proved a vital catalyst to their entire subsequent success. Stylistically, none of the Kaempfert-recorded sides closely resembled the music for which they became famous, and had their path to being signed by George Martin at Parlophone Records resulted from, say, their being heard in a performance, those Hamburg-recorded sides would rate nothing more than a footnote in their history -- but those Polydor sides cut by Kaempfert played an essential role in their story. As Beatles biographer Philip Norman recalled in his book Shout!, on October 28, 1961, an 18-year-old printer's apprentice named Raymond Jones walked into the music store owned by Brian Epstein to ask for a copy of "My Bonnie," recorded by the Beatles (though it was actually credited to Tony Sheridan); the store didn't have it, but Epstein noted the request and was so intrigued by the idea of a Liverpool band getting a record of its own out that he followed up on it personally. Thus began a chain of events that led to his discovery of the Beatles and, through his effort, their signing by George Martin to Parlophone Records (they first had to get clear of any contractual claim by Polydor).
Kaempfert had become so successful as a recording artist that he was forced to give up his duties as a producer -- his records were selling by the hundreds of thousands, the album of Wonderland by Night even topping the American charts for five weeks in 1961. By 1965, he'd joined the ranks of film music composers with the soundtrack to a movie entitled A Man Could Get Killed -- the title song from the movie became "Strangers in the Night," which Frank Sinatra propelled to the top of the American and British charts. He followed this up a year later with another hit for Sinatra, "The World We Knew (Over and Over)." For Kaempfert, whose admiration of American music began with the big-band pop sound whence Sinatra had begun his career, those hits must have represented a deep personal triumph, transcending whatever money they earned -- indeed, he was selling records during the early '60s in the kind of quantities that rivaled Tommy Dorsey or Harry James' successes 20 years before, and he'd proved himself a prodigiously talented composer as well, an attribute that few of the big-band leaders possessed.
Although Kaempfert's chart placements faded by the end of the decade, there could be no disputing his impact on the popular culture of the 1960s, which was so widespread into so many different areas that few individuals appreciated its scope; teenagers, had they known of his role, could be grateful to him for giving the Beatles that all-important first break, while their parents may well have danced to "Wonderland by Night" and its follow-ups, their older siblings might well have orchestrated their romantic endeavors to "Strangers in the Night," and television viewers and casual radio listeners might well have heard and hummed the Kaempfert tunes "That Happy Feeling" (an early piece of world music pop, adapted from a piece by Ghana-born drummer Guy Warren), "Afrikaan Beat," or "A Swingin' Safari" (which, in a recording by Billy Vaughn, became the theme for the long-running game show The Match Game). His success as a composer was reflected in the five awards that he received from BMI in 1968 for "Lady," "Spanish Eyes," "Strangers in the Night," "The World We Knew," and "Sweet Maria." Kaempfert's chart placements vanished in the 1970s as the music marketplace (especially on radio) finally squeezed out the adult and older dance music listenership he'd cultivated. His records continued to sell, however, and his bookings remained healthy for another decade, and Kaempfert piled up awards in Germany. As he had with rock & roll, he also changed somewhat with the times -- when disco became popular in the mid-'70s, Kaempfert recorded a disco version of Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" that even impressed the composer. His sales were always healthy, if not substantial, in America, but in Europe he was still a top concert draw as well. Kaempfert died suddenly, at the age of 56, of a heart seizure while at his home in Mallorca, resting up after a triumphant British tour. In the years since, he has finally been recognized for the breadth of his achievements -- virtually his entire album catalog (and all of his hits) from the late '50s through the end of the 1960s remains in print on CD. Additionally, Kaempfert's recordings of the Beatles have at last been given the recognition that they deserved, in the form of a Bear Family Records box. Additionally, his own music has acquired a new fan base in tandem with the late-'90s boom of interest in 1950s pop instrumental (i.e., "bachelor's den" audio) music, and "Afrikaan Beat" is arguably as popular as incidental music in 2003 as it was in 1965, as well as closely associated with that past in American popular culture, itself a great achievement for the bandleader from Hamburg. ~ Bruce Eder