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Music Memories: Bert Kaempfert

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Bert Kaempfert surrounded by his album covers

Bert Kaempfert was born on October 16, 1923. In the 1960s, Kaempfert was one of the last great stars of the easy listening genre, leading his band in smooth instrumental music that mixed pre-rock Tin Pan Alley, international folk music, and occasional touches of jazz.

Kaempfert was born in Hamburg, Germany where he studied music and learned to play several instruments. He played in the German Navy band during World War II, and spent the late 1940s and 1950s touring Europe with his band.

We sometimes forget how long it took for rock and roll to completely displace the pop music that preceded it. Easy listening instrumentals could still occasionally top the charts in the early 1960s, as Kaempfert did for three weeks in 1961 with his American breakthrough, “Wonderland by Night.” A solo trumpet played a haunting melody over a backdrop of strings, with just enough rhythmic kick that the record also made the top ten on the R&B charts.

“Wonderland by Night” was, by far, the biggest pop hit Kaempfert would have, but for the next decade, he was a regular on what was then called “beautiful music” or “easy listening” radio, routinely landing in the top of Billboard’s Easy Listening chart. He released three or four albums a year, featuring his gentle versions of pop standards from the 20s, 30s, and 40s; international folk songs; the occasional cover of some of the milder current pop hits, and Kaempfert’s own compositions.

Some of Kaempfert’s international-themed albums introduced Americans to styles of music they hadn’t heard before. The 1962 album A Swingin’ Safari was among the first American music to incorporate South African influences; they were toned down and mellowed out for the international audience, to be sure, but they were still novel sounds that broadened the horizons of many listeners.

3 albums by Bert Kaempfert

During the 1960s, several songs that began as Kaempfert instrumentals became even better known when lyrics were added by other songwriters. Eddie Snyder and Charles Singleton added words to "Strangers in the Night," a tune from a film score Kaempfert wrote in 1966; the result was one of Frank Sinatra's signature songs. Snyder was also the lyricist who turned Kaempfert’s “Moon Over Naples” into “Spanish Eyes,” a 1966 hit for Al Martino. Milt Gabler gave lyrics to two Kaempfert songs, turning “L-O-V-E” into a hit for Nat King Cole, and Kaempfert’s “Candlelight Cafe” into Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen.”

Kaempfert played a small role in the career of the Beatles while working as a record producer in Hamburg. During the years that the Beatles were developing their early act in Hamburg nightclubs, they occasionally played as a backup band to a singer named Tony Sheridan, another act from Liverpool working in Germany. Kaempfert saw them performing together. He thought Sheridan was going to be the star but hired the Beatles to be the band on Sheridan’s first album.

By the late 1960s, Kaempfert was including a few contemporary pop songs on his albums; he had his last chart success with a 1971 version of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” But what had been “easy listening” was a dying genre, transforming into what we now call “adult contemporary,” with mellow singers taking over the radio stations that had been devoted to instrumentals.

Kaempfert continued recording and performing, releasing his last albums in 1979. His style never changed much; his last albums included a return to African music, a tropical-flavored album, and a collection of big band standards. He died on June 21, 1980, after suffering a stroke.

Kaempfert was popular enough that several of his colleagues recorded albums of his music in the 1960s—big-band trumpeter Bobby Hackett, pop/easy listening singer Johnny Mathis, Dixieland trumpeter Al Hirt, and the easy listening chorus, the Anita Kerr Singers. And in 1998, Kaempfert found his way back to the top of the charts as one of the many pop culture references in the lyrics of Barenaked Ladies “One Week,” which reminded us that “Bert Kaempfert’s got the mad hits.”

More of Bert Kaempfert's music is available for streaming at Hoopla.