Wonderland by Night (Wunderland bei Nacht)

The way "Wonderland by Night" sounds fits its title quite nicely. Try listening to it while star-gazing some evening a few hours after sundown. Or during the daytime you can pull all the curtains and drop the needle on a copy of the record...that works too. Just as Percy Faith's "A Summer Place" casts a vacationtime glow, "Stranger on the Shore" by Mr. Acker Bilk suggests a beachfront sunrise (or sunset) and The Tornadoes' "Telstar" somehow blasts the listener beyond the ozone layer, so does German bandleader Bert Kaempfert's "Wunderland bei Nacht" (its pre-translation title) create a dreamlike nocturnal sensation with its gliding trumpet lead by Charly Tabor, gently thumping bassline by Ladi Geisler and background vocalists that on the first note seem to be saying "Wow!," which likely preceded "What is this? I've got to get a copy!" in the minds of some record buyers hearing it for the first time. It was Kaempfert's pinnacle, occurring right in the middle of a four-decade career lasting from the early 1940s until his death in 1980.

Barmbek, a small town near Hamburg, was the childhood home of Berthold Kaempfert, born in 1923, who studied several instruments in his youth...piano, clarinet, saxophone, accordion...a conductor-in-the-making! At 16 he joined the orchestra of pop maestro Hans Busch, who fled the country and its Nazi regime as World War II approached. Bert served in the German Navy and played with a military band; later, he was a prisoner of war in Denmark and put together an 18-piece orchestra called Ace of Spades. After the war, he performed throughout Germany on allied and American military bases. In 1946, he got married and began raising a family. A regular performer on radio in the late '40s, he formed his own Berthold Kaempfert Orchestra and started writing songs under an unusual pseudonym, Marc Bones.

Even though he'd made a name for himself by the mid-'50s, upon signing with Polydor he made records using an alias, Bob Parker, and arranged recordings for some of the label's singers including Trinidad-born Mona Baptiste ("An der Ecke" or "At the Corner"), chart topping star Margot Eskens ("O Karina, spiel Okarina"), both in 1955, and Rudi Schuricke in '57 (Bert used his given name on these recordings). A peppy Bob Parker instrumental from 1957, "Las Vegas," became his first single released in the U.S., on the Coral label. In early 1958, "Midnight Blues," with an "exotica"-influenced trombone prelude and romantic trumpet finish, credited Bert Kaempfert as an artist for the first time; a top ten hit in Germany, it was issued in America on Coral's parent label, Decca. A cover of Boots Brown's hit "Cerveza," inspired by The Champs' smash "Tequila," was an early '59 single.

The lack of acceptance in North America didn't faze Kaempfert as his regular duties at Polydor kept him busy. In 1959 he produced and arranged "The Guitar and the Sea" for Austria-born Freddy (real name: Freddy Quinn), a major star in Germany; the song, from the film Freddy, the Guitar and the Sea (guess who had the lead role!), was the biggest single of 1959 and one of Quinn's ten career number one Deutschland hits. Then Bert produced Yugoslavian Ivo Robic's "Morgen," a fall '59 hit in Germany, the U.S. and many other countries.

That summer, the strictly-instrumenal Kaempfert recorded "Wunderland bei Nacht," but it didn't catch on. He initially underestimated the potential of his atmospheric instrumental, but after nearly a year he traveled to New York with his lovely wife Hanne to meet with Decca's A&R head Milt Gabler, who released the song in August. More than two months went by before stations started giving it a chance. It debuted on the national charts in November 1960 with a near-soundalike version by Louis Prima riding its coattails; within a few weeks, Anita Bryant came along for the ride with her vocal rendition (lyrics courtesy of Lincoln Chase). In January '61, Kaempfert's original was number one while the other two versions hung tight in the top 20.

Bert Kaempfert

Meanwhile, Elvis Presley, shortly after his discharge from the Army in March 1960, had begun filming G.I. Blues, his fifth theatrical picture. "Muss I Denn," written circa 1827 by Friedrich Silcher, was altered somewhat and became "Wooden Heart," with writer credit going to Fred Wise, Ben Weisman, Kay Twomey and Kaempfert. Recorded by the "Big E" for the film, it rose to number one in the U.K. in March 1961 (there wasn't a single in the States), then a version by Indiana-born singer Joe Dowell went to number one in America in August. Both recordings had English and German lyrics.

Kaempfert's sound had more bite to it than many of the so-called "easy listening" acts of the day; Geisler played bass with a heavy hand, aggressively plucking the strings, giving the music a subtle rock and roll essence missing in the works of other light orchestras. Despite a dynamic lineup of players, Kaempfert rarely performed for audiences. "Cerveza" was reissued, then "Tenderly," a 15-year-old song by Walter Gross and Jack Lawrence, went top 40 in April '61. Kaempfert originals "Now and Forever" and "Afrikaan Beat" (inspired by his fascination with the rhythms of the dark continent) hit the middle region of the charts later in the year.

While enjoying his string of hits, Kaempfert nevertheless took his day-to-day job seriously; in addition to producing Polydor's artists, he kept his eyes and ears open for new talent. Norwich, England singer Tony Sheridan had performed in Hamburg's Top Ten Club since 1960 with various backing bands, including The Beatles during their spring '61 stay. Kaempfert checked out Sheridan's show in June and hired John, Paul, George and drummer Pete to back Tony in the studio; "My Bonnie" (which took nearly three years to become a hit) was one of several tracks, released that fall on Polydor in Germany and the following April on Decca in America as Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers. Writer credit on the label for the traditional song designated Sheridan and "Bertie."

Bert returned to the American charts in the spring of '62 with "That Happy Feeling," penned by esteemed drummer Guy Warren of the West African coastal republic of Ghana. A few months later, Billy Vaughn scored a top 20 hit with Bert's "A Swingin' Safari," lifted shortly afterwards by The Match Game, hosted by Gene Rayburn, and heard by millions for the next five years as the NBC-TV show's theme song. Several of Kaempfert's compositions became standards, including "Danke Schoen," young Wayne Newton's signature song, and "Love," Bert's 1964 single covered by Nat "King" Cole as "L-O-V-E." Bert did his bit to augment the holiday season with "Jingo Jango," a top ten hit on Billboard's Christmas chart during the final weeks of 1963.

A remake of the Sid Tepper-Roy C. Bennett song "Red Roses for a Blue Lady" (a hit in 1949 for Vaughn Monroe and Guy Lombardo with vocalist Don Rodney) was a top seller for Kaempfert in 1965 (it also scored in vocal versions by Vic Dana and Wayne Newton), followed by "Three O'Clock in the Morning," a Julian Robledo-Dorothy Terriss tune that was his final top 40 hit - as an artist - in June '65. But then the next single, "Moon Over Naples," became a career benchmark for Al Martino after Eddie Snyder lyrically transformed it into "Spanish Eyes." And lest it end there, Kaempfert composed the music score for A Man Could Get Killed, a 1966 action/spy flick starring James Garner and Melina Mercouri. A minor little tune on the soundtrack called "Beddy Bye" received a lyrical uplift from Snyder and turned into "Strangers in the Night," a career triumph for Frank Sinatra (number one single and album and Grammy winner).

So, yeah, we've all been listening to Bert Kaempfert songs for years without always realizing it. He made records for Decca (later MCA) until 1974, racking up a grip of top-selling albums long after the singles sales had slowed. He finally embarked on tours with his band and starred in several concert specials for German television, with and without longtime friend Freddy Quinn, between 1975 and 1980. Though he didn't realize it at the time, Bert's final perfomance took place at the Royal Albert Hall in London in June of 1980. He'd purchased a beautiful home on the Mediterranean island of Majorca years before and that was where he had a stroke and passed away at age 56, suddenly and unexpectedly with his wife by his side, a few days after returning from the concert.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Wonderland by Night