Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Memorable Musical Pilgrimage

This column first appeared last year in the "what's new" blog on my web site (SteveEmber.com). It is reprised here in celebration of the wonderful music of both Bert Kaempfert and Herbert Rehbein and with the hope of introducing more readers to some very special delights involving their music.
I have been a huge fan of the Bert Kaempfert Orchestra from, as we used to say, “West” Germany, ever since Kaempfert’s recordings began to be heard on U.S. radio back in the early ‘60s.

Now, I suppose you’ve got to be of “a certain age” to even remember when your basic broadcast band had really fine music stations (sometimes even more than one in certain cities!), and tuning in such a station would reward you with recordings by Sinatra, Ella, Vic Damone, George Shearing, Peggy Lee, and, yes, Bert Kaempfert. I mean real music, not disposable, mindless Pop garbage screeching or thumping out of the speakers.

And, yes, I’m pleased to say in my local radio days, I did indeed get to play some Kaempfert!

Kaempfert recordings were typically a mix of standards (and, later, covers of some current hits) and those great Kaempfert originals, some of the best of which were co-written with a superbly talented composer and arranger by the name of Herbert Rehbein. Rehbein was also from Germany, and additionally conducted an orchestra for Swiss broadcasting.

A rather curious bit of “packaging” marked all of Kaempfert’s LPs on the American Decca label. Perhaps it was the fact that the Second World War had “only” ended about fifteen years before Kaempfert’s music reached our shores (with “Wonderland by Night”), but there was always the notation in the liner notes (Remember liner notes, I mean the kind you could enjoy without the aid of a big, thick magnifier?) that said “Recorded in Europe.” Kaempfert made his recordings in Hamburg for Polydor; Decca was the U.S. licensee. Germany did finally appear in the credits some years later.

Many years later, when I was finally able to locate one of the sublimely lush orchestral recordings by the Herbert Rehbein Orchestra (There is a connection!), also on Decca, I was not surprised to see that same “Recorded in Europe” notation.
Kaempfert…Rehbein…recorded in Germany…a bit too Teutonic-sounding for American tastes? Their music certainly wasn’t. Oh, and then there was the trumpeter in the forefront of most of the Kaempfert arrangements, credited on the backs of all those albums as “Fred Moch.” It wasn’t until many years later that I learned his name was actually Manfred Moch.

But no matter, the Bert Kaempfert Orchestra, “recorded in Europe” with “trumpet solos by Fred Moch” became a staple on American radio. And record stores had bins full of Kaempfert LPs. We fans were always eager to snatch up a new Kaempfert release, run home, slide a fingernail through the shrink wrap (Remember when opening recordings was that easy?), set that 12” vinyl treasure on the turntable, lower that tonearm ever so carefully so the (carefully cleaned!) stylus of that magnetic cartridge gently caressed the lead-in groove…and sit back and enjoy…or perhaps dance cheek to cheek with someone special. Fortunately for his legions of fans, by the mid-‘80s, Kaempfert “albums” soon found their way into the CD medium, somewhat later appearing as double sets with previously unreleased tunes, alternate takes, etc.

Sadly, Kaempfert and Rehbein never got to see the ongoing joy their recordings brought to collectors and fans, old and new, with the advent of CD. Kaempfert died in 1980, just short of his 57th birthday, not long after some brilliantly successful live concerts on the Continent, and at London’s Royal Albert Hall (He had a huge fan base in the U.K.). Herbert Rehbein passed away a year earlier. He was only 57. I suppose, had they lived a more deserved lifespan, they would have been saddened at the decline and fall of melodic “popular” music. Still, so sad to have such talent taken away from us when both men were still in their prime.

Now, I realize this account is likely to be seen, both by Kaempfert devotees and others perhaps less tuned in. So, to the latter group (and with no disrespect intended to the former!), I pose this question:

Still wondering who this Kaempfert guy was?

Would it help if I mentioned Red Roses for a Blue Lady…Spanish Eyes...Danke Schoen…L-O-V-E…A Swingin’ Safari…Strangers in the Night?

Anyhow, about that “pilgrimage”…

Funny how a “casual” search on the Internet can lead to, well, something really wonderful…and what I’m leading up to really was just that.

As I mentioned, being an inveterate liner credits reader, I had always been aware of this “shadow presence” named Herbert Rehbein. His name appeared next to Kaempfert’s in the writer credits for all of my favorite Kaempfert “originals.” These tunes, often lush and romantic, but always rhythmic…and just very special and distinctive in their "sound"…were among my strong favorites in any Kaempfert set.

I even remembered hearing, many years ago, when radio stations actually featured such music, a recording by the “Herbert Rehbein Orchestra.” As I recall, it was a Kaempfert tune, but given a somewhat more lush arrangement. Sometimes, when you cut your teeth on a particular recording, the song becomes so closely associated with that "sound," that someone else's recording just sounds "off." I remember this not being the case with the Rehbein "cover" of the Kaempfert tune. No surprise, this simpatico sound, for reasons I'd later come to understand, and appreciate!

Well, good things sometimes come to those who wait, thought I, and proceeded to do a Google search on Herbert Rehbein, hoping to find perhaps a CD or two re-issuing some of those lush, melodic recordings…

Now, the CDs remained elusive for a while, but I did find an ebay listing for a Decca Stereo LP by the Herbert Rehbein Orchestra. It was called (typical for that period) “Music to Soothe That Tiger.” And the album art was, of course of a lovely gal on a tiger rug flashing a “come hither” smile. In fact, the seller’s listing had to do more with the “cheesecake” album cover than the vinyl inside. But I bid…and won…and soon got to relish the long-lost sounds of this master arranger/conductor from “Europe.”

Well, now my interest was truly piqued. While I thought I was fairly conversant with Kaempfert, I developed a strong interest in learning more about the still shadowy Mr. Rehbein. Naturally the liner notes were typically vague, although I think they did concede to Rehbein’s connection with Swiss broadcasting.

Further nocturnal research on the computer led to the discovery of a two-CD Rehbein set from the then-current primary U.S. licensee of Kaempfert recordings. The set contained, on two CDs, all of the material from the three albums Rehbein arranged and conducted with his own orchestra, in collaboration with Bert Kaempfert. But, sadly, it was “out of print.”

I checked Amazon/Germany, thinking perhaps it might be available on a German label. Nope, only one used copy, and the seller did not ship overseas. So, back to Amazon/U.S. where one private seller, knowing he had “treasure,” wanted an exorbitant sum for his Rehbein set. Fortunately, he had competition, and I was able to snag mine for under fifty bucks. It was immediately copied as a safeguard against any accidental damage separating me from this hard to find and truly lovely lush orchestral material. Copies of the two CDs ride with me everywhere in the CD changer of my car, along with, of course, recordings by Bert Kaempfert.

But the Internet crawling did not stop there – I still wanted to know more about Mr. Rehbein. Then, Eureka! A link to YouTube, with a page full of video clips from a superb TV documentary on Bert Kaempfert, done by a German by the name of Marc Boettcher. Mr. Boettcher, to his great credit, gave ample coverage to the collaboration of Kaempfert and Rehbein as a songwriting team. Beyond that, it contained interview footage with such core players of the original Kaempfert band as Ladi Geisler, whose “knack-bass” guitar was a major element of the distinctive Kaempfert sound--fascinating to hear him describe how the sound was created.

There were segments with Kaempfert’s daughters, Marion and Doris, Rehbein’s widow Ruth, and so many others, all contributing fascinating information... conversation from other core players, both original and more recent, Kaempfert’s recording engineer, Peter Klemt, home movie footage of Kaempfert in his beloved Florida Everglades…There were also elements of one of the televised live concerts, including the wonderful Swedish Jazz vocalist Sylvia Vrethammar coquettishly singing to a bashfully smiling Bert Kaempfert, “Remember When (We Made These Memories).” I could go on and on about the quality, thoroughness, and sensitivity of this superb program. I had to have what existed beyond the You-Tube clips. But – Oh, no! – while the documentary has both German and English narration tracks, it’s not available in U.S. format.

But if you are a Kaempfert (or Rehbein, or both) fan, don’t let that stop you. Do yourself a big favor: Go and find a “universal” DVD player that will play PAL-standard DVDs and will accept other regions’ coding – they’re not gonna be at your local electronics superstore, but, trust me, an Internet search will get you where you need to be, and for around a hundred bucks, you’ll have such a player that snorts at petty concerns like “Region 2” or PAL vs. NTSC, and says “feed me anything and I’ll make it appear on your screen and emerge in glorious stereo from your speakers."

Then, while you’re waiting for it to arrive, scoot over to Amazon.de and type in "Strangers in the Night, The Bert Kaempfert Story" in the DVD category. Find a friend who knows German, or just plunge in – German Amazon is laid out pretty much like its U.S. cousin. You’ll pay in Euros, your bank will do the conversion to greenbacks, and you, my Kaempfert-loving friend, will thank me.

As a bonus, the documentary also comes with a CD containing some very worthwhile Kaempfert material you might not already have.

Say, oh wordy one, what about that pilgrimage?

I was saying how nocturnal Internet searches can bring unexpectedly wonderful results

In February, I enjoyed a wonderful trip to Germany, a visit planned around attending a concert in Frankfurt honoring the Bert Kaempfert sound.

Y’see, a click or two after nailing down that documentary, I landed on the news that in February there were to be four Tribute Concerts to the music of Bert Kaempfert, in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Düsseldorf, and Berlin, featuring some of the band’s long-standing key players, including Ladi Geisler, saxophonist Herb Geller, and the wonderful Dutch trumpeter and flugelhorn virtuoso Ack Van Rooyen, as well as the above mentioned Ms. Vrethammar, who had become closely associated over the years with Kaempfert’s music.

I considered this an event “not to be missed,” and planned a trip to Germany around it…a sort of musical pilgrimage to the man whose music I’ve loved for such a large chunk of my life.

Part Two

©2009 Steve Ember

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