James Last/Bert Kaempfert
Happy Sounds Forever
él Records/Cherry Red
When one thinks of the music of Germany, Easy Listening isn’t one that initially comes to mind. But the country produce two legends, each with a distinctive style and influence. Happy Sounds Forever, él Records’ latest compilation disc, serves as an introduction to both men’s work,offering up just a taste of the best work from their deep, vast discographies.
James Last is perhaps one of the few musical superstars few outside of continental Europe have heard of. That’s not an over-exaggeration; in his lifetime, he sold nearly a quarter of a billion albums, with well over two hundred gold albums and fourteen platinum records.”Easy Listening” isn’t the appropriate term, though his music certainly falls under that category. His style is known as“ “happy music” and that’s perhaps the best term one could use. Fast-paced, upbeat, and almost certainly danceable, it took the easy listening concept to a whole new level, resulting in a music that entertained and delighted with little to no effort on the listener’s part.
Last began his career as a teenager in postwar Germany, and recorded and performed live up until 2014, a year before his death. Thus, Happy Sounds Forever doesn’t come close to being representative of his work, but the album offered here, from 1962, shows what he did best. He created a style called “Non-Stop Dance Music,” which blended four or five popular songs into a melody, and then joined together as if they were live, with the sound of people dancing and applauding. It was a rewarding style; he would do this until the end of his career, often blending in popular songs by acts as diverse as The Beatles, Abba, and even Nirvana. Ever the consummate performer, he didn’t mind being labeled as corny or middle-of-the-road; he embraced it, as he believed his one duty in life was to make people happy via his music.
Bert Kaempfert’s career followed a similar trajectory, though his name was more established outside of Germany thanks to his songwriting; he’s most known for writing Frank Sinatra’s classic, “Strangers In The Night.” He also has the distinction of signing The Beatles to a recording contract in 1961, when he hired them to back Tony Sheridan for a cover of “My Bonnie,” and even though they didn’t record anything further for him, Kaempfert does loom in the story of the early Beatles. Unlike Last, Kaepmfert’s style is a bit more sedate, and calls to mind the work of John Barry and Henry Mancini, not least of which because he was also a masterful soundtrack and score composer. But the light fare of “Happy Trumpeter,” “Market Day,” and “A Swinging Safari” show that Kaempfert could make upbeat, uptempo songs with a shuffling groove of their own.
Taken together, Happy Sounds Forever highlights two compositional masters doing what they do best—making enjoyable, easy-on-the-ears sounds. Though some might have dismissed them as making “music for people who don’t like music,” the songs found here certainly prove that point to be erroneous.