“Sweet Maria” (Bert Kaempfert/Herbert Rehbein/Milt Gabler)

The BMI Award winning Bert Kaempfert-Herbert Rehbein song “Sweet Maria” started life as the exotic “Milica” on Kaempfert’s 1966 album Strangers in the Night. Mixing a dreamy Rehbein-like melody with a seemingly counterintuitive Greek motif, “Milica” could very well be an outtake from the German bandleader’s score for A Man Could Get Killed.

“Milica” – “an interesting, moody, sans-vocal with ear-arresting melodic flavor” noted Cash Box magazine at the time – was issued as the B-side to Kaempfert’s hit cover of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” But while DJs failed to flip the record over for this far more attractive melody, others did. Once Milt Gabler added lyrics, “Milica” became “Sweet Maria” and Billy Vaughn, who had a hugely successful hit with Kaempfert’s “A Swingin’ Safari” in 1962, recorded the first cover of the song.

Produced by Snuff Garrett and arranged by Al Capps, Billy Vaughn’s “Sweet Maria” featured such session musicians as Leon Russell (“This Masquerade,” “A Song for You”) and J.J. Cale (“After Midnight,” “Cocaine”). Released in December 1966, Vaughn’s version of “Sweet Maria” eventually hit number six on the Easy Listening chart.

In February 1967, singer Bobby Vinton released a cover of “Sweet Maria” (arranged by Ray Ellis) – surprisingly – as the non-album B-side to his hit “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Three years later, Vinton, who would score a hit in 1975 with Kaempfert’s “Wooden Heart” (originally written for Elvis Presley), again covered “Sweet Maria” – this time as an instrumental chanson, with the singer playing a superbly haunting yet romantic saxophone.

Steve Lawrence also issued a single of “Sweet Maria” in March 1967, a song that would appear the following month on the singer’s final Columbia album, Steve Lawrence’s Greatest Hits. Lawrence’s version of “Sweet Maria” was arranged by future film and TV composer Patrick Williams, who gives the song a strong flavor of the Kaempfert orchestra – right down to the trumpet swells and Kaempfert’s distinctive “Knach Bass.” Lawrence’s version of “Sweet Maria” eventually reached number 23 on the Easy Listening chart.

Instrumental covers of “Sweet Maria” were recorded by Lenny Dee (1967 – also on Decca), French bandleader Franck Pourcel (1967), Living Marimbas (1967), former Tonight Show bandleader Skitch Henderson (1968) and Living Strings Plus Trumpet Play Bert Kaempfert Hits (1969): all formidable cover artists, but none likely enough to push “Sweet Maria” in to the stratosphere.

Longtime Kaempfert associate Ivo Robić also recorded “Sweet Maria” as a Schlager titled “Denk’ ich immer nur duran (So wie es früher einmal war)” (“I Always Just Think About It [Just Like It Used to Be]”). Issued as a German single in 1967, with German lyrics by Karl-Heinz Reichel, this very Gypsy-sounding arrangement was led by no less than Bert Kaempfert himself.