Manuela was Germany’s favourite female singer of the 1960s, enjoying a run of 24 top 40 hits between 1963 and 1972. Her brand of pop-meets-Schlager and her faux American accent made each of her songs instantly recognisable. However, a dispute with German television company ZDF hampered her career in the 1970s.
She was born Doris Wegener on 18 August 1943 in the Berlin district of Wedding.
At 16 she began working in a local factory and spent her lunchtimes writing song lyrics that she would set to music on her guitar of an evening. She took singing lessons for a year and began performing in amateur nights in a Berlin bar. It was here that she was first spotted and offered time in a local recording studio. Disappointingly, however, the couple of tracks she recorded remained unreleased and she returned to her day job.
But, after winning a local talent contest shortly afterwards, she was offered a recording contract with the Ariola label. Doris wasn’t considered a sexy enough stage name and, given Germany’s enthusiasm for all things foreign, she became Manuela.
Her debut single, Hula-Serenade, was issued in 1962. Despite its impeccable credentials – it was penned by hit-makers Christian Bruhn and Georg Buschor – it sold poorly, and Manuela found herself without a contract again.
But a spell as lead singer with all-girl group the Tahiti Tamoures – which also included Charlotte Marian and Monika Grimm, both of whom would later join Die Sweetles – proved altogether more successful. The group spent four weeks at number one in the German charts in early 1963 with Wini-wini.
With a big hit under her belt, the time was right for Manuela to strike out on her own. Her manager approached the Hamburg-based Telefunken label with a song he thought would be a hit. Bosses there liked it and signed the young singer immediately.
Their faith paid off. Schuld war nur der Bossa Nova, a cover of Eydie Gormé’s Blame it on the bossa nova, topped the German charts in the spring of 1963, selling over 500,000 copies and remaining in the top ten for 21 weeks.
For the recording, the singer also adopted a foreign accent – no, not Spanish in keeping with her stage name, but Anglophone. It’s thought that Connie Francis, who had been enjoying a string of hits in Germany, provided the linguistic template, and their pronunciation is undeniably similar. This pseudo-American accent became Manuela’s trademark.
Ich geh’ noch zur Schule, a cover of On top of Old Smokey, was issued as the follow up. It reached number four and spent four months on the charts. (The flip was another Eydie Gormé cover, this time of Don’t try to fight it baby, retitled Hey Boy, laß doch den Whisky, which, although lacking in imagination, proved the better side.)
Now backed by the group Die 6 Dops, Manuela opted for a German original for her first single of 1964, fan favourite Mama, ich sag’ dir was.
With Die Dops reduced from 6 to 5, Schwimmen lernt man im See (a version of US singer Diane Ray’s Just so Bobby can see) gave Manuela another top three hit that summer. The B-side, In meinem Kalender, was an uncharacteristically downbeat Connie Francis-styled number and its high-camp intro has earned it a place in the hearts of many fans.
The novelty Christmas hit Schneemann and a self-titled LP rounded off the year, while Küsse unterm Regenbogen and Love and kisses continued Manuela’s run of hits in 1965.
Her pop-cum-Schlager stylings earned Manuela the position of Germany’s top female singer of the 1960s. Despite a rather underwhelming stage presence, she became a teen idol, and her clothes and hair were copied by girls throughout the country. Like Sandie Shaw in the UK and Sheila in France, Manuela went on to launch her own clothing range, and the sleeves of later singles provided free advertising for her fashion line.
In 1966, she attempted a move away from the saccharine-sweet material that had made her name. The more mature Es ist zum Weinen made the top ten and boded well for her new sound.
However, her next step, an ambitious but unlikely duet with beat singer Drafi Deutscher, Die goldene Zeit, confused record buyers and gave Manuela her lowest chart placing to date, missing the top 30 altogether.
A return to more familiar territory with Lord Leicester aus Manchester helped her regain her position, if not her credibility. The follow up, Monsieur Dupont, was embarrassingly similar, though it its inspiration was French rather than English. Nevertheless it gave her another top ten hit in 1967 (and was also covered to great success by Dutch doll Patricia Paay and British beat babe Sandie Shaw). The song has since been named one of the top 100 German Schlager tunes of all time.
That year, both Manuela and hugely popular Danish doll Gitte opted to issue concept albums. Manuela’s Rund um die Welt took her – as its name suggests – around the world, with songs such as Liebesgrüße aus Luxemburg, Verliebt in Amsterdam and Dr Fu aus Hongkong. The highpoint of the release was undoubtedly Wenn es Nacht wird in Harlem, a cover of Percy Sledge’s When a man loves a woman, which was released as a single, reaching number 16 in the German charts.
Further singles, Das Haus von Huckleberry Hill (with the great Morgen kommt der Tag, her take on Joe Haywood’s Warm and tender love, on the B-side), Herzklopfen, Guantanamera, Bobby and Helicopter US Navy 66, all kept her in the German charts – and hearts – for the remainder of the decade.
By 1970, Germany’s sweetheart of song was ready to win over the rest of Europe. But, to her surprise and embarrassment, she was turned down for a place at the German national final to select a song for that year’s Eurovision song contest. She wreaked her revenge, however, by scoring a hit with Dana’s Irish winner, All kinds of everything, retitled Alles und noch viel mehr.
The following year, she tried a similar approach with Clodagh Rodgers’ UK entry, Jack in the box, retitled, curiously, Der schwarze Mann auf dem Dach. However, she was no longer at the top of her game and both Germany’s entrant, Katja Ebstein, and Monaco’s winner, Séverine, enjoyed greater chart success.
Declining sales saw her dropped by Telefunken in 1972. She hawked her wares around various record companies before heading off to Las Vegas, where she enjoyed a long run at the Dunes hotel.
Attempts at reinvention in the 1970s and 1980s proved fruitless, and a boycott by television station ZDF, following an unsuccessful court case over unpaid earnings, did nothing to help.
Sadly, Manuela died of cancer in 1991 before she could see her back catalogue enjoy a cult comeback.