Far from his last waltz

Engelbert Humperdinck, who gets some ribbing over his name and sideburns, has managed to created timeless music.

Engelbert Humperdinck 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Arbel/PR)
Engelbert Humperdinck 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Arbel/PR)
Whether it’s his peculiar name, his exaggerated porkchop sideburns, or his unabashedly romantic songs, Engelbert Humperdinck has long served as the punch line for many a joke. But it’s the 75-year-old British crooner who is evidently having the last laugh.
Forty-four years after achieving worldwide notoriety with the huge hit ballad “Release Me,” Humperdinck is still filling arenas with adoring fans. And he still bears the same name, the sideburns and the romance.
“I just love doing it, getting up there onstage and entertaining people and sharing my music with the world,” Humperdinck said last week from his home in England, where he had just finished a 12-show tour with his 20-piece orchestra.
When most people his age are at best out on the golf course and enjoying their golden years, Humperdinck is continuing his career at full steam, performing regularly in Las Vegas and touring such exotic locations as Indonesia, Singapore, and on Thursday night, arriving for a show in Tel Aviv at the Nokia Arena. Beyond that, he’s one of the few classy pop artists of the 1960s, along with the likes of Tony Bennett and Burt Bacharach, who have managed to cross over and appeal to a generation of fans whose only contact with the “Swinging Sixties” is through Austin Powers.
It’s been a long, unpredictable trip for Humperdinck who has The Gorillaz clamoring to record with him and whose upcoming album is being produced by Martin Terefe (Train, Jason Mraz, James Morrison) and includes songs by Adele songwriter Dan Wilson.
Born Arnold George Dorsey in India to a British military officer and a music-teaching mother, Humperdinck resettled in Leicester, England, when he was 10, and began studying the saxophone. As a teen he entered a singing contest in a local pub, and discovering a new talent, put down his sax forever. Renamed Gerry Dorsey, the young singer was making a name for himself throughout the UK in the early 1960s until he came down with tuberculosis, which sidelined him for the better part of a year. When he was healthy, he took on a new manager, Gordon Mills, who had some interesting ideas.
“When I first started singing, I didn’t know which direction to take – I sang rock & roll and all kinds of things. When Gordon came along, he started listening to songs for me to record and he directed me toward becoming a ballad singer and really stamped my style,” said Humperdinck.
It wasn’t just the style of song Mills changed, he also suggested a radical name change. As with the other artists in his stable, Mills discarded their given names and created new personas with names such as Gilbert O’Sullivan (a play on Gilbert and Sullivan), Tom Jones (after a popular British film of the time)... and Engelbert Humperdinck, the 19th-century composer of such operas as “Hansel and Gretel.”
“When Gordon first suggested it, I thought he was talking about forming a group with that name,” said Humperdinck, referring to the psychedelic rock band names of the day, like Strawberry Alarm Clock and Pink Floyd. “I was a little taken aback when he said he wanted that name for me, but what can a starving singer do? I accepted it. You can’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
With the combination of the name and the image change, things began moving for Humperdinck – first making the charts in Belgium in 1966, and then releasing “Release Me” the following year. The song was so big that it prevented the momentous double-sided hit by The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” from reaching the No. 1 slot in the UK. Engelbert Humperdinck was suddenly a star on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I was hoping my career would start sooner, it was just a waiting game for a hit record and ‘Release Me’ was it. And stopping The Beatles from going to No. 1 was a big coup for me,” said Humperdinck, who followed up that hit with two more blockbusters, “There Goes My Everything” and “The Last Waltz.”
Because they emerged at around the same time, and shared a similar suave appearance, Humperdinck and Tom Jones were often compared or confused in those days. Humperdinck denied any kind of rivalry, friendly or otherwise, and said he ignored the comparisons. He did, however, get a kick, when in 1968, Elvis Presley staged his famous post-army comeback sporting a hair style and long sideburns ala Humperdinck.
“I needled him about it,” said Humperdinck. “‘You stole my sideburns!’” I told him, and he answered (adopting a Southern drawl), ‘Well, if it looks good on you, it’s gonna look good on me.’
“I remember one time on TV, there was a fashion designer drawing sketches and creating the prototype for the white jumpsuit he wore later in his career, and she drew long sideburns on him. When he saw it, he said, ‘Hey, that’s not me, that’s Engelbert Humperdinck.’”
DESPITE HIS tuxedoed, velvety style, Humperdinck did experience a real rock & roll moment in the 1960s: when a young Jimi Hendrix played guitar in his band for an evening. For Humperdinck, the unlikely pairing was unforgettable.
“Jimi hadn’t toured Europe yet, and they wanted to pair him with a name artist, so they put him on a bill with me,” said Humperdinck. “This was in Leicester, my hometown. And my guitarist got sick and couldn’t play. ‘What am I going to do?’ I said, and Jimi answered, ‘Don’t worry man, I’ll play for you.’
“I wish that show had been recorded. Having him behind me on guitar was like having three guitarists, he was that good.”
Humperdinck was apparently pretty good as well, because since then, he’s sold in the ballpark of 150 million albums containing hits such as “After The Loving,” received four Grammy nominations, a Golden Globe for Entertainer of the Year (1988), and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And he’s not finished yet.
In the mid-1990s, he poked fun at his debonair persona by recording he satirical “Lesbian Seagull” for the soundtrack to the animated teen spoof, Beavis and Butthead Do America. That lighthearted move help introduce him to a younger generation and has continued to have repercussions.
“I was playing at The Greek Theater in Los Angeles and the producers of the film saw me and realized I had a nice sense of humor. I was happy to perform the song and knew it was tongue in cheek, but it turned platinum. It was a huge hit,” said Humperdinck. “It introduced me to a whole new generation.”
That newfound “street cred” made its way to Damon Albarn, one of the masterminds behind Britpop favorites The Gorillaz, who queried Humperdinck’s management about joining the band on its 2007 album Plastic Beach. However, the request was rejected without Humperdinck’s knowledge or input.
“I knew nothing about it,” said Humperdinck. “I was really thrilled that they were interested in me, and of course, I would have been delighted to appear on their album, but I was being handled by someone in Florida who didn’t pass the message on to me.
“My son Scott, who is now managing my career, has been in touch with them to try to do something for their next album, so we’ll see.”
One project that is definitely happening is the upcoming Humperdinck album produced by go-to starmaker Terefe, who is going to strike a balance between updating the star’s timeless balladry and letting the crooner do his stuff.
“I hope he’s going to do something magical with my new album, he’s an incredible producer,” he said.
And even if the record flops, Humperdinck has a fluffy cushion to fall back on, one that doesn’t shift with the times or changing fads.
“I’m what you call a contemporary singer,” he said. “The press called me the ‘king of romance’ all those years ago, and I found it very flattering and wonderful then as well as now. To me, artistry is important, but so is entertaining. To be able to keep an audience interested and engaged for a couple hours onstage is the difference between simply being a musician and being an entertainer.”
And entertainment is what the audience at the Nokia Arena will be receiving in bulk on Thursday night.