Engelbert Humperdinck is 80 and still touring and packing them in. Next year he celebrates fifty years since he changed his name from Arnold Dorsey to that of a nineteenth century classical composer, performing Release Me on Sunday Night At The London Palladium and having his first number 1 hit.
Octogenarian crooner Engelbert Humperdinck has still got it.
He’s rather charming and endearing. He’s got a quirky sense of humour and can still reach the top notes of his hit songs.
He’s in New Zealand for a series of concerts and took the time to speak with Upbeat’s Eva Radich about his name, that famous song that New Zealanders love to play, and how he keeps going at his age.
80 is a significant number for the singer. That’s the age he turned in May, and that the number of albums he’s had during his career as Engelbert Humperdinck.
After a mediocre decade in the music business he took a stage name, changing it from Arnold "Gerry" Dorsey at the suggestion of his manager at the time, Gordon Mills, who also managed Tom Jones. His namesake was the nineteenth century composer of opera Hansel and Gretel. “I haven’t seen his gold or platinum albums!” he laughs.
Comedian Eddie Izzard, who has also come to New Zealand a few times, asked in one of his performances where the name Engelbert Humperdinck came from. Humperdinck now uses that video as part of his show, and the two have now known each other for some time. (This video contains some adult language)
Humperdinck describes himself as a dreamer in his younger years, and that helped push him into his spotlight. “I dreamed of being someone,” he says. “Eventually destiny came through and dreams became the blueprints of reality when 'Release Me' came around.”
'Release Me' took Humperdinck from being an unknown to being an international superstar. The song even went into the Guinness World Records for preventing The Beatles from having their 13th number one hit, with 'Penny Lane'.
The song had its first public outing on Jukebox Jury and it was voted as a hit by 60s icon Lulu. Months later Engelbert performed it on television variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium and the day after the single skyrocketed.
Within the first few days he had sold hundreds of thousands of copies, peaking at 127,000 copies in one day. “It’s the one song that has stuck,” he says. “Wherever I go I get recognised by my sideburns and by that song. It’s the only song people will sing in my face!”
The B side of 'Release Me' was a song that would become a New Zealand party staple - 'Ten Guitars'. “It actually sold as many as my biggest hit 'Release Me', so it was a double-sided hit,” he says.
Although he’s a big enough name now, in the early days he’d record songs and then was unable to release them because bigger stars wanted to do the same. He recorded 'Strangers in the Night' before anyone else, but his manager took the song off him. “Sinatra wanted it,” he says. “I recorded it first but couldn’t release it. That’s the power of the people.”
Now he gets to choose what he wants to record, and with whom. One of his latest albums Engelbert Calling features duets with Elton John, Cliff Richard, Gene Simmons – “Gene was marvelous. We couldn’t move because his tongue was everywhere!” he laughs – and a personal favourite, country legend Willie Nelson. “He is one of my favourite people of all time,” he says. “I love his style. He had so many wonderful songs and I wanted to sing with him.”
He does look back at some of his earlier work with a little bit of trepidation however. “I think my sound, voice and style is more contemporary now than it was in years gone by,” he says. “I had all those wonderful hits and when I hear them now I think I could have done that better or wonder if I could do it again.”
But it’s the early work that keeps fans returning. 2017 will mark 50 years since the release of 'Release Me' and Humperdinck promises something big is coming. “I love walking on stage. Because of social media people are aware of the shows you are doing and the reception you’re getting is very good,” he says. “We are planning a big year. It’s very secretive at the moment, but I think it’s going be a good year.”