One of the most popular purveyors of romantic pop ballads in the late 1960s and 1970s, singer Engelbert Humperdinck's matinee idol looks and three-and-a-half-octave vocal range provided him with a string of Top 10 hits on both sides of the Atlantic, including "Release Me," "A Man without Love," "The Last Waltz" and "After the Lovin'." Though his stage image, replete with resplendent sideburns and a penchant for jump suits and sequins, hewed closely to the Las Vegas environment where he enjoyed some of his most faithful audiences, Humperdinck worked hard to remain relevant in an industry that shelved traditional pop singers almost immediately after his recording debut in 1961. He sold his hit compilations through direct marketing commercials and gamely collaborated with everyone from Elton John to Beavis and Butt-Head. In doing so, he followed in the footsteps of such fellow '60s pop titans as Tom Jones by keeping his music and image fresh in the minds of the public and never relegating himself to the "oldies" circuit. Humperdinck's long career and tireless work ethic preserved his status as one of pop's most timeless performers.
Born Arnold George Dorsey in Madras, India on May 2, 1936, Engelbert Humperdinck was one of 10 children by British Army engineer Mervyn Dorsey and his Indian wife, Olive. The family returned to England when Humperdinck was seven years old, settling in Leicester three years later. He displayed an interest in music from an early age, but began playing as a saxophonist rather than a vocalist. It was believed that he did not sing in public until the age of 17, when friends challenged him to perform in a contest at a pub. To the surprise of all, he proved not only a capable vocalist, but also a talented mimic of well-known celebrities, most notably Jerry Lewis. Humperdinck would later adopt a variation of Lewis' name for his first stage moniker, Gerry Dorsey, which he adopted for nightclub dates in the early 1950s. His career was put on hold in 1956 when he was assigned to the British Army Royal Corps of Signals as part of his national service. After completing his conscription, Humperdinck recorded his first single, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," which failed to achieve chart status. He soon returned to the club circuit while making occasional appearances on British variety shows. In 1961, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which forced him out of the spotlight for six months. After he recovered, Humperdinck was dismayed to discover that the growing rock-n-roll scene in America and England was overshadowing his brand of traditional pop music.
Humperdinck struggled to keep his career afloat until meeting with a former roommate, Gordon Mills, in 1965. A songwriter and former pop musician, Mills had transitioned into artist management, where he was enjoying exceptional success with a young Welsh singer named Thomas Woodward, whom he had renamed Tom Jones. Mills soon took Humperdinck under his wing, building an atmosphere of mystery around the singer by giving him his unforgettable stage handle- borrowed from the 19th century German composer of the same name - and demanding that he have no contact with fans after shows. By the following year, Humperdinck had landed a new contract with Decca and a hit on the Belgian pop charts with "Dommage, Dommage." A second single, "Stay," found few listeners, but his third release for Decca, a lush, heavily-orchestrated cover of the country music hit "Release Me," defied industry observers' expectations by rocketing to the top of the British pop charts, where it kept the Beatles "Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane" from achieving No. 1 status. The song would remain in the British Top 5 for over 56 weeks while reaching the Top 5 in America, firmly establishing Humperdinck as a pop star.
For the next two years, Humperdinck enjoyed a string of Top 10 singles in the U.K., including the chart-topping "Last Waltz" and the No. 2 hit "A Man without Love." In America, his songs failed to maintain a foothold in the upper reaches of Billboard Hot 100, but he continued to mine Top 10 hits on the easy listening charts. Humperdinck was also a very popular concert attraction, most notably in Las Vegas, where his exotic looks, accentuated by a pair of formidable sideburns, and romantic stage persona generated a sizable female fan base. By the 1970s, Humperdinck was deriving more income from his concert performances than his records, though he enjoyed a considerable comeback with 1976's "After the Lovin'," a swoon-heavy ballad that returned him to the U.S. Top 10 singles chart while also netting a Grammy nomination. He returned to the top of the adult-contemporary charts with 1979's "This Moment in Time," from the Top 20 album of the same name, but by the 1980s, Humperdinck had again settled into his role as a romantic balladeer on the club and casino circuit. Humperdinck kept his music in the public consciousness during this period through a series of direct-marketing television campaigns, as well as new recordings of older material in a variety of languages. The gambit appeared to work, as evidenced by his 1987 Golden Globe Award for Entertainer of the Year on the heels of his successful record Remember I Love You, released that same year.
He poked good-natured fun at his own easy-listening persona by recording the bizarre "Lesbian Seagull" for the "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America" (1996) soundtrack, then tackled contemporary dance music with The Dance Album (1998), which found him revisiting his greatest hits with club-friendly arrangements. Humperdinck returned to the top of the British album charts with 2000's Englebert at His Best, which spurred further experiments with genre, including Always Hear the Harmony: The Gospel Sessions (2003), a Grammy-nominated collection of inspirational songs featuring Elvis Presley's backing vocal group the Jordanaires, and Definition of Love, which included covers of singles by Aerosmith, Robbie Williams and other contemporary artists. Humperdinck's fearless streak continued in 2012, when he was selected to represent the United Kingdom in the final round of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. At 76 years of age, he was the oldest person ever to compete in the venerable contest, though his much-publicized run for the title was cut shortly after he was eliminated second to last in 25th place. Undaunted, Humperdinck announced that same year that he would release a studio album of duets, including collaborations with Elton John and Seal, in 2013.
By Paul Gaita