An Audience with Engelbert Humperdinck
A candid Q&A with pop icon Engelbert Humperdinck
When I first interviewed Engelbert Humperdinck a decade ago, he was riding another wave of popularity after recording the song Lesbian Seagull for MTV’s 1996 adult cartoon film Beavis and Butt-Head Do America.
The filmmakers liked that Engelbert – or ‘Enge, as in Stonehenge’ – has a sense of humour, a character trait much on display when he performs live in concert.
But about Lesbian Seagull, Mr. Humperdinck told me, “They asked me to sing a serious ballad and I listened to the song and it was quite beautiful. So if being gay can happen in humans, it can happen to birds. And I support that. We should all have freedom of life.”
It’s no surprise that, in addition to his big voice, Mr. Humperdinck has a big heart.
Born Arnold George Dorsey in Madras, British India, the ninth of 10 children, in 1936 (he shall turn 83 on May 2, but looks much, much younger), Humperdinck shot to fame in 1967: His massive hit Release Me prevented The Beatles from scoring their 13th U.K. Number One hit (with their double A-side Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane), and is in the Guinness Book of World Records for selling the most singles in that era.
Humperdinck became the toast of Swinging London and would conquer the world, selling more than 140 million records worldwide.
Today, the ever-popular Humperdinck is riding yet another wave of popularity following the recent airing of his PBS TV concert special Engelbert Humperdinck in Hawaii recorded live at the historic Hawai‘i Theatre in Honolulu in August 2018.
Humperdinck brings his Angel on My Shoulder World Tour to Montreal for three nights at Place des Arts, from April 10 to 12, and recently sat down for a candid Q&A about his life and career.
Curtains Up: I read that you like to visit a local church when you perform in a new city. You have been performing in Montreal for many years. Have you visited a church in Montreal?
Engelbert Humperdinck: I probably have, because I do everywhere I go. This time for sure because I’ll be in Montreal for quite a length of time. They say that if you pop into a church in another country and ask for a favour, it will be granted.
What do you ask for?
I pray for my family, I pray for my wife because she is not in very good health at the moment (his wife Patricia has Alzheimers) and I am hoping it will improve very soon.
I think you also like to visit hospitals?
I sometimes do visit, if I have time.
Could you talk to me about healing? You have a gift.
I guess God has been good to me, has given me a few things in life, he gave me my voice and some people say they find peace and calmness from listening to it, and I think that is a form of healing that I am glad that I have.
My mom and I recently watched your Engelbert Humperdinck in Hawaii TV special on PBS. Your voice sounds amazing. What do you do to keep your voice in shape?
I’m just lucky. I don’t do anything specific to keep in it shape. I never get nodes on my throat which you get from singing incorrectly. I haven’t had a voice lesson in my life so I don’t really know how to sing properly. But I think I’ve been given a gift, and I sing properly anyway!
You haven’t lost any of your vocal power.
No I haven’t, but I have come down a semi-tone.
You also look great. What’s your secret?
When I started to do that special in Hawaii, I hadn’t done a special in a while and I thought to myself, “If this is going to be around for a long time, then I want to look like I looked many years ago.” So I went on a serious diet, a serious exercise regimen and I dropped 31 pounds.
Your Hawaii TV special also reminded me of another great TV special filmed in Hawaii, Elvis Presley’s Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite in 1973.
Yeaaaah! That was one of the reasons I wanted to do a special there, because of the connection I had with Elvis. I wanted to do something that he also did.
Do you miss your old friend?
I do miss him very much.
I always thought Elvis started the sideburns craze. But it was really you!
It was me! I brought it to America, I brought it to Canada, I brought it to the world. I started it in 1965. Elvis didn’t start his until around 1970-71.
I was trying to create an image. So I told my manager at the time, Gordon Mills, “I have to create an image. Everyone starts at the head!” Like The Beatles all had one hairstyle (here Engelbert sings a Beatles-esque “Woooo!”)
Even Yul Brynner started his own look.
It all starts with the head. No one looks at your feet when you walk onstage. So I dyed my hair black and grew sideburns and created a style for my first television show. My manager even told me, “You better shave them off, they look ridiculous!” I said no. Soon the Beatles and Elvis also grew sideburns. Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers, you name the name, they all put on sideburns after me.
Back in the day visiting performers used to stay at your home in Vegas. I’m thinking Dean Martin?
Dean was a very good friend of mine. As a matter of fact, Dean took a shine to me because I played at his hotel, The Riviera, the first high rise on the strip. Dean was a co-owner. It was a classic hotel. He used to put his name on the marquee: “Dean Martin presents Engelbert Humperdinck.” He never did that for any other artist. I was the only one. I used to dine a lot with him in L.A.
Vegas has changed incredibly over the decades. What do you think of the city Vegas has become?
It’s more than a city, it’s a small country! Even Lake Mead, which was a familiar place for performers to go sunbathe and water ski, the water level is way down low now because they can’t cope with all the people who have moved into the city. When I went there, there was about eight hotels, now there’s a hundred hotels.
I once visited the Liberace Museum in a Vegas shopping mall off the strip. Sadly, the museum is now closed.
Lee was a very good friend of mine.
When Liberace played in Montreal back in 1944, a publicist at the Mount Royal Hotel changed his name from Walter Liberace – pronounced Lib-ber-ayse – to the more showbiz Liberace with a hard-c Italian pronunciation. Liberace was being paid $350 a week to play at the hotel’s Normandie Roof ballroom and left Montreal a star.
Lee was an incredible performer. As a matter of fact, I used to visit his home over here in Los Angeles, and also in Vegas. He had beautiful houses. He certainly knew how to decorate them!
Jimi Hendrix played guitar for you. What was that like?
He didn’t play for me. He was in the show. They wanted somebody known to introduce him to Europe, so they used my name. He did the first half of the show. Then one day my guitarist didn’t show up and Jimi told me, “Don’t worry, man, I’ll play for you.” I said, “You can’t come onstage and play, Jimi.” And he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll play behind the curtain!” And people were wondering where this fantastic guitar sound was coming from! It was quite an experience, no pun intended. He sounded like three guitars!
Do you still have a collection of motorcycles?
I still have one motorcycle. I used to have five Harleys but you can only ride one at a time. So I sold four of them because they were crowding my garage. Now I have two cars and a motorcycle, and that’s enough.
You used to ride your Harley from concert to concert, no?
I didn’t do that. That’s a bit difficult! But I still like to ride.
When was the last time you rode your Harley?
Right here recently in the hills! I don’t like to go on the main roads very much, so I like to stay on the Pacific Highway. It’s an open road. It helps me get the wind in my face.
People must be surprised to see Engelbert Humperdinck pull over and take off his helmet.
It’s always a surprise! (Laughs)
You’ve been to Montreal a million times. What would you like to do in Montreal when you return?
I don’t know what the weather is going to be like, but if it’s nice I’d like to play some golf. The last time I was up there during nice weather, I played on Céline Dion’s golf course. Montreal is a wonderful city and my fans there have supported my career from the very beginning. I always enjoy returning to Montreal.
Engelbert Humperdinck headlines Théatre Maisonneuve at Place des Arts on April 10, 11 and 12. For tickets, visit placedesarts.com.