Engelbert Humperdinck at 80 still singing, still sexy
Waterloo Region Record
If you survey The Beatles string of English hits, you will discover only one record between 1964 and 1969 that failed to reach No. 1.
At first glance, it may seem odd that "Penny Lane" — a wistful, nostalgia-tinged ode to mid-century Liverpool — failed to top the charts at a time when The Beatles were, as John Lennon proclaimed, more popular than Jesus.
But the Fab Four were no match for a mellifluous love man named Arnold Dorsey, who adapted the name Engelbert Humperdinck from a 19th century German composer and sent hearts atwitter when he re-recorded an old country tune and topped British charts for six weeks.
"Release Me" was that song, the first volley in a 50 year career that brings the performer affectionately referred to as "Enje," "Humpy" and "The Hump" to Centre in the Square as what is arguably the world's first 80-year-old sex symbol since Mae West"
I had the privilege of speaking with the legendary "King of Romance" by phone about his life and career and found him disarmingly modest, charming and full of self-deprecating humour.
Whether or not you're a fan of his emotive, syrupy ballads, it's impossible to dislike the man himself.
Enge, if I may call you that, you're an 80-year-old sex symbol.
I'm not sure that's ever been done before.
I think there's been others ... haven't there been others?
I don't think so. Tom Jones is 76. Elvis didn't make it past 42.
WOW! ... (laughs) ... Listen, I've got a new title!
You have other titles as well. Tell me about "King of Romance."
I didn't give that to myself. It was given to me by the press and kept hot by the fans. I think it's quite a compliment. "King of Romance." "King of Rock and Roll." "King of Pop" ... (laughs) ... There were many kings and I'm glad to be one of them.
Are there disadvantages — like if you're in line at the grocery store and someone butts in and you want to tell him off?
Number one, it's a rarity for me to go shopping. But I do, by the way, go shopping, because I love to cook.
But no, I don't get upset about anything like that. That's childish. I don't tell people "Hey, do you know who I am? Who do you think you are?"
What if telemarketers call your house during dinner and won't take no for an answer?
Or you order room service and the food is lousy? Are you ever tempted to puff out your chest and snap "The King Of Romance does not eat Kraft Dinner!"
I once had a problem when I went over the speed limit at 35 miles an hour and it was supposed to be 30.
I got pulled over by the police and I did happen to say, "Listen, I'm opening in Vegas next week and I'll be happy if you came over with your wife and you can have a free room and weekend there and I do apologize for the mistake I made."
He said "OK, I don't want to come to Vegas, but I'm gonna give you a ticket!" ... (laughs) ... so the name means nothing to some people.
What about your wife — does she call you the King of Romance? Your kids?
It's a show business thing. My family are very proud of my achievements in life and my kids just treat me like Dad and my wife treats me like a husband.
Tell the truth: how mad were The Beatles when you ended their No. 1 streak in Britain? Did Paul threaten to come over and spray paint your garage?
I don't think it even bothered them. They really had all those many, many hits, and their music is just legendary.
"Please release me, let me go'' — not the most upbeat lyric. How did a lovelorn country tune kicking around since 1949 become the signature song of your career?
It's in the Guinness Book of Records. It went to No. 1 around the world and started my life.
It's the song people sing in my face at airports and everywhere I go. When they recognize my sideburns they sing ... (croons in low, gravelly voice) ... 'please release me, let me go.'
It's as fresh today as it was when I recorded it.
I've done all kinds of music — dance music, disco — but ballads are my forte. The romantic scene is my scene. I've stayed with it all these many years.
Is it true guitar legend Jimi Hendrix once opened your show?
It's true. We toured in the U.K. Jimi was getting known and they were trying to promote him, so they put him with 'name' people who could make his talent visible.
What was that like?
Amazing. One day my guitarist didn't show up and Jimi says 'Don't worry man! I'll play for you!' and that was amazing. I had Jimi Hendrix playing my music onstage!
Am I hearing you correctly? Jimi Hendrix, the psychedelic guitar god of the 1960s, played back-up on schmoozy love songs like "Release Me" and "The Last Waltz?"
He did the whole show!
When he opened for The Monkees that same year, he got booed off stage. Monkees fans had no interest in a guy who blasted them with power chords and simulated sex with his guitar. How did your fans react?
"Totally amazing. The people thought he was unusual — an off-the-wall act because he used to burn his guitar and smash his amplifier. But that's was the happening in those days.
So there's you, wooing women with strategic pelvic thrusts and sideburns, and Jimi Hendrix burning guitars as your opening act?
Of course. Yeah. I just wish I had one of his broken guitars now. I would have kept it as a souvenir.
And then, when he was finished burning his guitar, you would come on stage and do "Release Me?"
(Big laugh) Yeah, that's right. It was a different thing for my audience.
Tell me about your relationships with Elvis Presley, Dean Martin and Tom Jones. You guys all came from the same hunky crooner tradition. There must have been some rivalry.
"Dean was probably one of the nicest people I ever met in show business. He took me under his wing. I played one of the hotels he owned. We dined quite a lot. We were good friends.
Tom Jones and I shared the same manager. I think he's a great talent.
He was one of the greatest, most affectionate people I have ever met.
When I first met him, he didn't shake my hand, he embraced me. And I thought "My god, I'm embracing the King of Rock and Roll!" I couldn't believe it. We became friends.
Later on, in a book about his life, they mentioned who he liked in show business and he said he liked Engelbert Humperdinck because I reminded him of the twin brother he lost at birth.''
Did I read somewhere that Elvis stole your sideburns?
"I was the first with the sideburns, so therefore I honestly can tell you that not only did Elvis take them, but so did The Beatles and Glen Campbell and Kenny Rogers ... (pause) ... everybody grew sideburns after The Hump!
So where did The Hump get the idea in the first place?
I did it at the beginning — I was trying to choose an image.
At that particular time my manager (Gordon Mills) said "Shave them off — they look ridiculous!" and I said "No, Gordon, this is part of the image I'm trying to create and people can talk about it."
And of course people did. It started the ball rolling and my sideburns became the Engelbert Humperdinck look ... (laughs) ... people like Bob Hope would say "Engelbert looks as if he's on the phone all the time."
I don't get it.
I had these big black sideburns and looked as if I had a phone up to my ear.
And now it's 50 years later and, other than Tom Jones, you're the last man standing. Seems like a lot of pressure.
I was saddened by the fact that my dear friends are gone. What can I say? I'm just happy I'm still able to share my talent with the world.
I never think about retirement. It doesn't even enter my mind.
Did you ever imagine you would be 80 with women still throwing underwear at you on stage?
I can't believe it ... (laughs) ... it's kind of sparse now. They don't throw it as much as they used to.
At one time I could collect big trunks full of them, but now I think they're saving money.
Thursday (Oct. 6), 8 p.m.
Centre in the Square, Kitchener.
Call 519-578-1570 or go to www.centreinthesquare.com