Given today’s accelerated 15 minutes of fame life span where artists enjoy momentary heights of lightning in a bottle success before being whisked out the door to oblivion and future answers for “Where Are They Now” trivia questions, those who have endured decade after decade are a rarified group indeed. Engelbert Humperdinck is one of those performers who has survived against all odds and prospered in a career spanning 50 years.
A new 2-CD compilation, Engelbert Humperdinck 50: The Legend Continues chronicles the artist’s remarkable career, kicking off appropriately with his worldwide smash hit, “Release Me,” a song which notably kept the Beatles’ landmark single, “Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane,” from the top slot on the British charts. Since then, tallying sales of over 150 million via signature albums (Release Me, The Last Waltz, Engelbert, Engelbert Humperdinck, A Man Without Love, After The Lovin’) and major hit singles like “There Goes My Everything,” “The Last Waltz,” “Winter World Of Love,” “Am I That Easy To Forget” and “After The Lovin’,” the king of easy listening has built a loyal following around the globe. We spoke with the legendary balladeer, who served as our guide, walking us through a string of career milestones.
Rock Cellar: Looking back, can you cite your big break in music that set you on a course for stardom?
Engelbert Humperdinck: Yeah, I think it happened in 1965. I won a contest in Belgium. It was Decca Records; they took me over and I won a contest. I recorded a song called “Dommage, Dommage” and it went to number one in Belgium only.
But it was the start of my recording career and it went to number one there but it didn’t go to number one anywhere else, only in Belgium. That was my first break and I guess that’s how Decca Records became interested in me after getting a big hit in Belgium.
Then I had my first big hit in ’67 for Decca with “Release Me.”
Who were the contemporary singers you rated, and who inspired you to up your game?
Engelbert Humperdinck: The Beatles were around and I enjoyed their work very much, but it wasn’t a soloist. But the kind of singer that I liked who was definitely in the balladeer style was Nat King Cole. But I did love Elvis at the beginning my career. He was around in the ‘60s and my career didn’t happen until ’67.
What story does the new career compilation, Engelbert Humperdinck 50, tell?
Engelbert Humperdinck: Well, you know there are many stories that go with it. Gordon Mills was my manager at the time and of course as it goes, he changed my name. I created this image with the sideburns and the dark hair. It was a combination of many things, a crazy name, the hairstyle and of course the magic of “Release Me.”
Were your hairstyle and sideburns inspired by Elvis?
Engelbert Humperdinck: I started it, Elvis didn’t. Elvis took his sideburns from me. Did you know that? (laughs)
Engelbert Humperdinck: I told him about it. I said, “Elvis, you know you stole my sideburns.” And he said to me, (imitates Elvis’ voice) “Well, if it looks good on me, then it’s gonna look good one me.” (laughs)
There’s a well-known photograph of you with Elvis Presley in the ’70s. What’s the back story behind that image?
Engelbert Humperdinck: My first meeting with Elvis happened when he came to see my show in Vegas. I introduced him that particular time to the audience. He stood up on the table and he was wearing a cape. He opened this cape up and the audience went absolutely berserk. It took me ten minutes to quiet the audience down. (laughing) I said, “Listen Elvis, this is my show!” (laughs) But he really did steal the limelight from anybody, he was such a great performer and a wonderful man.
That photo you reference of Elvis and I was taken right after that show.
Did you get to see Elvis perform in Vegas?
Engelbert Humperdinck: Oh yes, many times. I learned a lot from watching him because he was so charismatic and he was very charming on stage plus he didn’t take his image seriously. He always mocked his image and made fun of it and I liked that about him. He was very humble; he was a humble man.
In 1971, he would also later cover “There Goes My Everything” and land a hit with a song you also scored a hit with four years prior.
Engelbert Humperdinck: As a matter of fact, I did talk to Elvis about it, I said, “Elvis, I hope you don’t mind but I’d love to record some of your songs.” He said, “Go ahead because I’m doing yours anyway.” (laughs) So I did “Love Me Tender”’ and a couple of other songs of his.
Speaking of Las Vegas, you performed hundreds of shows in “Sin City” through the years, how does that city figure into your popularity?
Engelbert Humpderdinck: Well, it’s the capital entertainment city in the world. When I’d play there I’d perform for a month at a time. People visit Las Vegas from all over the world, so you had an international audience and of course they took their news back to their countries and this how your career takes off because people talk about you when they leave your show. If they live in another country, that’s especially good for you as an artist because they’re talking about you in another country and then your name becomes even more well-known around the world.
You took part in a UK tour in 1967 on an unusual bill which featured you, Cat Stevens, The Walker Brothers and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Share your memories of those shows. What’s your most memory of Jimi?
Engelbert Humperdinck: Yes, we were all on the same bill. It was just such an amazing tour. Being in the presence of a person like Jimi Hendrix was quite awesome for me plus I loved Cat Stevens; Cat Stevens was one of my favorite people that I toured with. A great, great talent. Both of them were absolutely wonderful people. Away from the stage, Jimi was a wonderful man. He used to wear these old fashioned, red Army-looking jackets and I said to him, “That’s a good looking jacket Jimi” and he said, “Well, if it fits you, you can have it.” He was that kind of a guy. Very generous and very nice, I told him, “No, no, I don’t want your jacket, I was just admiring it and how good it looked on you.”
Your 1967 single “Release Me” holds honors of stopping The Beatles’ No. 1 run on the British charts, keeping “Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane” from hitting the top spot.
Engelbert Humperdinck: “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” were the A and B side for The Beatles of their latest single and it was going to be their 13th number one. But I’m afraid they only got to number two with it because of “Release Me” being so powerful. For me to be able to get a hold of a song like “Release Me” was just like winning the lottery. It was amazing. The arrangement was done by a gentleman named Charles Blackwell and it was just an amazing arrangement. So catchy and so recognizable. As soon as the introduction started you knew what was coming because it’s such a great arrangement.
They don’t do things like that today where people recognize songs from its introduction.
Did you ever encounter any of the Beatles and did they comment on you keeping them from having another No. 1 record?
Engelbert Humperdinck: No. (laughs) I did come across Paul and Ringo but they didn’t bring that up. They were both too much of a gentleman to do that.
Back in the ‘60s and onward, who was in charging of finding the songs you’d record?
Engelbert Humperdinck: Gordon Mills was in charge of that. There was a producer I worked with at the time named Peter Sullivan and he was one of the greatest producers I ever worked with in my life. With Peter, we had many many hits, one after the other. The man had an ear for picking out great songs and mixing it in the right fashion. That’s the main thing. It’s not just recording a song, but it’s the actual technology that is also important, the mixing and getting the right sound, getting my sound in the studio in its true perspective.
Were there songs you were pitched by Gordon that you felt weren’t right for you but after you cut them realized he was right?
Engelbert Humperdinck: No, we usually came to a mutual decision about those things. He’d say, “What do you think?” and I’d say, “Well, it sounds good to me” and then we’d go in and record it. But if there was a song that I really didn’t like I didn’t go for it.
With a career spanning over five decades, is there a particular era that you look back upon most favorably from an artistic standpoint?
Engelbert Humperdinck: From ’67 to about ’75 were the great and most exciting years, not that my career isn’t exciting now, but then it was exciting because I was doing 300 concerts a year, which was ridiculous. I never had much time at home. I was traveling the world and doing 300 concerts in countries where I’d never been in my life and it was so thrilling to be able to experience knowing that people all over the world knew your music. Yeah, it’s amazing and that one song “Release Me” triggered the whole situation off.
In 2014 you released the 2-CD set, Engelbert Calling, an album of duets with artists ranging from Smokey Robinson to Dionne Warwick, Johnny Mathis to Neil Sedaka. One of the surprise duet partners was Gene Simmons of KISS, what was the experience like working with him?
Engelbert Humperdinck: Amazing. The guy is such a wonderful character. In the studio he just said to me, “Enge, just relax, pal, and have fun. Consider it like you’re at a party.” ‘See, I was nervous as the man is a big rock guy and I’m a balladeer singing with him. But it was unbelievable. He made me feel very comfortable. He’s an amazing character; I loved being in the studio with him. I chose to work with him because we thought it would be a great combination so we asked him if he would do a duet and he gladly said yes. That was a great shock for me that he would agree to sing with me.
Alan Bernstein and Ritchie Adams wrote one of your biggest hits, “After The Lovin'” hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart. How did you wind up recording that song?
Engelbert Humperdinck: The song was brilliant and the arranger was Charlie Calello. In order you have success, you have to have a wonderful bed of music to lie on. Charlie made that possible with his wonderful arrangement of “After the Lovin’” and of course the lyrics and music made it sensational. The last song Alan Bernstein ever wrote was “This Moment In Time”—he wrote it with Ritchie Adams—and it was also the name of one of my albums. I went to see him when he was in the hospital and he played the song for me. If you listen to the lyrics of that it’s like his life story. He’s saying in those lyrics, because of you and me Engelbert it’s gonna be this moment in time. So when I recorded it, it had a great deal of meaning for me.
Pick a song of yours that best showcases your artistry.
Engelbert Humperdinck: I’ve worked with some great arrangers and some great writers in my life. I’ll choose the song, “From Here To Eternity”; the technique on that recording, especially with my breathing, is special. It shows my vocal ability on that and the arrangement was by a guy named Johnny Harris who is an absolutely great arranger. I’m working with him right now actually. That arrangement was done 47 or 48 years ago.
What songs do you sing in the shower for enjoyment?
Engelbert Humperdinck: (laughs) I don’t. Right before I go on stage in do my warm my vocal cords up in there but I don’t have specific songs that I sing, no. (laughs)
Finally, what are the qualities that make a great singer?
Engelbert Humperdinck: Well, I call myself a thespian of song. When you tell the story, you really have to act it out onstage and I think people read the way you move and your eye movement, your hand movement, your body language plus the most important thing, your phrasing…so with that combination makes a good singer.