Maintaining a multiple decade career as a singer is not an easy task. Remaining a sex symbol for that duration is even harder, yet that is precisely the achievement of England’s balladeer Engelbert Humperdinck. Knighted “The King of Romance” by fans and the popular music press, Humperdinck has sold an average of five million records a year since the mid-1960s and has established himself as one of the world’s premiere live performers in a number of sold out tours. However, it has not been Humperdinck’s bronze-skinned good looks alone that have caused the attraction but a truly remarkable voice capable of spanning three-and-a-half octaves. Tempering talent and devotion with a humble, genteel persona, Humperdinck has become a veritable institution of the entertainment industry.
The early years of Humperdinck’s life are unremarkable and sometimes have been embellished by zealous publicity agents. Born Arnold George Dorsey in Leicester, England on May 1, 1936, Humper dinck grew up with ten brothers and sisters in a working-class family. His dabblings in music began at age 11, when he took up playing the saxophone. Although amateur attempts at singing soon followed, Humperdinck did not commit himself to music until after he had served two years in the British armed forces, stationed in Germany during the mid-1950s. Upon his return to England, Humperdinck soon found himself singing publicly for the first time. His first break came in 1958, when he was tapped by a talent agent who had seen Humperdinck perform in a local talent contest. Impressed by the vocal precision of a singer lacking formal training, the agent managed to cut a deal with Decca Records. A year later, Humperdinck released his first single, “Crazy Bells,” under the name Gerry Dorsey.
However, a record deal does not ensure success, and the sporadic Gerry Dorsey records made for Decca would only be a footnote in Humperdinck’s career. The singer continued along the British club circuit with only moderate recognition until he was adopted by manager Gordon Mills. Mills, who later helped Welsh singer Tom Jones achieve fame, became Humperdinck’s mentor, creating the suave image that the singer retained throughout his career. Rather than marketing his protégé as a teen pin-up, Mills opted to focus upon Humperdinck’s “gentlemanly” personality. It was then that Humperdinck dropped the name Gerry Dorsey to step into the name of a 19th century German opera composer. With a new image of charm and an association with high culture, Humperdinck was soon to take off.
In 1967, in a turn of events seemingly taken from a musical or film melodrama, Humperdinck was contacted to be a last minute replacement on the popular
Born Arnold George Dorsey, in Leicester, England, May 1, 1936; married wife Patricia in 1964; children: Louise, Jason, Scott, Bradley. Military service. British Armed Forces, 1954-56.
Recorded first record, “Crazy Bells,” in 1959 for Decca, under the name Gerry Dorsey; made debut as Engelbert Humperdinck on Saturday Night at the London Palladiu. in 1967; awarded a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 1989.
Awards: Golden Globe Award, Entertainer of the Year, 1989.
Addresses: Office—Engelbert Humperdinck Headquarters, Attention: Louise Dorsey, P.O. Box 5734, Beverly Hills, CA 90209-5734.
variety show Saturday Night at the London Palladium. when its scheduled star, Dickie Valentine, fell ill. Humperdinck performed “Release Me,” a single that had just been released on Parrot Records, and the result was almost instant stardom for the singer. The song quickly hit the number one slot on the British music charts, and this success reflected on the U.S. music charts as well. At its peak, the “Release Me” single sold an unprecedented 85,000 copies daily, but moreover, the slow, powerful ballad became Humperdinck’s signature tune, and a staple among adult vocals fans.
Almost immediately, Humperdinck began to amass legions of devoted fans, most of them female. On these grounds, coupled with the fact that most of Humperdinck’s recordings are love songs, some critics immediately dismissed the singer as a mere “crooner.” While Humperdinck cannot be said to have made significant musical innovations, the freshness, energy, and range of Humperdinck’s delivery set him apart from other show business Romeos. As Humperdinck told the Hollywood Reporter’. Rick Sherwood, “if you are not a crooner it’s something you don’t want to be called. No crooner has the range I have—I can hit notes a bank couldn’t cash. What I am is a contemporary singer, a stylized performer.”
Throughout the rest of the 1960s and into the 1970s, Humperdinck continued to produce million-selling albums of love songs on the Parrot label, and developed increasingly more extravagant stage shows, sometimes over one hundred per year. While the mood of Top 40 radio quickly changed, Humperdinck’s music, more akin to Broadway show tunes than post-Beatles rock, did not. Subsequently, Humperdinck’s live performances became more crucial in reaching his fans, and the singer responded by producing lavish, energetic extravaganzas that set the standards for Las Vegas-style glamour. “I don’t like to give people what they have already seen,” Humperdinck was quoted as saying in a 1992 tourbook. “I take the job description of’entertainer’ very seriously! I try to bring a sparkle that people don’t expect and I get the biggest kick from hearing someone say ‘I had no idea you could do that!’”
By the late 1960s, Engelbert Humperdinck fan clubs had begun to sprout, first in England, later around the globe. By the next decade, the fan mania had grown to giant proportions, reportedly the largest such club in the world, with chapters including “Our World is Engelbert,” “Engelbert… We Believe in You,” and “Love is All for Enge.” While an occasional fan ventured into the realm of obsession—several fanatics claimed to have been pregnant with the singer’s offspring—Humperdinck’s following of a reported eight million members guaranteed record sales with limited radio air play. “They are very loyal to me and very militant as far as my reputation is concerned,” Humperdinck said of his devotees to Sherwood. “I call them the spark plugs of my success.”
The release of the album After the Lovin’. in 1976 was a relative watermark in Humperdinck’s career. For one thing, it was the first record Humperdinck made for the Epic label, after almost a decade with Parrot. In addition, the album received a nomination for a Grammy Award, the first major nod Humperdinck had received from critical corners. Perhaps part of the reason behind Humperdinck’s critical neglect stemmed from his lack of involvement with the recording of albums, whereas he had so much control over live presentation. Until the late 1980s, Humperdinck had little say in which songs were selected for each album, a fact that might have supported claims that he was little more than a pawn of his label’s executives. Over the years, this arrangement slowly changed, giving Humperdinck full creative freedom. Humperdinck’s albums began to cover more musical terrain than ballads alone.
By the 1980s, Humperdinck was fast approaching his fifth decade of life, yet he was still producing albums regularly, performing sometimes more than 200 concerts in a year, and he was still a source of attraction for his female fans. Despite all this, Humperdinck had managed to maintain a solid family life with his wife, Patricia. Perhaps a mixture of business and pleasure had contributed to this success: Humperdinck’s four children are involved in their father’s career in some way. Atrulyjet-setfamily, the Humperdinck/Dorsey clan shuttled between homes in England and Beverly Hills, California, where Humperdinck had purchased the Pink Palace, a lush mansion once owned by film star Jayne Mansfield.
Humperdinck had reached the point in his career where he had transcended stardom to become a legend. In 1989, he was awarded a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, as well as a Golden Globe Award for Entertainer of the Year. He had met the queen of England and several American presidents. Still, he retained his element of humanism, and began major involvement in charity foundations. In addition to involvement with The Leukemia Research Fund, the American Red Cross, and the American Lung Association, Humperdinck contributed to several AIDS relief organizations. For one of these, Reach Out, Humperdinck even penned and performed an anthem for the organization’s mission, called “Reach Out.” As longtime friend Clifford Elson said of Humperdinck, “[h]e’s a gentleman in a business that’s not full of many gentlemen.”
In 1992, the singer launched a gala world tour to commemorate 25 years of performing as Engelbert Humperdinck. The tour showcased a career’s worth of middle-of-the-road favorites, as well as songs from a special anniversary album recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Polydor Records. Like most of Humperdinck’s tours, the anniversary was almost completely sold out. By the time his 1996 record After Dark hit the stores, Humperdinck had sold 130 million records, including 23 platinum and 64 gold releases, and he showed no signs of decreasing his output. “The last twenty-five years have been an adventure, a story without a script,” Humperdinck told fans in his anniversary tourbook. “I never knew what was coming next but it’s been a wonderful journey. I hope the chapters of my life to follow allow me to continue to keep giving back all the love and respect that I have been given.”
Release Me, Parrot, 1967.
We Made it Happen, Parrot, 1970.
King of Hearts, Parrot, 1974.
His Greatest Hits, Parrot, 1975.
After the Lovin’, Epic, 1976.
Last of the Romantics, Epic, 1978.
Love is the Reason, Critique, 1991.
Engelbert Humperdinck: The 25th Anniversary Album, Polydor, 1992.
Hollywood Reporter, December 1991, pp. 1-4, 10.
Additional information gathered from publicity materials, including a press release from Baker, Winoker, Ryder, July 11, 1996 and The 25th Anniversary World Tour 1967-199. (tourbook), 1992.
Humperdinck, Engelbert, famous German composer and pedagogue; b. Siegburg, near Bonn, Sept. 1, 1854; d. Neustrelitz, Sept. 27, 1921. He began to study piano at 7. He commenced composing at 14, then studied at the Cologne Cons. (1872–76), where his teachers were Hiller, Gernsheim, and Jensen (harmony and composition), Hompesch, Mertke, and Seiss (piano), F. Weber (organ), and Ehlert and Rensburg (cello). After winning the Mozart Prize (1876), he studied counterpoint and fugue with Rheinberger at Munich’s Royal Music School (1877); also studied composition privately there with F. Lachner. In 1879 he won the Mendelssohn Prize of Berlin for his choral work Die Wallfahrt nach Kevelaar (1878); then went to Italy, where he met Wagner in Naples (1880); at Wagner’s invitation, he worked in Bayreuth (1881–82). In 1881 he won the Meyerbeer Prize of Berlin, which enabled him to visit Paris in 1882. He taught at the Barcelona Cons. (1885–86) and the Cologne Cons. (1887–88); subsequently worked for the Schott publishing firm in Mainz (1888–89). After serving as private teacher to Siegfried Wagner (1889–90), he joined the faculty of the Hoch Cons, in Frankfurt am Main in 1890; was made prof, there in 1896, but resigned in 1897. During this period he also was music critic of the Frankfurter Zeitung.His fame as a composer was assured with the extraordinary success of his opera Hansel und Gretel (Weimar, Dec. 23, 1893), written to a libretto by his sister Adelheid Wette. This fairy-tale score, with its melodies of ingenuous felicity in a Wagnerian idiom, retains its place in the repertoire. Although he continued to write for the stage, his succeeding works left little impression. He was director of a master class in composition at Berlin’s Akademische Meisterschule (1900–20); was also a member of the senate of the Berlin Academy of Arts.
dramatic: Opera: Hansel und Gretel (Weimar, Dec. 23, 1893, R. Strauss conducting); Dornröschen (Frankfurt am Main, Nov. 12, 1902); Die Heirat wider Willen (Berlin, April 14, 1905); Königskinder (N.Y., Dec. 28, 1910; based on his incidental music to Rosmer’s Königskinder); Die Marketenderin (Cologne, May 10, 1914); Gaudeamus (Darmstadt, March 18, 1919). Also Die sieben Geislein, children’s fairy play for Voice and Piano (Berlin, Dec. 19, 1895). incidental music: To Rosmer’s Königskinder (Munich, Jan. 23, 1897; later expanded into an opera); for the Berlin productions of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Nov. 5, 1905), The Winter’s Tale (Sept. 15, 1906), The Tempest (Oct. 26, 1906), Romeo and Juliet (Jan. 29, 1907), and Twelfth Night (Oct. 17, 1907); also to Aristophanes’s Lysis-trata (Berlin, Feb. 27, 1908) and Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird (Berlin, Dec. 23, 1912), as well as for Reinhardt’s production of The Miracle (London, Dec. 23, 1911). OTHER: Die Wallfahrt nach Kevelaar for Chorus (1878); Humoreske for Orch. (1879); Das Glück von Edenhall for Chorus (Munich, July 15, 1879; 2nd version, 1882-83); Die maurische Rhapsodie for Orch. (1898); 4 Kinderlieder (1901).
O. Besch, E. H (Leipzig, 1914); H. Kuhlmann, Stil und Form in der Musik von H.s Oper “Hansel und Gretel” (Borna and Leipzig, 1930); L. Kirsten, Motivik und Form in der Musik zu E. H.s Oper “Königskinder” (diss., Univ. of Jena, 1942); K. Pullen, Die Schauspielmusiken H.s (diss., Univ. of Cologne, 1951); E. Thamm, Der Bestand der lyrischen Werke E. H.s (diss., Univ. of Mainz, 1951); W. Humperdinck, E. H. (Frankfurt am Main, 1965); H. Irmen, Die Odyssee des E. H: Eine biographische Dokumentation (Siegburg, 1975); idem, ed., E. H.: Briefe und Tagebücher (Cologne, 1976); E. Humperdinck and J. Nickel, E. H. zum 70. Todestag (Siegburg, 1992); W. Humperdinck, E. H: Das Leben meines Vaters (Koblenz, 1993); E. Humperdinck, E. H. Werkverzeichnis: Zum 140 Geburtstag: Seinem Andenken gewidmet (Koblenz, 1994).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire