Engelbert Humperdinck: How a shy Madras boy became pop heart-throb
This month, Engelbert turned 84. But his music has transcended time and generations and his voice continues to reach out to people – serving to transport and inspire, to embrace and to provoke emotions.
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In the late 19th century, when German composer Engelbert Humperdinck wrote the opera Hansel and Gretel based on the well-known German fairy tale published in Grimms’ Fairy Tales, he wouldn’t have known that seven decades after the opera premiered, a Madras-born singer would adopt his name professionally and become one of the world’s best balladeers, and a ‘Sex God’ driving the other Gretels mad. The acquired name would not be entirely inappropriate though. The singer’s mother had an operatic voice, and her genetic gift to her son gave him a vocal range of three-and-a-half octaves. The sonority of his voice, capable of conveying a range of strong emotions, could easily have been out of the world of opera.
Engelbert’s real name was Arnold George Dorsey. He was born in Madras in 1936 to a British officer. He was one of the ten children. His mother was a talented violinist and singer. By some accounts, she was an Anglo-Indian. Engelbert did not want to be a singer, but wanted a career in music as he was extraordinarily shy. He knew he could sing harmonies, but the power of his own voice came as a surprise to him and other people — loud, but tender at the same time.
Engelbert was born Arnold George Dorsey in 1936 in Madras to a British officer. (Photo: engelbert.com)
From his mother’s side of the family, he inherited music. His father was a man’s man – strong, athletic, charismatic, lover of sports – which Engelbert also inherited. Not to forget his appreciation of women! After the family returned to England, young Arnold attended schools in Leicester and took up the saxophone. He began to play in local pubs and then to sing, initially under the stage name of Gerry Dorsey (based on his impersonations of the comedian Jerry Lewis). He gradually established a reputation in the UK club circuit, but his career was cut short by tuberculosis. He relaunched his career with a new image and a new name, which for most people was simply outrageous.
Success, as Engelbert explains in his autobiography What’s In A Name, arrived like a meteor. The name of the meteor was Release Me, and it soared to the top of the charts in April 1967, preventing the Beatles’ Penny Lane (otherwise fully deserving of the number one slot) from reaching that coveted spot. Many other hits were to follow, among them The Last Waltz, After the Lovin', Quando Quando and Lesbian Seagull (from the soundtrack of Beavis And Butt-Head Do America in 1996).
Release Me led to the formation of a huge fan following. By 1970, Engelbert had established 250 fan clubs around the world. Five decades later, he still has one of the world’s largest fan following. In a career spanning till the present day, Engelbert has sold in excess of 140 million records, including 64 gold albums and 23 platinum, received four Grammy nominations, a Golden Globe, and stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Las Vegas Walk of Fame. He has performed for the Queen and many heads of state. He has recorded everything from the most romantic ballads to movie theme songs, disco, rock, and gospel. Engelbert has even struck a chord with the younger generation after appearing on MTV several times.
Jimi Hendrix began his career as the first half of Engelbert’s show. Even Elvis owed a debt to Engelbert — his sideboards were introduced by Engelbert and then borrowed by Elvis. Engelbert and Elvis subsequently became friends and sang each other’s songs. Engelbert sang Love Me Tender, and Elvis sang Release Me and There Goes My Everything. At a later stage, in the Las Vegas concert circuit, Engelbert earned the friendship and respect of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
His unique voice has charmed millions of fans across the globe. His power as a balladeer relates both to his presence and his voice. He gives the impression that he is singing for the individual listener, to whom both the narrative and the emotions seem to be directed. Engelbert does not sing to the collective, but to each listener individually. He is a sensitive lyric interpreter with excellent vocal technique.
And what a stage presence! He was billed as ‘The King of Romance’, and for millions of fans around the world, he has more than lived up to that title. During his heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he cultivated the image of a mysterious heart-throb and donned a flamboyant wardrobe that, when coupled with his rich, silky crooning, drove female fans wild. With his square jaw, olive skin and plump lips, not to mention sideburns so ridiculously thick and lustrous they each required a barber of their own - Humperdinck was at the height of his game in the heart-throb stakes.
During his heyday, Engelbert cultivated the image of a mysterious heartthrob and donned flamboyant wardrobe that, when coupled with his rich, silky crooning, drove female fans wild. (Photo: Getty Images)
Just imagine a typical show. A dark, handsome, sensuous singer, crooning smoothly and effortlessly to shrieking women of a wide range of ages, an occasional subtle pelvic movement in keeping with the relaxed but purposeful singing. His endearing sense of humour would be visible in his attempts to engage in badinage between songs — in a warm, strong voice – which would get overwhelmed by comments and statements from his audience. Sometimes, he would invite a member of the audience (female) to join him on the stage, while he would sing a song to her that included a kiss at the end of each line of the lyric. The girl would be glazed-eyed, as would the rest of the screaming female audience. He seemed to take great pleasure at every moment on stage, a place where he could lose his inhibitions and no longer be the child who was once shy.
I had the pleasure of seeing Engelbert live in Delhi in 2005. Though he hardly ever talked about his days in India, at the time of the tour he said, “...I’m so happy to be singing here at last because I absolutely love India.” He said he cherished the memories of his childhood in Madras, now Chennai. "I remember our large bungalow, all those wonderful monsoon smells and the harbour with its ships and fishing boats. I almost drowned when I fell off a bunch of logs floating on an inlet near the harbour when I was six years old. My younger brother saved my life.”
The author's ticket to Engelbert's 2005 concert in Delhi.
Most of the audience was above 40 years of age, there were no spectacular light-and-sound displays. Just a 69-year-old man singing one love song after another with outstanding panache. The crowd was very receptive, they knew the songs, and they loved every minute of the show. There were some superb stand-up comedy interludes too — some mimicry, a risqué act with a thong that was brought onstage for him to autograph, digs at Tom Jones, an imitation of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk, an Elvis-style bump-and-grind routine. He was very energetic for his age.
Astonishingly, at 76, Engelbert represented the UK at the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. He was 20 years old when the first Eurovision contest was held. He lost badly – the winner being 29-year-old Swedish pop singer — Loreen.
This month, Engelbert turned 84. He is still at it. He was due to be touring, which got cancelled due to the pandemic. On his birthday, his poems about the coronavirus and the current uncertainty in the world were printed in the Leicester Mercury, the local newspaper.
Engelbert’s music has transcended time and generations, his voice continues to reach out to people – serving to transport and inspire, to embrace and to provoke emotions. The essence of his long-lasting success. His countless fans will never release him or let him go!