Engelbert Humperdinck: Aloha from L.A.

An exclusive chat with your nonna’s favorite singer

Engelbert Humperdinck / art by Ron Hart

“Aloha! I’m saying ‘aloha’ because I just came back from Hawaii,” says Engelbert Humperdinck, calling from his home in Los Angeles.

The legendary singer is cheerful and charming despite suffering from severe jet lag after returning from an extensive string of overseas shows. “It’s been a hectic tour – I’ve done six countries in just over 14 days,” he says, listing off several Asian nations as well as the Hawaii stop. And he’s not done yet: in two days, he’ll set off for several more concerts, this time spanning the continental United States.

This would be an exhausting work schedule for anyone, let alone someone of Humperdinck’s age (he’s 83 years old). But he’s intent on promoting his latest EP, Reflections, a 5-song collection of the type of grandly melodic songs that have made him an iconic singer since his career first took off more than 50 years ago. He is nicknamed “The King of Romance,” and with good reason: his songs often tell unabashedly emotional love stories.

“It’s got some things on it that I particularly love very much,” Humperdinck says of Reflections. In particular, he’s proud of the song “I’m Glad I Danced with You (Candlelight Mix),” on which he duets with his granddaughter, Olivia. He says her performance is “totally amazing, and I mean that most sincerely. She sang it with passion and with meaning.”

Engelbert Humperdinck Reflections EP, OK! Good, 2019

He says he’s also extremely fond of the song “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” written by Toby Keith, which is about resisting the aging process – bolstered by the memorable line, “Ask yourself how old you’d be / If you didn’t know the day you were born.”

“I fell in love with that song because all the lyrics have my sentiments entirely,” Humperdinck says. “I don’t want to get old. You know, I’m about 53 [years old] now, I have to think about these things!” he jokes. “I act and talk and dress as young as I possibly can. Not too young, but young enough to say, ‘This guy doesn’t look his age.’”

To check out how youthful Humperdinck looks these days, fans should seek out the music video for the EP’s first single, “You” (as of this writing, it has already logged almost a quarter of a million views on YouTube, even though it was just released in mid-September). This is, in fact, his first-ever official music video. “[It] was a breath of fresh air, and it was nice for me to do it,” Humperdinck says. “Hopefully it will take my career on to another step.”

Indeed, at a time when most performers would think about retiring, Humperdinck is still showing the same type of work ethic and persistence that helped him launch his career in the first place. “I want to tell you something: I’ve auditioned many, many times, and I’ve been rejected. The first condition of communication is the willingness to take rejection, and I took it so many times, but you know what? If you don’t knock on doors, they’re not going to open. So I knocked on doors. I knew that one day, one door will open, and it did.”

 

VIDEO: Engelbert Humperdinck “Y

Even so, Humperdinck says he had “no idea” that his career would become this successful. Growing up in England, he says he “was not going to be a singer – I was going to be a saxophone player, and I thought I would be a big band leader.” But he switched courses when, at 17 years old, “I got up and sang in a club and I got a standing ovation for it, and I thought to myself, ‘This is what I want to do.’ So I started singing from then onwards.”

At the time, he was performing using his birth name, Gerry Dorsey. But even with his impressive singing ability, he still didn’t find real success until his late 20s when, in a now-famous move, he took the stage name “Engelbert Humperdinck.” This had the desired effect of grabbing people’s attention long enough for them to check out his shows and discover that he was a true talent.

Since his debut recording, Release Me (1967), he has gone on to release more than 60 studio albums (plus many live albums and compilation albums), which have collectively sold a staggering 140 million copies worldwide. His singles, such as “Release Me” and “The Last Waltz,” are among the most recognizable songs ever recorded. His song “Ten Guitars,” originally released as the B-side to “Release Me,” has been adopted as the unofficial national anthem of New Zealand, of all things (a development that Humperdinck calls “amazing”); there is a re-recorded version of that track on the Reflections EP. But even with such an impressive history of hits, Humperdinck is still ambitious: “I’m still not giving up – I’m still trying to get another song that’s going to hit the top of the charts.”

He thinks his success has a lot to do with the type of songs that he has chosen to sing. “I personally enjoy songs that have a great deal of meaning. A song that has a storyline attached to it, that people have lived by, and that I’ve lived by – so when people hear it, they say, ‘That sounds like part of me.’ And I like to get involved with very good melodies that last forever, not ones that you can’t hum a few bars after you’ve heard it the first time.” 

As he prepares for this next tour, Humperdinck says he’s still mindful, even now, that he must continue to earn fans’ respect. “Each and every audience has their own reaction, and believe me, it’s nerve-wracking not knowing what you’re going to receive. But when you finally achieve your goal, it’s quite rewarding.” He cites his recent concert in Japan as a perfect example of this: “I haven’t been [there] in many, many years, and I had to win them back. They were a very reserved audience, and therefore, it took a bit of work. But in the end, I got them, and they were standing up right in front, like at a rock show!” he says, delighted.

All those fans he’s won over will undoubtedly be happy to know that he’s already planning to record another album next year. “I don’t know what it’s going to be about, but nevertheless, I hope it has a memorable existence because that’s the way I like my records, so that they stay around forever.”

 

AUDIO: Engelbert Humperdinck with Toby Keith “Don’t Let The Old Man In”

Katherine Yeske Taylor

Katherine Yeske Taylor began her rock critic career in Atlanta in the late '80s, when she interviewed Georgia musical royalty such as the Indigo Girls, R.E.M. and the Black Crowes while she was still a teenager. Since then, she has done hundreds of interviews with a wide range of artists. She has written for dozens of magazines, including The Big Takeover (national), Aquarian Weekly (New Jersey), Stomp & Stammer (Atlanta), Creative Loafing (Atlanta), Jam Magazine (Florida), Color Red (Denver) and Boston Rock, among many others. She contributed to two books (several entries for The Trouser Press Guide to the '90s, and a chapter for Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama). Additionally, she has written liner notes and artist bios for several major acts. She currently lives in New York City.  

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