The multi-million seller looks back on his childhood in India, how “Release Me” changed his life and why he never got to work with Gorillaz
I was born in Madras, India and the house we lived in was like a film set. It had a playground with swings and I can honestly say I had a lovely childhood—apart from the time I fell into a timber pond at age seven and almost drowned. I was walking on the logs, one of which turned over and I went under the water. I couldn’t swim and neither could my brother Irwin but he lay on his belly, grabbed my hand and pulled me up. He saved my life.
My father always wore his uniform. He was a captain in the army and everywhere we went in the car he would be saluted. That made me very proud of him. My mother was a housewife so she didn’t have a career. Mind you, I think having ten children was work in itself. I was the ninth born and an 11 and 3/4 lb baby.
The family would get together and sing under the stars. I learned how to sing harmonies from my eldest sister Olga but, as I grew up, I didn’t plan on being a singer—I originally wanted to be a saxophone player. We moved to Leicester when I was ten and that’s when I learned how to play the sax.
By the time I was a teenager I was playing in local clubs, which eventually led to me also singing and doing impressions under the name of Gerry Dorsey (which is my real surname). I was very good at impersonating Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Frankie Vaughan.
Humperdinck during his national service
My national service was in Germany. I was a despatch rider and a driver; I drove a 15-tonne truck. I was stationed there for two years in the 1950s and I had a great time, being schooled in the ways of the world and learning how to be a gentleman.
I met my wife Patricia when I came out of National Service. That was in 1956 at a dance hall called the Palais de Danse, located in Leicester. I saw this lovely young lady, asked her to dance and that was the start of our courtship. We were married in 1964 and it’s been a wonderful relationship based on love and respect.
In 1961 I was struck down by tuberculosis. I was doing a charity show in Manchester and I collapsed. The next day my mum took me to the doctor, who said I had a throat infection—but Mum wasn’t happy with that diagnosis and she insisted I have an X-ray. Within an hour I was in hospital on what they used to call the “Death Row” and I was there for six months in total, followed by a year and a half of convalescence.
I had many recording contracts but I never had one hit in those early days. Then in 1965 I met Gordon Mills, who also managed Tom Jones, and he said, “You tried long enough with your real name so let’s give you a new one.” He came up with Engelbert Humperdinck, after a German composer, and it’s such a hard name to sign because you start it one day and finish it the next! But it’s served me well, of course.
The release of "Release Me" in 1967 changed everything. That said, it took three months for it to take off and that was only when I performed it on Sunday Night At The London Palladium. Sales went up to 80,000 a day, which would be unheard of today. It went to number one in the UK, as well as in several other countries, and it stopped The Beatles having their 13th chart-topper [with “Penny Lane” /”Strawberry Fields Forever”].
The funny thing is, it was released on January 13—so 13 was lucky for me but unlucky for them. Success in the States was ensured when I went on The Ed Sullivan Show. That was the biggest showcase that you could have back then and I ended up with a number four hit over there.
Humperdinck as his music career took off
I ended up getting my own TV show. It was called The Engelbert Humperdinck Show and it aired on ATV in the UK and ABC in the US, where it was sponsored by Fabergé.
That’s how I ended up meeting Cary Grant, because he was their creative consultant. He became a big fan and would come and see various shows of mine in the States with his daughter Jennifer. That was fantastic, to have a man of his calibre coming to my concerts. And I had some amazing guests on my TV show, such as Tony Bennett, Jerry Lewis, The Four Tops, Shirley Bassey—some really massive stars.
The 1970s took me to Las Vegas. That came about when I sat down with all the agents who were looking to represent me over there. Because of the jet lag I fell asleep at the table but fortunately Gordon Mills stayed awake and found the right agent for me. Then they took me around all the hotels to see which one I’d like to perform in.
I ended up at the Riviera, which was where Dean Martin regularly performed so that was the start of our friendship. He put his name on the marquee as “Dean Martin Presents Engelbert Humperdinck” and I’m the only person he ever did that for, which was very flattering.
Dabbling in acting was great fun. In the 1980s I was on shows such as The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Hotel and I could also have had a career in the movies, since Hollywood was interested in me. But Gordon decided it would take me off the road for too long and of course he wanted the capital from that, which meant my movie career went down the drain. At the time, though, I didn’t know that he was throwing any of the scripts that were sent my way into the garbage can.
With his wife Patricia
I could have worked with Gorillaz. They wanted to work with me on their 2010 album Plastic Beach, but I had a manager at that particular time who had no idea what music was about. He was a financial genius but he didn’t know who Gorillaz were and he didn’t even tell me they wanted to duet with me. What a huge mistake that was! Of course, when I heard about it later, I fired him.
Although I'm now based in the US, I still have a home in Leicester. We haven’t been back recently because sadly my wife isn’t very well right now; she has Alzheimer’s. But we’re trying everything we can to help her. Hopefully when she’s a little better we’ll both get on a plane and fly home so she can see the beautiful garden again.
I've been blessed with a wonderful family. We have three sons and a daughter named Louise, who is a songwriter in Nashville; Scott, who is in management in Australia; Jason, who is a salesman in Arkansas; and Bradley, who rigs up film sets. I didn’t spend as much time with them when they were young as I should have, but I was out earning a living as a security blanket for my family. But I’d always get home to Leicester as often as I could.
I was picked to represent the UK at Eurovision in 2012.There was a great deal of excitement when I was walking around London, with people yelling, “Go get ’em, Engelbert!” I got an amazing amount of press out of it and I felt so proud to be representing the country. But when it came to the contest in Azerbaijan I was the first to go on and by the time everyone else had performed it felt like I’d been forgotten, plus there’s always a lot of politics involved, but I really enjoyed doing it.
Prince Philip knew all of my songs. I’ve met him as well as the Queen on several occasions, including at Buckingham Palace and a Maundy Thursday service in Leicester. I once played for him at a charity show where he sang along from start to finish.
Engelbert’s wife sadly passed away after this interview was written
His UK Reflections tour begins on October 31. For more info and tickets, visit engelbert.com/tour
Read more: A guide to Damon Albarn's many guises
Read more: 10 must-watch Christmas Netflix films
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter