Almost 60 ago Engelbert Humperdinck enjoyed the biggest hit of his career with a grand tearjerker of a ballad called Release Me.

In 1967 the song hit number one in 11 countries and spent 56 consecutive weeks on the UK charts. Now Humperdinck is embarking, at 87 years young, on The Last Waltz Farewell Tour, which is quickly selling out venues all over the country.

On a video call from his home in the US the singer still looks a million dollars. The American sunshine is a lifetime away from where he began his career in the working men’s clubs of Britain.

“I started off doing an engineering job,” Humperdinck recalls. “My Dad said, ‘You need a proper job’. That lasted a year and I said, ‘Dad, I can’t do this’. I started singing in a working men’s club. Everyone was having a pint of beer and then getting up to sing. I thought I’d have a go.

“When I’d finished I had people all around me asking me who my agent was. I was only 17. That gave me the courage to sing. If you can sing in a working men’s club and please them, you can please a crowd anywhere. They’re a tough mob. If they didn’t like you, they’d throw a pint over you.”

Humperdinck slogged it out for years in those clubs waiting for his big break. He wanted to emulate the great Nat King Cole, because he felt Cole “knew how to mould a ballad to suit his voice”. While waiting to find his own ballad, a shot at the big time almost didn’t happen.

On his manager’s advice he changed his name from Gerry Dorsey to Engelbert Humperdinck and eventually cut Release Me. The song appeared on Jukebox Jury and the panel voted a resounding “no” with regards to it being a hit.

“I thought it was a hit from the get-go,” he explains. “But after Jukebox Jury it sat on the shelf for about three months, and I was wondering if it was going to take off. It had some promotion prior to being released, but never something really big.

“That finally came with a television appearance on a program called Sunday Night at the London Palladium. A friend of mine, Dickie Valentine, got sick and I took his place at that particular show and the very next day it started selling 80,000 copies a day and then 90,000 copies a day. It went up to 127, 000 copies a day.”

Famously the song kept The Beatles juggernaut double A-side Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane off the top spot and led to a slew of hits for the singer that included The Last Waltz, There Goes My Everything and others.

Despite his reputation as a balladeer, Humperdinck had some serious rock ‘n’ roll friends. Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page worked as a session guitarist on Release Me and Humperdinck also shared the bill on a tour with Jimi Hendrix. One night when Humperdinck’s  guitarist fell ill, Jimi stepped in.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry man, I’ll play for you’,” Humperdinck says, laughing at the thought. “I told him he couldn’t do that, he was a star. So he stood behind the curtain with his music laid out and played. It sounded like three guitars back there. He was a lovely person, he’d give you the coat off his back. In fact, I complimented him on his army tunic one day and he offered to give it to me!”

At the height of his fame Humperdinck counted Elvis Presley as a friend, and his stablemate Tom Jones as a sometimes friend and sometimes rival. It irked him when the manager Humperdinck shared with Jones, Gordon Mills, “didn’t show the same care for my career as he did for Jones or Gilbert O’Sullivan”.

Tom Jones was often given most of the good songs, or Mills threw film scripts pitched to Humperdinck in the bin without the singer seeing them as he wanted him in a studio rather than on set for six months.

It’s a frustration that continues to this day. Humperdinck recently discovered the mega-selling Gorillaz tried to get him on a song and were told “no” by Humperdinck’s management. The move led to Humperdinck finding new management. Still, there’s little that dampens the singer’s enthusiasm.

“What’s happened is in the past,” he says. “What’s gone is gone. I live in the now. I don’t regret anything that has gone bad … and I was taken for a lot of money.”

The singer is still keen to record new material and is working on a new album, the details of which are hush-hush.

“I’m working on a concept record,” he says. “It’s out of my comfort zone, but we’re working on it right now. By the time I get to Australia I’ll have part of it finished. I’m hoping the whole album will be finished in two or three months. It’s different. I can’t tell you too much.”

As for the tour, Humperdinck will keep singing for audiences as long as he is physically able.

“I really don’t know,” he muses. “We’ve called it The Last Waltz. People have their last tours and they tour it for five years. Cher’s been on her final tour for about six years. It’s important to keep a good mindset. With me it’s in the lap of the gods. How far it goes? We’ll see.”

Engelbert Humperdinck: The Last Waltz plays the QPAC Concert Hall, May 13 and 14, and Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide, May 18. See full tour details here.


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