The glory days are back… thank God! As he represents Britain at Eurovision, Engelbert Humperdinck says his time has come again
22:26 GMT, 4 May 2012
Those posh paint people Farrow & Ball would have a field day trying to come up with a name for the colour of Engelbert Humperdinck’s hair.
In the olden days it used to be simple – blackest black. Now it’s more of a tawny-chocolatey brown, with a hint of mink. ‘Do you like it’ he asks, smoothing down the bouffant front bit.
‘As you get older you can’t keep dyeing your hair black so I was trying to get to a colour people would accept. I’ve been dyeing my hair since I was 25 because I went grey early and you can’t be grey in this business. I’ll never be grey.’
On a high note: At the end of the month Engelbert Humperdinck will be representing Britain in the annual Eurovision Song Contest
And what of those splendiferous sideburns – the ones that gave Elvis a run for his money Are they dyed too ‘Oh yes, everything is.’ He leans forward and shows a lot of white teeth. ‘Don’t ask me about anywhere else though.’ Oh yikes. What to do here Laugh Wince Nod sagely and move swiftly on It’s the age-old problem when it comes to Engelbert.
And it’s a problem we’re all going to have to deal with because at the end of the month he’s up there representing Britain in the annual jamboree that is the Eurovision Song Contest. Yes, as if Eurovision isn’t barmy enough with all those funny hats, random unicycles and swishing veils, now we have Engelbert, 76 years young and heading for Azerbaijan with quite an earnest love song – one that doesn’t even call for a tambourine.
Most of us, let’s face it, were shocked to hear that dear old Eng – he of such karaoke classics as Release Me and The Last Waltz – was to be our great Eurovision hope. Indeed, we couldn’t have been more shocked had it been announced he was to lead the British taekwondo team in the Olympics. But he doesn’t seem remotely shocked. ‘Maybe a little surprised, because it came out of the blue, but I didn’t hesitate for a minute.’
Glory days: Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones in 1969 on The Engelebert Humperdink show
More shocking still, he seems to be taking it entirely seriously. ‘It’s the biggest honour you can think of, to represent your country. And in this important year, with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, it’s an incredible thing. I said yes, yes, yes, right away.’ It’s all very odd, but strangely touching. Even if he doesn’t win, he has the air of a man who’s already won. ‘I have. I feel I’ve won the lottery with this. It’s the chance to perform on the biggest stage possible, and to represent my country at the same time. I’m blessed. Truly blessed.’
We meet in a London hotel where Engelbert has been having his pictures taken. When I arrive he’s doing his own make-up, while a professional make-up artist looks on, bemused. He’s a big man, with big hair, but he’s surprisingly nimble with the eyeliner brush. He’s also got an eye for clothes, carefully assessing the cut and colour of the suit that he is to wear before stepping into it. ‘I like clothes,’ he says. ‘It isn’t true that it’s just a woman’s thing. In fact, I buy my wife’s clothes. I pick things off the hangers and say, “Here, that will suit you, try that.” She can’t see it.’
He has the look of a veteran showbiz legend who’s spent the past 40 years lying by a pool in LA, but this is not entirely accurate. He does have a home in Los Angeles, but likes to spend half the year in Leicester, of all places, where he was born. Of course, he wasn’t Engelbert then, but Arnold Dorsey, the name that’s still on his passport. ‘I never changed it by deed poll. I’m still Arnold Dorsey officially, although it does say “Also known as Engelbert Humperdinck”.’ The latter makes it easier for upgrades at airports, presumably, I say. ‘There haven’t been too many of those recently,’ he says, sadly.
You go through a whole spell where
nothing happens and you think, “Oh God, where have I gone… I hoped it would come
back, yes. I always hoped. And now it has, I thank God for it.
We make our way to the bar where he orders a cognac and bemoans the fact he hasn’t had a decent cigar in five months because ‘I don’t like to overdo it’. At first I think I’m in the presence of Arnold Dorsey as he talks about darts and supermarkets. He likes to shop at Sainsbury’s when he’s in the UK. Seriously ‘Oh yes. My wife doesn’t like grocery shopping. I do. I go around with my basket, seeing what veg are in season. I like to cook, simple things like chops or steak. I like it charred, but pink. No blood. I do a great marinade.’
This Arnold bloke seems quite normal, domesticated. We get into a discussion about wi-fi, and the cost of telephone services. He says he’s quite frugal, and that he gets peeved that his wife spends too much money on the garden. I’m almost convinced until I ask how many cars he has, and he says ‘not many’. Can we count them Suddenly, it’s Engelbert Humperdinck, king of flash, speaking. ‘Let’s see, I have a Bentley, a Rolls, a Jag, another Jag, oh and another Rolls, and an SUV. Not many.’
He also has four Harley-Davidson motorbikes. Why would anyone need four ‘Well, I have two houses in different countries so I have two at each.’ Why do you need two at any time ‘In case I want someone to come with me.’ He’s clearly not a man who likes to be alone. When the conversation turns to love – as it always does with Engelbert – he shuts his eyes and wafts his arms about and starts quoting poetry or lines from his songs. It’s hard to tell which. He wonders how many children have been conceived to his music. He talks of the difference between love and sex. I ask if, erm, that side of his life is still important. ‘You mean sex Of course. I love it. And I don’t take a pill either. I don’t need it, my dear. I’ve been given some good stuff in that department and it’s lasted.’
Back in the day, of course, he was as much of a womaniser as most stars of his generation. Yet his marriage has survived for 48 years, probably because his wife Patricia is a very practical soul who saw his liaisons for what they were: the failings of a man who was quite insecure. He says today that he never had confidence in his looks when he was young – ‘I always had big lips and I got teased for them’. But having a number one record can do wonders for your success with the opposite sex. A few years back he wrote an astonishingly honest account of that time, conceding he’d hurt Patricia terribly. She in turn wrote a chapter for the book, laying bare her heartbreak.
Engelbert with his wife Patricia last year
He admits, ‘I had my days, and I did things that were wrong. Sometimes the grass seems greener. You lose your senses. I’m lucky. I discovered that the grass isn’t greener. I love my wife. I treasure her.’ He’s still a flirt, though. ‘Oh yes. My wife knows I’m a flirt, and it doesn’t matter. Looking isn’t hurting. If you flirt it’s OK. I remember my old dad. He was an amazing character – 91 when he passed away. I’d notice his eyes when he was looking at a young lady. They changed, lit up. And my mother knew he was flirting. She really didn’t mind. Because you know what, that’s what life’s all about. It’s innocent love.’
He’s a survivor, you have to give him that. He takes a cocktail of vitamins and hits the treadmill ‘to keep me in shape’, but says he’s resisted going under the knife. ‘I could do with a bit of help here now,’ he says, hoicking his jowls up. ‘But I hate anything to do with needles and knives. And my veins close up. I could never have been a drug addict.’ Did he ever dabble with drugs He says not. ‘I like a drink, but with drugs, I lost too many good people in my life – the Jimi Hendrixes; the Elvis Presleys – if you don’t take a lesson from that then you are pretty stupid.’
He may have become a byword for schmaltz, but Engelbert doesn’t take too kindly to you pointing it out. ‘I was never too cheesy or too sweet, my dear,’ he says at one point. ‘Just read the book.’ Indeed there was a time when Engelbert was up there with the most credible. The glory days, he says, were the 1960s when he was a bona fide sex symbol and a stablemate of Tom Jones. They shared a manager, Gordon Mills. ‘We were racehorses,’ he recalls. ‘They really were amazing days. We were all over the world, at the top of the charts.’
At the peak of his career, however, he made a decision he now thinks was a mistake. He sacked his manager. ‘Gordon was representing Tom and me and Gilbert O’Sullivan, and I thought he was paying too much attention to the other two. I thought I’d be better on my own. It was a mistake.’ While you can’t say what happened next was a fall from grace – how many other stars can boast 150 million albums sold – he concedes his star never soared quite as high from there. In fact, he’s more honest than most about what it feels like to be invincible one moment, and a not-quite-has-been the next.
‘You go through a whole spell where nothing happens and you think, “Oh God, where have I gone What’s happened to me” I’ve always filled my theatres, but it was never like the first ten years. I say it’s like the sea has two motions – rough and calm. I went through the rough for a little while, then I was calm.’ But now, clearly, he is after the rough again. ‘I hoped it would come back, yes. I always hoped. And now it has, I thank God for it.’
Engelbert’s Eurovision entry Love Will Set You Free will be released in stores on Monday. The Eurovision Song Contest is on Saturday 26 May, 8pm, BBC1.