This Saturday at the 57th Eurovision Song Contest, that annual celebration of kitsch, in Baku, Azerbaijan, the first performer on stage will be Britain’s Engelbert Humperdinck, aged 76, wearing a suit designed by Nicolas Sarkozy’s tailor, who had his last Top 20 hit in 1972, and seems hard of hearing, although that’s probably an advantage in this competition.
He’s modest, answers questions immediately, in a guileless way, taking us back to a more courtly and innocent age (except for sex, of which more, inevitably). He wears a large turquoise and gold ring, and has a fairly glorious, brown bouffant and luxurious dark sideburns circa 1960.
“I never thought of going grey. Absolutely not, sir. At 25 years old I went grey and realised if I was going into showbusiness, I’d have to dye my hair so people didn’t think I was old. I’ve been doing it for the last 50 years and I’ll do it until God calls me. When I look in the mirror, I don’t want to see grey although I don’t dye it jet black as I used to. I haven’t had Botox or surgery, but one day I might take a bit off my chin.” He stretches an upturned palm over his profile, pushing at soupçons of incipient fat.
He was second choice for Eurovision, after Jason Donovan who says he turned it down following an “unofficial” approach. “I was surprised to be asked, sir,” says Humperdinck. “I was thrilled they had the confidence to put my name forward for this big thing. It’s given me a lot of publicity, thank God. Something you can’t buy. I’ll have an audience of 125 million, which I will remember and appreciate for the rest of my life.”
Why does he think he was chosen?
“Pardon?” he asks, cupping his left hand to his ear. I repeat the question.
“Oh, I know critics wondered why they chose me, but I suppose they wanted my experience and background – 45 years at the peak of my career, 150 million-odd albums [63 gold and 24 platinum]. I have fan clubs all over the world and played to 18 million viewers in Riga, Latvia.
“I hope with all my touring some will remember my name, that they liked me and – bang! – we’ll score points. I’m not saying I’ll win, but I’m going to try. Perhaps it’s my time. The song is written by two very good people involved with great material in the past.”
Love Will Set You Free was written by Sacha Skarbek, who co-wrote James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful, and Grammy award-winning producer Martin Terefe. He didn’t think of declining.
“I couldn’t. It’s for my country. I’ve watched the contest occasionally and don’t think it’s a joke. It’s a good cause in a great year – the Jubilee, Olympics and Eurovision. I try to be best at whatever I do, whether it’s tennis or golf. I have an 8.2 handicap. I’m also a very good darts player. It’s a trait with Taurus people [he was born in May] to be competitive, not that I’m a bad loser. I shake hands, say ‘Congratulations – and I’ll get you next time.’ ”
He was born in Madras where his father Melvyn was a British army NCO and his mother Olive, who is of Indian heritage, taught violin. The family (he has nine siblings) moved to Leicester when he was ten, and he still spends three months a year there in a nine-bedroom mansion with a red telephone box in the grounds and a pub with dartboard. He lives in California for three months and likes to work for the remaining six months, giving up to 100 concerts throughout the world.
“There’s nothing else in life. If you love it and do it well, why not keep going? It keeps my throat muscles strong. When God calls me, I’ll say thank you.” He prays every night, “usually in bed, at times on my knees to ask for health for the family and security”. Security? He’s a healthy, wealthy star. “Everyone’s a little insecure. Anything can happen. Nothing’s written in blood.
“I have nerves, which is a good sign. Butterflies give you an edge and are part of the attraction to me. I never do the same old thing. Songs remain but I always add something fresh. I perform in Las Vegas every year, which is good because I stay in one place for three months.”
He balks at being called a crooner. “If someone knows about music, they put me in the right category. I’m an entertainer, a contemporary singer, with a range of three and a half octaves. Crooners have one octave.”
He started as a saxophonist, and played in nightclubs during his teens until, at 17, he says, “I discovered the instrument in my throat. It was quite a surprise which changed my life.”
At 18 he did National Service in the Army. “I had a wonderful time, carried on singing, but had to stop for a while in 1961 when I had tuberculosis. I never thought of giving up although I was turned down many times. I learned the first condition of communication is the willingness to take rejection. However much I was refused, I kept knocking on doors until one opened.”
That happened in 1965 when Gordon Mills, a former roommate, and manager of Tom Jones, suggested he change his name from Gerry Dorsey to Engelbert Humperdinck, an obscure 19th-century German composer of operas [Hansel and Gretel]. Many might have suspected a joke.
“I thought it was a bit strange, but when you’re starving and someone says you’ll be a success if you use this name, you don’t argue. People played around with it, called me ‘Pumpernickle’, but at least they were talking about me. Today I can sign it just as easily as ‘Harry Bloggs’.”
In 1967, the same year Sandie Shaw won Eurovision with Puppet on a String, he recorded Release Me, a hit around the world. “That would be impossible today. There are too many things happening, and it’s difficult to have a world hit. Adele is one of the few people who has that capability. She has magic.”
His generation has longevity. “That’s because of our apprenticeship. It was tough. You worked in small places. Today young people with great talent are exposed to millions. The X Factor is manufactured, but it’s produced very well and gives them a chance to get off the ground quickly. If they fade, it’s their fault.
“I don’t know if they’re exploited. Those who get through have a fair degree of talent, and it gives the public something to do, as does Eurovision, but you have to learn to stand in front of an audience for two hours – some of whom have far more intelligence than you. Yet you hold them in the palm of your hand, let them escape from everyday reality, and let them down gently.”
He’s been married since 1964 to Patricia Healey, a former showjumper, and has four children and nine grandchildren. He’s allegedly admitted to 3,000 lovers and there have been paternity accusations and law suits.
“We’ve had our ups and downs. My wife once said I’d had more paternity suits than mattresses. She was trying to hit back at me at the time, and rightly so. I had opportunities, but that’s all over. It’s a form of growing up. You think the grass is greener, or maybe one of your senses has been tampered with. But it rights itself. I wasn’t completely on the line, but we never thought of splitting up. It’s been worth it. My wife is a lovely lady who I adore. I’m very happily married.
“I suppose I was a hellraiser. I enjoyed a drink, although it never got out of hand. I only did drugs for my health – antibiotics. I know that’s unusual but you learn from the mistakes of others. If you want to survive and see your children and grandchildren, you have to use your head. I smoked grass once, at a friend’s bachelor party: I laughed and ate everything in sight, and a friend threw up, which really put me off.
Several contemporaries have been knighted. “I don’t know if I’ve been passed by. It’s not up to me. If the time is right, and I’m called, I’d gladly accept. My turn has not yet come. Apparently you have to say what you do for charity, and I am a silent donor.”
He’s not the oldest contestant in Eurovision. Six Russian grandmothers, Buranovshki Babuski, have a combined age of 400, including Natalya Pugacheva who is said to be a year older than Humperdinck, singing Party for Everybody. “I haven’t heard it yet. Is it good?” he asks.
Bloc voting among friendly nations, which apparently exasperated Terry Wogan so much he stopped even his jokey compering in 2009, doesn’t worry him. “If the song is good enough, sir, and is put over in the right manner, with a sincere format, voters will be intelligent. We’ll see what happens.”
This is an edited version of an article that was first published in the Radio Times (26 May – 1 June)