Michele Hewitson Interview: Engelbert Humperdinck

By Michele Hewitson

He's 77, still on the road - and he still loves being the star he's been since 1967 ... which makes it easy for everyone else to love him too

Engelbert Humperdinck's life has been peppered with "little happenings", but his wife has forgiven him and he knows love is stronger than jealousy. Photo / Chris Gorman
Engelbert Humperdinck's life has been peppered with "little happenings", but his wife has forgiven him and he knows love is stronger than jealousy. Photo / Chris Gorman

The main thing to know about Engelbert Humperdinck is that he enjoys every minute of being Engelbert Humperdinck - and who wouldn't?

It looks a jolly jape, a glorious romp, which has been going on since 1967, the year he became famous. I didn't need to ask. If you were him, you'd remember the year too.

That is not the year that his manager persuaded him to change his name from Arnold Dorsey. Persuaded? I had thought he must have thought his manager had lost his marbles; it is a name filched from a 19th century German composer. But, no. "I thought it had enough letters. You know, it was massive on the marquee."

That was in 1965. In 1967, Release Me came out, "and the Beatles brought out Penny Lane at the same time and it was going to be their 13th Number One and it never got to Number One because this little guy from Leicester stayed at Number One and was in the charts for 56 weeks ...

and it was Number One in 11 countries and it gave me a global career. Immediately."

How amazing! "Yes, it was." Does he still pinch himself? "I do! Oh, I do!"

I was inclined to give myself a good pinch because seeing Engelbert Humperdinck is an experience unlike any other, even on the bizarre planet that is the celebrity interview.

There was an entourage - a bloke from the record company, his American tour manager, Tim, who thanked me effusively several times for coming, and a bodyguard. The really weird thing is that they were all sweethearts.

Still, I have no idea why he needed a bodyguard whose only job on the day involved instructing the tour manager to move a glass of wine out of shot for the final photo - despite it having been in all of the many other photos. Somebody did once shoot at The Hump's limo, but that was a long time ago. I suggested the shooter might have been one of his ladies; he thought it might have been the jealous husband of a fan.

Anyway, perhaps he now has a bodyguard in case hordes of over-enthusiastic ladies descend on him, waving knickers. You'd think, at 77 and with hearing aids, he might be a bit past it. I did ask, euphemistically, whether he was well-behaved these days. He said: "These days I am surely a very, very nice well-behaved gentleman."

I was glad to hear it. His wife, Patricia, to whom he has, miraculously, you'd think, been married for almost 50 years, once said he'd had so many paternity suits you could wallpaper a room with them. Has he really? "Yes. Quite true." How many? "Oh, lots. They used to come in flowers they handed to me on stage." No! "Oh, yeah. Oh, God yeah. I had lawyers around the clock."

And what did Patricia have to say about all of this? "Well, she knew the kind of business I was in lends itself to those sorts of, ah, happenings. It's a very difficult business to be in. Really difficult. You think, you know, 'You've got one life' and all of a sudden there are moments of temptation that are so strong that sometimes you just cannot refuse ... This is all part and parcel of growing up. I'm not the only one who's been in that position. I think most people, if they're honest, have been in the same position, you know, and have been tempted in life."

And did he always own up to the, ah, happenings to Patricia? "Umm. Sometimes."

He says she is a lovely and very charming person and has been "very understanding from the get-go about every little happening, shall we say?"

All I can conclude is that she must be very long-suffering and beyond good-natured. I wonder whether he'd have been similarly inclined had she had flings, or whatever a "little happening" might be termed.

"It would have been a very difficult situation. But I think love is stronger than actions ... and I think that love finds its way to you. There may be jealousy, but the love is stronger. And if you truly love the person, even if you hurt them ... and they say you always hurt the one you love ..."

That sounds like an Humperdinck song, and it possibly is. I don't know if he sings to Patricia, but he says he is a romantic. When they sit at home and watch the telly, if she sits in another chair, he stretches his hand out to her and she stretches out hers to his and they sit there, holding hands and he says: "'You. You! I love you.' And she loves that. And so do I."

That is a very sweet scene to imagine (he made it easier to imagine by accompanying the narrative with actions) but I wasn't sure I had the definitive answer to my question about whether he behaves himself these days.

He said: "Allow me the privilege of keeping that to myself." I really should have, but he does have an image of the great romancer to keep up. And so: "Don't get me wrong. If I see a good-looking lady, I will flatter her, tell her she's good-looking or whatever. You know, I may be getting on, but I'm not dead yet."

There is absolutely no point getting your knickers in a moralistic twist about any of this. He says he has four legitimate children. He says he has "paid my dues" and financially supported two others, although he seems to have never really accepted that they are his.

I thought this was sad for them and possibly for him, too, but he pretty much shrugs that idea off. You just have to accept that he's The Hump and that if Patricia has, that's their business. I really did want to know, though, whether one of his happenings involved a Sunday School teacher because what can you think, except, Only The Hump ...

He said: "I can't remember that."

He can't be expected to remember everything. We met just after 10am. He'd arrived in Auckland from LA at 5.30am. Would he like a coffee? He thought he might have a "small libation" to wake him up. I said, a bit later, "You wouldn't be having a drink of wine at 10 in the morning at home, would you?"

He said: "I wouldn't what? What time is it here?" It's 10 o'clock in the morning. "No! No, I wouldn't. It's 10 minutes to four for me. I'm having my wine when I'm supposed to."

He said: "You're going to make this nice, aren't you? You're not going to make me look like ..."

No, of course I'm not going to make him look like a nutcase. He was a bit worried because I'd been asking about a dog he once had called Katy which could apparently sniff illness and would lick at people for hours, trying to lick the illness away. He said, aghast: "How do you know all this?"

It's on the internet, of course, as is the stuff about how he's a healer and sometimes puts his hands on people and sometimes makes their sickness go away. "You know, I don't want to get into that. People think you're crazy. But I do like to pray for people that are sick and sometimes they get better. It may be just coincidence or it may be God giving me the power to help people."

Katy, by the way, was a pug crossed with a Jack Russell. "It was a happening that happened. We had two dogs, called Bangers and Mash, and one of them did the dirty on another dog." What a naughty dog. "Yeah, well you know. It learnt from its master."

He is a terrible ham. He adores truly terrible jokes. Here are a couple. "Everybody thought my father was Russian. But he was just taking his time." And, "Do you know Dolly Parton? She's two of my best friends." He tells these groaners absolutely deadpan and I was so taken with the idea he knew Dolly Parton that I asked him what she was like and missed the joke entirely. So he told it again.

He'll tell you anything. Except anything about money. I thought he had about 100 million quid but he said he didn't talk about it because money wasn't important - as it might not be if you had even half of 100 million quid.

He showed me a picture, on his phone, of a statue of Jesus he has in the garden at his LA house. It sits under an arch which lights up at night and every night he goes out and lights candles for his beloved parents and his sister, who recently died (he is child number nine of 10 which might explain quite a lot) and for sick people.

He also has an incredible house in England with its own English pub, a red phone box and street signs; there is a Humperdinck Way.

He tells you things you hadn't even thought of asking: That he's been dying his hair since he went grey at 20 and that he dyes his famous sideburns too. He told me he was the first to have sideburns - everyone else, including Elvis, followed him. His manager, Gordon Mills, said: Shave them off. They look ridiculous. "And I said, 'Gordon, look, the reason I've got these on here is to give me an image' and then of course everybody made fun of me."

All the American talk show hosts had gags. The best was: "His sideburns are so long, he tucks them in his underwear and he's tickled to death."

He could go grey now, surely. "No. I love it. I love looking in the mirror and saying to myself: 'Not bad!"'

Did he also think: "I'm a sex symbol."

"Well, you tell me how many people can guess my age? If you saw me for the first time, right now, would you say I was the age I am?" I said: "You look exactly the same age as when I saw you last."

I last saw him 13 years ago and I had a very old bone to pick with him. He said he'd send me his new recording of Ten Guitars. He is very keen to get a Ten Guitars stamp while he is here, so somebody might send him one. I was still waiting for my CD. This sent everyone into a spin. "Give me your card," he said. "I'm not the kind of person who would forget." His manager said: "He usually does not forget things like this."

And I believe them.

I can see why he's so adored by his fans - and, almost, why Patricia forgave him his little happenings. He so much loves being Engelbert Humperdinck that it's contagious - you can't help but love him too.

Engelbert Humperdinck plays one show at Vector Arena tonight. Tickets are available from Ticketmaster.

- NZ Herald

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