Photo by Christie Goodwin/Redferns via Getty Images
He’s the much-loved crooner from Leicester with a career spanning almost six decades and a legion of adoring fans. Yet on his first date, when he was just 17 and before he was known as Engelbert Humperdinck, the object of his affections ran away when she heard him sing. Jane Graham spoke to him before his UK tour was cancelled for this week’s Letter To My Younger Self. He hopes to reschedule dates for next year.
I left school when I was 15 and I had to take an apprenticeship in an engineering factory. I hated it, but it was my father’s wish that I should have a good engineering job. I did it for about a year but my wish was to be in showbusiness. I didn’t know at the age of 16 that I was going to be a singer though.
It was a year later, when I was 17, that I got up and sang in a club and people liked it. I just got up and sang, because I had courage after having a pint of beer, which I shouldn’t have had. The people stood up, and they never did that when I played the saxophone. Then they came over and asked, who’s your agent? I said, I’m not in showbiz. So that gave me a signal. I thought to myself, I must follow this up. So I started singing in working men’s clubs.
Subscribe to The Big Issue
From just £3 per week
Take a print or digital subscription to The Big Issue and provide a critical lifeline to our work. With each subscription we invest every penny back into supporting the network of sellers across the UK.
A subscription also means you'll never miss the weekly editions of an award-winning publication, with each issue featuring the leading voices on life, culture, politics and social activism.
I grew up very reserved. I was very shy as a young boy – extremely shy. When I was very young, the only way I could sing for my family was if I was behind the curtain or under a table or behind the door. My first date – my one and only first date – was when I was 17.
We went to the park and she asked me what I did, and I said I’m going to be a singer. And she said, will you sing a song to me? I said, I will if I can turn my back. I turned my back and I sang this song Wanted – “Wanted / someone to kiss me / and hold me closely”. Then I turned around, and she’d gone. She skedaddled. That’s the one and only date I had, because I had to go into the army when I was 18.
If you met me when I was 16 you wouldn’t think much of me. I was pretty much a loner. When other kids used to go and play in the street or go to the park for a cricket match, I would be home alone studying my saxophone or for my exams. The kids in the street never came to call for me like they used to call for my brother, so I felt left out. But I didn’t mind that because I had other things on my mind, thingsI wanted to fulfil in my life.
Being in the army from age 18 to 20 made me more manly. I was still shy, but I was more capable of handling my personality. I thought it was very good for me, it really brought me out of my shell. My father was an army man so it wasn’t new to me to join the service. I loved the two years that I did and it made me a better person.
I come from a family of 10. So my father had his own battalion to command! And he did a great job – he brought us all up very well. When I didn’t become an engineer it upset him a little but when I was successful as a singer he was so proud of me. Because I took his name and my new name around the world [for his first decade as a singer he was known as Gerry Dorsey, before changing his name to Engelbert Humperdinck in 1965]. He was very proud of that.
I was determined to be a singer but my nerves were pretty bad. I was brought up in a very strict fashion, and therefore there was always some kind of a fear that if I didn’t do something right, I’d be punished. Not severely, but I’d be reprimanded for it. At school I couldn’t learn because I was a dreamer. My head would be staring out the window instead of staring at the page I was supposed to be reading. I was daydreaming, looking at the future before it really happened for me. And I suffered for that, because when success came along I wasn’t able to handle the business side of it.
I started courting at the age of 20, with my darling wife whom I lost recently [Patricia Healey died in February after contracting Covid-19]. My father used to say to her, tell him to get a proper job. And she said, Dad, he’ll do what he wants to do. He is a very stubborn person. He wants to be in showbusiness and he’s going to keep trying until he gets in. Of course it took a few years – it was 1967 before I had a hit song, Release Me. But it went to number one all around the world, and it gave me a global career. That song carried me through my life. I’ve had many, many, many hits since then. From 1967 to 1974 I sold 120 million albums. I’m so thankful to be in showbusiness because music has given me a passport to the world and I’ve been able to go around it several times. It’s just a wonderful vocation.
It’s always too late to say, ‘I wish I’d known then what I know now.’ My advice to my younger self would be: listen to what your parents say – studying is the most important thing. Get educated, and your life will be easier. Don’t get taken in like I was taken. Ignorance is a terrible thing and I regret to say that my ignorance caused a lot of heartache in my life. I lost fortunes, my dear. Fortunes. [It was alleged that, unbeknown to him, Humperdinck’s longtime manager Gordon Mills used millions of pounds of his earnings to pay off gambling debts in the 1960s]. I’d say to younger me: make sure you know what’s good, put it down on paper and make it legal.
I didn’t really understand a lot about what was going on when I first got successful and that’s probably one of the reasons why I’m not a better man now. I was in a company that owned so many things – hotels and marinas and aeroplanes and the Burger Kings. I had to renege all that to get out of my management policy. I had to start all over again. The man who did that to me is no longer around. God took him. But thank god I’m still here, and still making a good living. [Humperdinck has variously been estimated to have a net worth of £67 million, £100m and even £135m]. I’m touring again and I’m enjoying what I do. I don’t work as hard as I used to. At one time I was doing 300 concerts a year. Now I’m just doing about 80 or 90. But I want to keep going until God calls me.
We need your urgent support
Support The Big Issue Winter Appeal
Big Issue vendors can’t work from home and with severe weather warnings on the cards, they face a very tough and uncertain Winter period ahead.
I have many happy memories of my parents. Whenever I appeared in my home town of Leicester they came to see me, and there was a time when I took them to see me in Las Vegas. It was wonderful to see my mother and father stand up in a booth and take a bow, and my mother waved a little handkerchief. It was just an amazing time for me, a time I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
I’ve had many idols in my life, and I got to meet quite a few of them, like Elvis. I’ve met presidents and I’ve met lots of people. But the one person I would have loved to have met and had a conversation with is the great John Wayne. As a kid I often watched the western movies and I was a big fan. I just felt that this man had everything. I just loved him as a person. I’ve met people like James Stewart, Edward G Robinson – all these people. But I never met John Wayne.
I considered my wife my soulmate. She was very instrumental in my early years. She supported me a great deal. I think at this time, now, she would want me to do what I do best. So I’m back to touring. And I’m doing it for her. It’s going to be very, very difficult. Because most of my songs are very touching and have lyrics that are very heartfelt. They all have a new reading now as far as I’m concerned. It’s going to be hard, but I’ve got to have the ability to fulfil the rest of my life in this way.
I’m not so nervous now because I have experience in life, but before I walk on stage I’m still nervous. My hands are cold. My feet are cold on the ground. I’m hitting notes backstage that nobody can hear out there, on and on until they mention my name. Then I walk on and there’s five minutes of nerves and it all goes away. That’s where I feel safe now, when I’m on stage. Because that is something I’ve wanted all my life and I’ve been given the opportunity and I take advantage of it and I feel safe. My stage is my platform of joy.