(Pictured: a summit meeting: Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, 1970.)
In the spring and early summer of 1967, when several legendary hits were atop the charts—“Respect,” “Groovin’,” Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music,” and the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”—riding high with them was an MOR ballad by a singer with a weird name. “Release Me” by Engelbert Humperdinck peaked at #4 on the Hot 100 in June, and hit #1 in Boston, Providence, Detroit, Buffalo, Toronto, Milwaukee, Houston, Winnipeg, Hartford, and smaller cities, including LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where it was #1 for five straight weeks at WLCX.
Engelbert Humperdinck was not born Engelbert Humperdinck. His birth name was Arnold George Dorsey. He was born in India, the son a British military officer stationed there. In the early 50s, he became known professionally as Gerry Dorsey, thanks to a popular Jerry Lewis impression he did on stage. At some point around 1965, pop impresario Gordon Mills, who managed Tom Jones, suggested he adopt the name Engelbert Humperdinck, which had once belonged to a real human being, a German opera composer who had died in 1921. Odd as it was, the name must have helped him cut through the clutter of the 1960s music scene in England. “Release Me,” an oft-recorded country song that dated back to the 1940s, ended up a #1 hit in 11 different countries, including six weeks at #1 in the UK, where it held the Beatles’ double-A sided “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” out of the top spot.
Despite the massive success of “Release Me” on the Hot 100, it made only #28 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart. But I suspect it gained new popularity on easy-listening radio over the next four years, because Engelbert’s next 11 singles, through 1971, all made the Easy Listening Top 10. Two went to #1: the very Tom Jones-like “Am I That Easy to Forget” in 1968, and “When There’s No You” in 1971. Two others went to #2. Of those 11 singles, all made the Hot 100, and four of them climbed into the Top 20. Some elderly readers might know “A Man Without Love” and/or “The Last Waltz.”
A lot of people who enjoyed Tom Jones would have been primed for Engelbert, although his style was cooler and less histrionic. He could sing softly in your ear but also step back from the microphone and blow the roof off the studio. (He is said to have said, “I can hit notes a bank could not cash.”) His rugged good looks didn’t hurt his career, either. They helped get him a TV variety series, produced for a British channel and seen in the States on ABC in 1969.
While getting a TV series often signals a decline in a performer’s fortunes on the record chart, it didn’t happen to Engelbert right away. It was 1972 before his hits ceased to be quite as big as they had been, although he would hit the Adult Contemporary chart in every year through 1981. Only two of his singles in that period were big hits, but both went to #1 AC: “After the Lovin'” and “This Moment in Time.” “After the Lovin'” became his biggest pop hit since “Release Me,” going to #8 on the Hot 100 early in 1977. It got a little bit of country radio airplay too, as did later singles “Love’s Only Love” and “Til You and Your Lover Are Lovers Again.” The latter, in 1983, was Engelbert’s last chart single.
Between 1967 and 1970, Engelbert was also a success on the album chart. Three of his albums made the Top 10 of the Billboard 200, and two more peaked at #12. (His album Release Me was in my parents’ record collection.) At the end of the 70s, three more albums would reach the Top 10, including his two highest-charting: Christmas Tyme in 1977 and This Moment in Time in 1979 would both make #4.
When we tell the story of the late 60s, we’re more likely to talk about Aretha Franklin and the Jefferson Airplane than we are about Engelbert Humperdinck. But he was there, too, and people dug what he did. His late 60s and 70s success made him one of the superstars of easy listening, and it gave him a career that continues today. Since the early 80s he has continued to record, repackage and reissue his library, and tour, including frequent residencies in Las Vegas, right up until the virus crisis took everybody off the road earlier this year. Engelbert Humperdinck is now 84 years old.