Earlier this year, Marvel’s Oscar Isaac-starring Moon Knight series premiered with an episode prominently featuring Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1968 top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, “A Man Without Love (Quando m’innamoro)” But for the British pop veteran, a more apt moniker might be “A Man Without Age.”
At 86, Humperdinck – born Arnold George Dorsey in India – retains his attentive amiability, his humor, a full head of hair and a busy global touring schedule. Speaking to Billboard over Zoom, Humperdinck gamely walks us through the wall behind him, which is covered in pieces commemorating the highs and lows from a career that dates back to the late ’50s — everything from certificates of honorary citizenship to painfully inadequate royalty checks from his pre-fame career, all of which he presents with a genial laugh.
Incredibly, Humperdinck’s vocal abilities have remained as robust as his hair through the years, which his new video — “You’re the First, The Last, My Everything,” a country-tinged version of the Barry White single from 1974 – testifies to. A preview of his upcoming album, the single speaks volumes about the quality of his pipes. That being said, Humperdinck doesn’t have any secrets to vocal cord longevity – or at the very least, he’s not sharing them. “I haven’t had a singing lesson in my life. The only music I ever studied was at the beginning of my life when I studied the saxophone, when I thought I wanted to be a saxophone player. That didn’t turn out; this one took over,” he says, pointing to his throat. “I’m happy it did.”
As he readies a new album, the traditionalist pop pro talked to Billboard about the ups and downs of his remarkable career, meeting the power couple who put his music in Moon Knight and his friendship with Elvis Presley during their respective Las Vegas residencies — not to mention the one thing his pal Elvis kinda-sorta stole from him.
Let’s rewind all the way back. Who were the singers you looked up to growing up?
Nat King Cole was one of them. I like the way he took a lyric and caressed it and made it his own. Actually, one of the first records I ever bought was for my girlfriend at the time, who turned out to be my wife, and it was “When I Fall In Love” by Nat King Cole.
When you listened to it, did you ever think, “I can do that.” Did you study his technique?
No. I never thought in that fashion. But I think beginners are subject to stealing from the best and using it to their own style, to get their style going a bit, to have a voice. My voice was ordinary at the beginning – you needed to develop it. And if you want to know how to develop it, you listen to others.
Speaking of that, you recorded under the name Gerry Dorsey for several years without hitting it big. What do you attribute that to – the wrong songs?
They were learning pages of my life. None of them were hits, obviously. None made it. To tell you the truth, what happened was I was down and out, in the pocket, didn’t have any money, and I went to my recording management and said, “Do you think you can give me an advance on my royalties?” He said, “You don’t have any.” I’ve got a check here, I’ll show you [picks up framed check]. This is one of my first royalties under my other name and it’s for five shillings and ten pence. In those days it would have been a couple of bucks. [laughs] I couldn’t survive on that.
Did you ever think about giving up?
No, I’m a go-getter and I never take no for an answer. The first condition of communication is the willingness to take rejection. And I took rejection many times. I auditioned so many places and I always heard the famous words, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” And they never do. I went through all that in my early life and it didn’t discourage me one bit. I just carried on knocking on doors.
When you adopted the name Engelbert Humperdinck and recorded your version of “Release Me (And Let Me Love Again)” in 1967, did it feel different? Did you know it would break through?
I felt it before I recorded it. Gordon Mills, who was manager at the time, was looking for a particular song for me to make my step in show business, and he found it on an instrumental by Frank Weir, who was a great soprano sax. I heard the melody and I loved it. I told him to find the lyric, we put it together and I played around with the song for a little while. I found an amazing key change we could use, I gave it to the arranger, Charles Blackwell, and he did an amazing arrangement which started my life. But not immediately. When we finally recorded the song “Release Me” and I heard the playback, I said to the people around me, “I’m gonna put my foot in my mouth, but I think this is a hit. I say it myself, I think it’s a hit.” It had all the qualities – a great arrangement, a great storyline – you needed to make a hit happen at the time. But it didn’t become a hit immediately. It sat on the shelf for three months, and this made me a little despondent until I got on a TV show called Sunday Night at the London Palladium. I went out there, I did my thing, sang three numbers and the last was “Release Me.” The very next day we started getting orders of 80,000 a day, 90,000 a day, and it went up to 127,000 a day. I know: I used to call up everybody and ask, “what did we do today?” That’s the excitement I had in the early part in my life when “Release Me” stepped into it.
So you followed the charts pretty closely?
Oh yes, I did. This one stayed on the charts for six weeks at No. 1 [in the U.K.] and it stopped the Beatles from having their 12th No. 1 with “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” I’m a big Beatles fan but nobody came along and stopped the almighty Beatles from No. 1.
Some of your masters were lost in the 2008 Universal vault fire. Did they ever reach out to tell you which ones were lost?
I don’t own my masters, I never owned them. It was Decca, Universal who owned it then. They had no business to talk to me about it. It’s theirs. But I was concerned, I wish they would have told me which ones.
Your 1968 hit “A Man Without Love” recently got a huge synch in the Marvel series Moon Knight. Was that a big surprise?
Massive, massive surprise. I’ll tell you the story of how I made “A Man Without Love.” I was playing the London Palladium and my manager said, “after the show we’re going to go to the studio and do this song that we hope will be your next single.” So we went down to the studio and I recorded it with a hand mic, it was the first I ever did with a hand mic, and it became a hit [No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the U.K. singles chart]. To think that all these years later it goes to No. 1 on… what chart, Shazam? And it did (re-)enter the Billboard charts, didn’t it?
Yes, it went No. 1 on Top TV Songs chart.
To this that all these years later it would come back into my life and cause a big stir, it’s amazing. You create a new audience with this Marvel show. And I had the pleasure of meeting the two people who thought about putting this song in the show in the first place. It’s a young lady who is from Egypt, Sarah Goher, and her husband Mohamed [Diab]. I had the pleasure of sitting down to a meal with them, and I got to know them quite well and I thanked them so sincerely for making this happen for me. She’s pretty much responsible for a lot of that music in the series. When she was young she used to listen to my music. She [said] it was like “music from the heavens.” She’s a very interesting lady to talk to and her husband is a brilliant man who directed the series. It’s an Italian melody. The lyric is from friend of mine, Barry Mason, who is no longer with us, he died a few months ago, which is sad to lose a talent like that. He’s responsible for songs like “The Last Waltz,” which is played in dance halls around the world. Les Reed and Barry Mason were two writers in my early years who did music like “Les Bicyclettes de Belsize,” “Love Is All,” many, many hits for me. I owe my early life and success to both of those wonderful people who are no longer with us anymore.
Do you have a good sense of what will be a hit or not?
You always get surprised when your song is a hit. I’ve had songs that didn’t make it and it’s very hurtful. You put all this work into it and there’s all these talented people that get involved and nothing happens. But that’s life; it’s a needle in a haystack.
Do you have any career regrets?
I had a good run. The only thing I really regret is the fact that in the early years I would have liked a more rounded career of being in the movies and things like that. I didn’t realize that my manager at the time wanted to keep his stable – his stable consisted of Tom Jones, Gilbert O’Sullivan and myself – he wanted to keep us on the road because it’s more capital in the company. That was his choice. I would have liked to be in show business because I consider myself a thespian of song. When I’m onstage I try to relate [to the song] as if it was a script I’m reading.
I can absolutely see that. You certainly have a thespian quality as you’re delivering your songs.
I was a bit of a dreamer. I thought to myself, “maybe if I start getting physical training, like martial arts, they might choose me as a James Bond.” And I did do martial arts – and it kept me in good shape – but I didn’t get the movies. I enjoy the early James Bond because it was tongue in cheek. They always had the little quips, the comedy stuff. I have a sense of humor and I think it might have worked for me.
So you joined TikTok after the big Moon Knight look. What are your thoughts on social media platforms?
I’m impressed with it. I love social media because in the early days you’d have to hire a PR person to do all your stuff. But right now, with TikTok, Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and YouTube, you’re out there all the time and people are involved in you. But some of the questions that people have asked me on TikTok: “Are you still in show business?” “Are you still singing?” [Laughs] Those are the people who don’t know I’m around.
So you do read the comments?
I do read the comments. I think it’s important to keep in touch with what they’re thinking about you and how you’re promoting yourself out there. Most of them are very complimentary. Social media is what makes me change my songs. People start suggesting things, so I would listen to it and think, “maybe they have a point.” I change [my set list] to give my audiences that come back over and over the chance to see something different.
Are there any younger singers now who impress you?
There are some great people out there right now. I’ll tell you how I keep up with what’s going on: I watch the programs The Voice, America’s Got Talent, things like that, and I listen to the songs they’re promoting. That’s how I keep up with my musical ideas. Those people know what they’re doing. One of my favorite people [right now] I met when he was five years old. I told him, “You’re gonna be a big star, a mega star.” He performed for me when he was five and he had a little Elvis suit on. You know who that was? Bruno Mars. He’s bigger now. I love him, I love what he does, he’s the whole package.
And you knew Elvis, of course. Have you seen the new movie about him?
No, I haven’t. The last movie I saw was Bullet Train, and of course, I have a song in there (“I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”). When the song is played, your name appears in the bottom in red, and I felt so proud of myself. It’s like seeing your name on the marquee for the first time again. It has kind of a Tarantino flair to it; it was quite good.
Elvis was one of my inspirations. When I was 18, I was in the service in Germany in the British army and who should be there at the same time — Elvis. Not where I was, but [also] in Germany. I used to play his music on the jukebox and little did I know that later on I would befriend this wonderful artist and wonderful man. I thought he was the best show business person I ever met in my life. I got to see him when we were working in Vegas. He would come over and see my show, I would go over and see his show. I said to him one time, “Elvis, I’m going to be recording some of your songs.” He said, “Don’t worry, pal, I’ve already recorded some of yours, too.” I did steal a few things from him on stage, the way he operates on stage, but he stole something from me: My sideburns. [laughs] I had my sideburns in ’65 and he put his on early ’70s. I told him that: I said, “Elvis, you stole my sideburns.” He said [adopts swaggering Elvis voice], “Well if it looks good on you, it’s gonna look good on me.”
What was your inspiration for those sideburns back then?
Nobody else was doing it when I started it. I remember my manager saying to me, “Why don’t you chop them off, they look stupid, they look crazy,” and I said, “Gordon I’m trying to create an image here.” And it worked! And later on people like Glen Campbell and Kenny Rogers grew the sideburns, including the Beatles.
What was Elvis like to watch in concert?
Just amazing. I never saw anybody put so much into his performances as he did. He had a good set of pipes and a mighty range. I think you have to see him to believe his records really work. He was unbelievable. And what I loved about him was his dress – he was always immaculately dressed. He gave his all.
What about you – do you still get a kick out of recording music and performing? You must if you’re still out there.
The only time I’m really happy is when I walk on stage. I’m really happy when I walk on stage. It’s the ultimate in my life. Songs mean that much more to me now and some of the lyrics because I lost my darling wife [in 2021] and the lyrics mean that much more to me now.