Swinging London in the spring of 1967 was a feverish hot house of British big beat, the very latest mod fashions and a burgeoning psychedelic culture. Music was ruled by the Rolling Stones and Beatles, yet in the Ides of March saw a version of the 20-year-old country & western standard "Please Release Me" roar to the top of the UK charts and remain there for six weeks. The singer was, of course, Engelbert Humperdinck and the record ignited one of the most extraordinary careers in pop music.
Humperdinck, who appears at Burbank's Starlight Bowl on Sunday, August 4, had been working British clubs as both a saxophonist and singer for several years prior to "Please Release Me," but nothing had made significant impact.
"In my early days I sang rock stuff, but the career didn't kick until '67," Humperdinck said in a recent telephone conversation. "My first manager was Gordon Mills, who I'd met right at the beginning, we shared a flat in London and traveled with rock bands doing one-nighters. Later he became a songwriter and manager whose stable was Tom Jones, Gilbert O'Sullivan and myself. Gordon gave me the stage name and stamped my style as being a ballad singer and it was not a bad choice, because after he took me on: bingo!"
"Please Release Me," which ultimately sold over 1.38 million copies and is certified as one of the biggest singles of all time, effectively blocked the Beatles "Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields" from the top spot, ending a nonstop run of a dozen consecutive Fabs chart toppers.
"That's in the Guinness Book of World Records," he said. "And for me to stop the Beatles from having their 12th number one was quite a coup."
From that point on, Humperdinck, born Arnold George Dorsey on May 2, 1936, pumped out one classic hit ballad after another. His rich, warm, honey-toned vocals breathed electrifying new life into such familiar country titles as "There Goes My Everything" and "Am I That Easy to Forget?" and shrewdly exploiting the Continental appeal of songs like "Quando, Quando Quando" and "A Man Without Love (Quando M'Innamoro)." He employed an unusual mixture of heavy gauge masculinity and an almost vulnerable sensitivity, creating a gender simpatico style with which men could instantaneously identify yet unfailingly sent women into a deep state of swoon.
His arrival in America quickly brought Humperdinck some impressive new alliances. "The man who became a big influence in my life was Dean Martin. He started my career in Las Vegas," Humperdinck said. "When I came to Las Vegas, he put his name on the marquee: 'Dean Martin presents Engelbert Humperdinck.' And I'm the only one he ever did that for."
Another notable friendship was with the King of rock 'n' roll. "Elvis," Humperdinck slowly rolled the name over his tongue. "Ah — the man. One of the most gracious people I ever met, as a performer, a singer and as a person. When we first met, he didn't shake my hand, he hugged me. I learned so much from watching him. He had such humility, and as big as he was, he didn't take it seriously, he made fun of himself."
Humperdinck has rolled through the ensuing decades like a steamroller, breaking important new ground with his 1976 classic "After the Lovin'," the double-platinum certified hit which earned him one of his four Grammy nominations and was named the "most played juke box record" of the year. The 1980s saw him get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Golden Globe "Entertainer of the Year" Award.
In the 1990s, pop culture kept the singer a relevant presence with his inclusion on the "Beavis and Butthead Do America" movie soundtrack (with, would you believe, "Lesbian Seagull"?) and up-to-date raver "The Dance Album," a 1999 set of remixes from the hand of U.K. duo Thunderpuss 2000.
At 76, he is still going strong. "What's happening now is, I'm doing this new project, a duet album," Humperdinck said. "I wrote to friends like Sir Elton John, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and asked them to join me, and each of them reciprocated in a wonderful way, and now it's almost done, but people keep wanting to join in — I just heard from Gene Simmons and we're going to get together very soon and record."
"I just got back from a long trip to New Zealand and Australia, before that I was in Russia, played St. Petersburg. I had a wonderful tour, very successful and, also, wonderful reviews," he added. "So, after 46 years in the industry, I'm still traipsing around the world, doing my thing. And it's still a thrill."
Where: Starlight Bowl, 1249 Lockheed View Drive, Burbank
When: Sunday, August 4; 6 p.m.
Cost: Pre-sale tickets are $35-$55 with limited $75 VIP available
More info: (818) 238-5300, http://www.starlightbowl.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of "Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox" and "Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story."