by Bill Kopp
Romantic singer Engelbert Humperdinck is one of the most beloved singers in modern times. He’s also one of the most prolific, with more than 100 albums released between his 1967 debut and today. His latest release, 2023’s All About Love shows that time has not diminished the skills nor appeal of the Madras-born and London-raised singer. Today at age 87, Humperdinck still maintains a busy concert touring schedule, and there’s a new documentary film chronicling his life and career. Ahead of a North American tour that takes him back and forth across the continent (including a January 13 date at the Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks, NV, Humperdinck spoke with Rock On about his enduring passion for music and performance.
On All About Love, you manage the neat trick of sounding contemporary without pandering to trends. Do you personally choose the songs?
Well, I’ll be honest with you: no. My producer [Jurgen Korduletsch] brings the songs to me, and he asks me, “Do you think you’d like this?” He says, “I think these are going to be good for you,” and I listen to them, because he’s the man who’s making it happen for me. And I say, “Well, some of them.” There are some that he brings to me that I throw out. I pick the songs I think that would be appropriate, and we work together on it.
On this particular one, all the arrangements were done in Nashville with Nashville musicians, and I wasn’t there. I would have loved to have been there. It worked all right, but I’d rather have been there with him. As I do with everything that I do in life, I like to put my little input in every now and again. I like to have my finger on every project, but this particular one, [Jordan] did it on his own. And it worked out.
When there’s a song that’s suggested and you decide for one reason or another that you don’t care to do it, what kind of reasons figure into that equation?
If I listen to it, and I don’t think it suits my style, I just say, “It’s a ‘no’ on this one, but this one looks good.” I’m very particular.
When you sing a song that has already been a hit for another artist – which is the case with several of the songs on this new album – how much notice do you take of the style in which the song was cut before?
I just give it my own stamp. And it’s very hard to do, mind you. It’s very hard to do after somebody else [puts their] stamp and style on it, but I do.
I’m singing a lot differently now than I did when I first began; my style has really changed a lot, because I’m growing rather than standing still. And the way I read into a lyric now is differently than I did before, because a lot of things have transpired in my life that have been a bit hard. For instance, I lost my wife [Patricia, in 2021]. And so, when I read a lyric now, it’s a lot different. Her image always comes into my head and my heart. So it comes out a lot differently.
With regard to music, I sometimes think of method actors, even though that’s a very different thing from singing. They immerse themselves in the character that they’re playing. And I wonder if that approach would have value for a ballad singer. Your songs always seem to completely convey the mood that they contain. When there’s a session, do you do any kind of emotional preparation ahead of singing a particular song to get into that headspace?
I consider myself a thespian of song. Because I think you have to be. Like an actor, you have to read your lines the way it’s written. And like an actor, it comes through your eyes and through the expression of your face and your body language and all those things that go along with portraying your subject matter.
And that’s what I do on stage now. I live the part, and then you can see it in my expression. You don’t have to move a lot. An actor, if he moves like this, he goes out of the shot. And it’s the same thing when you’re on stage. You have to let [the audience] recognize your moves, and the more you are steady, the more you get across, I think. When you’re moving around, it’s for a different kind of song; not for a ballad, not for something you’re telling a story with.
Following on from that, do you ever find yourself overcome by the emotion of a particular song?
Many times, yes. As a matter of fact, I wrote a song for my wife about 30 years ago called “Everywhere I Go” [on 1993’s Yours – ed.] If you look it up and listen to it, you’ll understand what I mean with the lyrics, and it’s a wonderful arrangement by Bebu Silvetti. He did all these wonderful string arrangements for me – he did about six albums for me – and he did the arrangement for that particular one.
Since my wife has been gone, I sing “Everywhere I Go” in my show. I dedicate the song to her, and there’s many a night that I don’t get through it. It’s one of those things.
I would imagine that you take the audience with you on that emotional journey…
Yeah, I do see people weeping in the audience. And it’s something you can’t put on. It just happens, you know? There are nights when it won’t happen, but the majority of shows that I do, it does get me, because it was written for her. And it gets me.
You’ve been on stage countless times. To what degree are you able to get a sense of how the audience is reacting to your performance, and how does that factor into what you’re doing in real time?
Well, you can see the front rows. You can [see] what’s happening in the first few rows, and you can judge from that, what is happening throughout the audience.
Sometimes it’s rather surprising to the performer, like me, who sees the reaction of what takes place in an audience. Sometimes, when I’m singing a particular song, I can look down and see somebody reach over and touch the person’s hand and squeeze them, or put their arm around them. And it’s just amazing to see what transpires during a performance. It’s rather wonderful to think that you are responsible for that, actually.
There’s a new documentary, Engelbert Humperdinck: The Legend Continues. What can you tell me about it?
Well, I haven’t watched many documentaries in my life, but I watched this one because it’s about me! I did it a few years ago, and it was rather shocking, actually, because there were many touching moments in it that made me cry.
And I also was shocked at the fact that I must’ve been going through some trauma at that particular time, because I was 40 pounds heavier than I am today. It’s shocking to watch myself in that state, you know? When I look at myself today, I’m 200 pounds. At that particular time, it was in the middle of my wife’s illness and having to deal with doing my work plus the worry of what’s going on at home, you know? It was a hard time.
Are there any surprises in the film for audiences?
Well, they’ll see footage that they’ve never seen before about my children and growing up. They’ll see me talk about my life in a way that I’ve never done before. You see my humble beginnings, you know? It takes me back to the place where I first began, when I lived in a flat in Hammersmith, London. It had no carpet, no curtains, no light bulbs or lamp shades, and very [few] chairs to sit on. And it took me back to that era. I remember those wonderful days.
“The Hungry Years," you know, which I had joy in singing, and it brought all sorts of memories back. If you listen to “The Hungry Years” [from 1976’s After the Lovin’], which I had joy in singing, it’s really my life story. I feel as though Neil Sedaka wrote it for me, but he didn’t. He wrote it for himself, so he must’ve been going through the same thing in his beginning.
Plenty of artists who’ve had successful careers retire when they’re 20 years younger than you are now. What motivates you to keep recording and performing?
It’s the passion I have. I don’t consider my job as work. When I walk on stage, it’s just a passion. It’s not hard work for me, not at all. I just love what I do, so therefore the passion strengthens my whole being. I just feel good about it.
If I didn’t want to perform, I wouldn’t get that feeling. But I love it. I love the performance, I love the reaction. And my audience feeds me with the passion that I love to portray.