The last waltz? In praise of Engelbert Humperdinck

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Who says we don't love him any more? The perma-tanned 1970s idol is our best Eurovision hope for years

Since Jemini's "nul points" in 2003, the UK has rather floundered when it comes to selecting the act to best represent it at the Eurovision Song Contest. The picked-by-the-public pop-rap of Daz Sampson barely scraped the top 20 in 1996. The X Factor-sanctioned Andy Abraham fared even worse in 2008. And while last year's decision to turn to an established boy band looked like a banker for a return to the glory days of, er, Jessica Garlick (the last British act to make the top three, in 2002), the boys from Blue failed to crack the top 10 and limped away complaining about "political voting".

So, to whom can the nation turn to revive our hopes and return our sense of musical pride? Step forward Engelbert Humperdinck, the sideburned 1970s legend who boasts the added advantage of not – as many might not have guessed before the BBC's announcement last week – being dead.

You remember the Hump. "Please release me..." and all that. Kept the Beatles' "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever" off the No 1 slot in 1967. He of the 63 gold and 24 platinum records representing sales of 150 million units. He of the perma-tan, the shoe-polish-black birds'-nest pompadour and the name stolen from a German composer. But there is more to Humperdinck than that, and the grand age of 75 seems like the perfect time to reappraise this performer we presume to know, ahead of the glare of the Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan on 26 May.

Pop may be a fickle industry, but Humperdinck is an all-round entertainer. So, where has he been for these past few decades?

Well, there's the 150 or so performances a year that thrill audiences from Russia to Canada – taking in Dubai, Chile and Romania (he is still said to have the world's biggest fan club). There's the house in LA, with the heart-shaped swimming pool, that used to belong to Jayne Mansfield. There's the country pile in Leicestershire that was built for the Duchess of Hamilton. And, when all that gets dull, there's the golf, there's always the golf....

But there is also, as befitting a man who has seen such highs, still fire in the belly, and if that fire ever thought to slowly splutter out, then all it took was a glance over his shoulder at the career rebirth of Tom Jones to spark it into life again.

In the golden days of light entertainment, Humperdinck and Jones shared a manager, Gordon Mills. It was Mills who suggested the outrageous moniker when Hump could find no success with the name Gerry Dorsey. When things got really competitive, Humperdinck sacked Mills, feeling there was too much focus being put on Jones. Yet, Humperdinck told this paper in 2001: "I'm not the jealous sort and things haven't been bad for me. There is no place in the world where I can't work."

And work he has, with the results ranging from a song called "Lesbian Seagull" for the 1996 film Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, to a TV advert for John Smith's Bitter that saw the comedian Peter Kay talk at a crucial point during one of Hump's concerts in 2004. Then, just when you think you know Engelbert Humperdinck, you discover that he chose Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" as one of his Desert Island Discs, and is particularly proud of his 1999 CD, The Dance Album, which featured versions of his hits refracted through the lens of the remix production team Thunderpuss 2000.

And, finally, in 2009, there came the chance of that Tom Jones-style rebirth. Damon Albarn, then recording the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach, wanted some guest vocals and pitched the idea to the Hump's management – but they said no without even consulting the "talent". "I don't like to give people what they've already seen," Humperdinck wrote in 1992, and the Gorillaz collaboration was exactly the kind of chance he'd been waiting for. Livid, he sacked his team and has since been managed by his son, Scott. "I'd really like to rekindle that suggestion. Hopefully they will ask me again. My son will definitely say yes," he told an Australian radio station, when the dust had settled.

But while he's waiting for Albarn to call back, there is always the Eurovision Song Contest. In a break from recording his new CD with "a lot of fantastic young, hip and surprising collaborations", Humperdinck will sing a song penned for him by his current producer Martin Terefe and the Ivor Novello Award-winning Sacha Skarbek, whose CV boasts work with Adele and Lana Del Rey, as well as a co-writer credit on James Blunt's global smash "You're Beautiful".

So can Humperdinck succeed where so many others have failed? The conspiratorial-minded may say he has only been chosen because his enduring popularity in Eastern Europe may put an end to the "Bloc voting" that has stymied the UK's chances of late, but we prefer to agree with Katie Taylor, the BBC's head of entertainment and events, who gushed: "Not since the 1970s have we had such an established international musical legend represent the nation."

That, and the fact that Tom Jones probably wasn't available.

Five more smooth operators

Val Doonican, 85

Having performed comic Irish ditties on BBC radio, Doonican made his name with a spot on Sunday Night at the London Palladium in 1963. Soon the grandpa-jumper-wearing crooner was hosting his own TV programme, The Val Doonican Show. It went on for 24 years – no wonder he needed a rest in that rocking chair – and attracted 19 million viewers. Today, he's retired, and enjoys – what else? – playing golf.

Des O'Connor, 80

The other perma-tanned light entertainer shows no signs of slowing down, in professional or private life. He's fronted a primetime TV show for 45 consecutive years; recorded 36 albums; performed at the London Palladium more than a thousand times. Last autumn, he joined the cast of the West End musical Dreamboats and Petticoats. He's also on his fourth wife, Jodie Brooke Wilson, 37 years younger than her octogenarian hubbie.

Max Bygraves, 89

He released scores of albums, appeared in countless variety shows, and presented a raft of TV programmes, including Family Fortunes. But in 1987, the clean image slipped a bit when it was revealed that he'd twice fathered love children; his wife, Blossom, stood by him. They moved to Australia for health reasons a few years ago, with Bygraves checking into the same care home to be close to Blossom at the end of her life.

Roger Whittaker, 75

This cheesy crooner, with a penchant for whistling, has proved popular around the world, shifting 50 million records off the back of Seventies hits such as "New World in the Morning" and "The Last Farewell". No new material these days, but greatest-hits collections still emerge.

Tony Christie, 68

Christie has shifted 10 million records, thanks to such numbers as "I Did What I Did for Maria". Now best known for "(Is This the Way to) Amarillo", which received a boost in popularity/loathing after being re-released with a video starring comedian Peter Kay for Comic Relief 2005. Christie's 19th studio album – Now's the Time! – released last year, featured Jarvis Cocker and Roisin Murphy.

Holly Williams

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