Please rethink me, let me be hip...

Interview: Engelbert Humperdinck

It might be hip to be square, and every performer has the chance to reinvent themselves. There is one exception: Engelbert Humperdinck. Thirty years ago "Release Me" kept the Beatles' "Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever" from reaching number one. But, asks Andrew G Gardner, why is he not cherished more in his home country?

According to Eng - and to be fair, according to his sales - E. Humperdinck is fantastically popular everywhere. Apart from the UK, that is. In America he is a hit with the MTV generation, receiving a double platinum award for "Lesbian Seagull", his song with Beavis and Butthead. He has also just finished a cameo in the US hospital drama Chicago Hope.

A dance version of one of his Sixties hits has hit number one in Australia and, having learnt Spanish, he is now a major star across Latin America.

Perhaps the time has come to re-examine Mr Humperdinck. He might be huge everywhere else, but the British public have certainly taken him at his word and "released him".

This week he started his British tour at the Brentwood Leisure Centre. As I queue up for my concert ticket, the couple in front are booking badminton courts. Next I'm led through a maze of corridors and past people running on treadmills to meet the legend in the flesh. Engelbert has such a sense of self-belief that he simply ignores his surroundings. He behaves as if his dressing rooms are permeated with the distinctive chlorine smell of public swimming baths.

Being almost destroyed by pills and booze has always been a good way of improving your credibility, as well as self-belief, and Engelbert Humperdinck trod that path in the Eighties: "I was very concerned about how much sleep I would get. I took sleeping pills to get enough rest and cope with my shows. After performing I would drink cognac. The combination was fatal, however I thought it was a crutch that was good for me. Fortunately I never took barbiturates or cocaine but I did drink a bottle a night of heavy-duty stuff. It made me very sluggish and my brain fuzz."

Engelbert finally stopped after being challenged by his father: "He said, `Son, you've got to stop all that nonsense.' Those were the truest words that were ever said because if I'd carried on I would have been dead today. I don't think I was an alcoholic, I was using booze as a crutch. I can still enjoy a glass of wine every night. I was not a total wipe- out - I didn't have to go to Betty Ford to recover."

He has to be congratulated for his will power but one can not helping wondering what a spell in a chic clinic would have done for his street cred. These managerial and personal problems could be the key to why the singer's name and talent have not been better exploited in this country. Today, like many artists of his generation, he is now the head of a family business. His daughter Louise sings in his show, his eldest son Scott is now his manager, and another son works at the office back in Los Angeles. "I question every cheque I sign - these young folks today with big managers who have power of attorney are going to discover they have nothing."

Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey have kept their popularity by not being afraid to parody themselves. Could they provide a template for Engelbert? "I have a tremendous sense of humour and take the mickey out of the fact that I am the king of romance," he claims. Unfortunately he slips in the irony stakes by clipping back his famous side-burns to something more fitting the Nineties. Still, his skin remains such a strange shade of orange that I wonder if Judith Chalmers is really his sister - so perhaps there is mileage in that instead.

Engelbert is certainly in no danger of being too modest: "I have sold 122 million records. There is not a group today that has as many gold albums on the wall, I don't care who they are. Remember, in my day we sold a million for a gold, these days you only need 40,000. My current album A Little in Love is number 16 in the European album charts and I have been signed to Sony to bring out a classic rock album. I have the largest fan club in the world with 8 million members."

As the ninth of ten children, who started working in a boot factory at just 15, you have to admire just how much Engelbert has achieved. It is about time that we learnt to appreciate one of our most successful exports. More importantly, if he did become hip again I could finally stop hiding his records whenever friends come round.

Engelbert Humperdinck plays the London Palladium on Sunday and finishes the tour next Thursday in his hometown, Leicester.

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