The secret life of Engelbert Humperdinck

He's worth £100m and lives (some of the time anyway) in this mansion in Leicestershire. He's sold 130 million records and boasts the world's biggest fan club. But can you believe it? After 30 years, there are still some who can't quite recall who he is
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I first meet Engelbert Humperdinck – one of those mysterious artists who sell billions of records even though you've never met anybody who has one – on the set of Coronation Street. Initially, I'm perplexed by this arrangement, but, as it turns out, Engelbert is an old golfing chum of Johnny Briggs (that is, Mike Baldwin, whose OBE for services to the Pringle-type sweater is now, surely, embarrassingly overdue), and Johnny is, this particular week, celebrating 25 years in the show. So? Well, Engelbert has turned up for a photocall with Johnny, to plug the anniversary.

The tabloid photographers and I wait for the duo outside the Rovers Return. And wait and wait and wait. Engelbert has arrived at the studios, yes, but is "in make-up". Yawn. Pace. Try to peep through the Battersbys' letterbox. Try to buy some stamps from the Kabin, but it appears to be half-day closing. Ah, here he comes. And he has certainly been in make-up. I'm not sure Engelbert has ever quite got to grips with the "less is more" attitude when it comes to these things. He's so brilliantly pan-sticked, his skin glows an eerie orange. I can't think where I've ever previously encountered such an eerie orange except, perhaps, on a Port Salut cheese. He's adorably vain. Do you, I later ask him, still dye your hair? "Always, always," he replies happily.

Anyway, Johnny and Engelbert obligingly hold their pints of Newton and Ridley outside the Rovers, then scoot off again, arm in arm, in the way V-neck-sweatered golfing chums do. Off they go, back down the street, past the Duckworths' and the Barlows', and I must say I like the back view of them. It's a touching back view, as they're both the kind of men who desperately back-comb what hair they have left over their bald spots. (It's like they're carrying finely spun little bird's nests on the back of their heads.) Engelbert, particularly, is not, at 65, as lustrously bestowed as he once was, although that is not such a bad thing. I was never sure about the porn-star moustache. Or the mutton-chop sideburns that weren't, now I think about it, so much mutton chops; more the whole, unsheared sheep. Engelbert, what was that look about? "The sideburns came from the past. In the days of... you know... early days. The days of... yore. Yes, days of yore... when all the men wore them and it was very elegant and so I decided to bring it back. It looked very elegant in..."

"Dickens's day?" I suggest, suspecting he's not especially satisfied with "yore".

"Yes. Dickens's day," he says. "And then everybody in the world grew their sideburns after me. There used to be Engelbert dolls with sideburns. Now they sell Elvis dolls with the sideburns, but I don't begrudge him that."

"What are you saying?" I ask. "That Elvis stole your sideburns?"

"Yes, but I never begrudged him that, because he was always my favourite performer."

"And what do you think," I say, "when you look back at early pictures of yourself, with the porn-star moustache and the sheep sideburns?"

"Hmm. What do I think? I think: that was the time of my life when I did that."

I'm not sure philosophy has ever been Engelbert's thing either.

Anyway, we later regroup – that is, Engelbert, Johnny, Engelbert's manager, Howard, and I – at a hotel over the road. Engelbert is wearing black slacks and a lime-green jumper. "I said to Howard: 'Howard, what shall I wear today?' And Howard said, 'Casual.' " He's not, he insists, as vain as he used to be. "When I first got successful, I was particularly aware of being immaculate at all times, so I would get on a plane in one outfit, and get off in another. It doesn't happen in today's world, but when you are met by the press at both ends, you do have to." I note he has absolutely enormous hands. "Do you know what they say about big hands? Big gloves! Ha! Just another of my little jokes."

He lives, mostly, in LA for tax reasons, but says he prefers England. "At the back of my home in LA is the Playboy Mansion and, you know, you get a lot of buses coming by and they take pictures and things like that and you can't really do what you want to do without being photographed. Sunset Boulevard is quite busy, and my home is a well-known home. It used to belong to Jayne Mansfield." I say I know. I say I know, too, that it has a pink, heart-shaped swimming-pool, and I've often wondered: does it mean you've learnt to swim in a pink, heart-shaped way? "Yeah, although recently I haven't had the time to do that sort of thing because, if I'm not doing anything in the daytime, I'm at the Bel Air Country Club, playing golf with well-known people."

Although the tax rules mean that he can live in England for only 90 days a year, he has a place here, in Leicestershire, which is where he grew up. It's a massive pile, actually, built originally for the Duchess of Hamilton, and it's where his wife, Patricia, mostly lives. Patricia, mother of his four, now grown-up, children (a daughter and three sons), has always been marvellously long-suffering. Indeed, she once even said she could paper their bedroom with Engelbert's paternity suits. (Obviously, the Port Salut look is not off-putting in some quarters.) Someone always seems to be banging on his door, claiming he's their father. Has anyone banged on it recently? "There was an incident the other day when someone banged on my door." Oh? "Finally, I let them out. Ha, ha, ha... no, not recently."

However, in the Seventies and Eighties, a showgirl from California and, gloriously, a Sunday-school teacher from New York both extracted maintenance payments from him for their daughters. Does he see these children? "No. I have four children. A daughter and three sons." You're not interested in seeing these other genes march on? "No." I'm not sure he's an especially curious person. Do you read books, Engelbert? "Not very much. I seldom have time and when I do have time I try to catch up with some of the movies that are around. You know, I'm in showbusiness, I live in a showbusiness world and I play golf at a club where there are so many actors that if I meet up with them it's nice to be able to say: 'Oh, I saw your movie the other day.' "

He's frighteningly rich, worth £100m, according to Business Age. He still plays 140 live dates a year. Since his first hit ("Please Release Me", which kept "Penny Lane" off the No1 spot in 1967), he's sold 130 million records. But to whom, though? I mean, I don't even know of anyone who owns an Engelbert Humperdinck record in a Tom Jones-ish, postmodern, ironic, kitsch kind of way. Perhaps, though, the fact that he doesn't get his own joke is what his fans so love about him. OK, you or I don't know any of these fans, but, my goodness, they're out there. Indeed, he even has the biggest fan club in the world, with 250 chapters and a motto that goes: "Always to represent Engelbert with the dignity his greatness deserves."

They're women, mostly, yes. And there is even a woman who has named her two sons Engel and Bert. Did you know that, Engelbert? "Oh yes. There are lots of Engels and Berts around," he says happily. What's the most crazed thing a fan has ever done? "They get into hotel rooms, then hide in the cupboard. Sometimes I open a cupboard and find someone in there and I say: can I hang you up? Ha!"

What, I ask, do you think you have? "Apart from talent, you mean?" he shoots back pointedly. Of course, I reply, in my usual, nauseatingly obsequious way. "I think I have an honest performance. I've been singing my songs for 34 years. Now, you can't fool the public for as long as that, so there is something real." That, I think, may well be the case. Certainly, he is authentically sentimental. Do you cry easily, Engelbert? "Oh yes. I'm very emotional. If the mood hits me, the tears will roll. When I lost my mother, the tears rolled down during every show. There is no harm in showing your feelings. It's not unmanly. I do manly things, too. I do martial arts." And golf, of course. "I beat Tiger Woods." No! "He was only five at the time. Ha! That's another of my little jokes."

Raised in a Catholic family, he was the ninth of 10 children born to Mervyn and Olive Dorsey. Ten children! Phew! "Yes. There's Olga, Dolly, Tilly, Bubbles, Celine, Peggy, Irwin, Arthur, Arnold... that's one, two, three, four... Patricia! I forgot my little sister Patricia!" He was Arnold. Arnold Dorsey was how he started out. He didn't start out wanting to be a singer, though. He wanted to be a musician. Singing didn't come until he was 17 and happened one night to be at the Bond Street Working Man's Club in Leicester. "I had a pint of bitter, which I really loved, and it gave me the confidence to just get up and sing. Afterwards, all these agents came over and said: 'Who is your agent?' "

He didn't have much luck as Arnold Dorsey. He and Patricia – his wife, that is, not his little sister – were, initially, very poor, living in Hammersmith with no furniture and eating mince every night. "You'd walk past pubs, seeing people having a good time, but you'd have to grit your teeth and walk by, or you'd go crazy. Young people today don't have that sort of pain." Does money make anyone happier? "It helps. I couldn't play golf until I had money."

His career was rescued by a new manager, Gordon Mills, who also handled Tom Jones and came up with "Engelbert Humperdinck". Engelbert Humperdinck was, originally, an obscure, turn-of-the-century German composer. But didn't you say: Engelbert Humperdinck? Are you out of your mind? What sort of a name is that? No, he says, he did not protest. "I had no choice," he says. "I was a starving singer, and someone was giving me a chance to get on in the business."

He eventually split from Gordon in 1976, because he thought Gordon favoured Tom over him. "I always felt he was more partial to Tom than me, but I should have overcome that. Gordon did make me who I am today, but I didn't like having a horse galloping ahead of me. I suppose it was my pride. I knew what I had." Which was? "Talent." I ask if he felt jealous when Tom's career took off again, as it did with the help of Catatonia and the like. This question, though, upsets him rather. "I'm not the jealous sort. And things haven't been bad for me. My status in the world is good. There is no place in the world where I can't work."

Anyway, he has to go now. He and Johnny, who have already played golf this morning, are going to have lunch, then it's off to Bournemouth, where he's kicking off his national tour. Johnny, by the way, is going to get one of Engelbert's golf clubs. "We've made a series of 5,000 drivers. I have the first one. It's the 'Engelbert' driver. It's got 'Engelbert' on the shaft, and underneath it is numbered." Wow, I say. I do not say: does it glow orange? Even though I rather suspect it may.

'I Want to Wake up with You' is out on Universal records