The rise and rise of a vocal phenomenon: Leicester saves the last waltz for 'Hump'

The man they used to call Gerry Dorsey is back home among his own people, basking in the celebrations of his 70th birthday. Ian Herbert charts the amazing career of the man named after a German composer
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Amid the back-to-back terraces of east Leicester, they still talk about the singer who pitched up with a sax at the local Spinney's Mill working men's club on a summer Sunday lunchtime back in 1965.

He went by the name of Gerry Dorsey and, though the usual crowd of 200 packed the club balcony to watch him, he and his music seemed nothing special. "The promoters were talking about how he was about to go on TV, but they said the same about all of them," recalled Phil Giddings, one of the locals, who was in the crowd that day.

The show would have dissolved into the mists of time if the promoters had not been true to their word and spirited Dorsey on to television two weeks later, in a form unrecognisable to most of the knitwear and engineering factory workers who had gathered to watch him play that day. The man with the big velvet bow tie, the sideburns and the deep voice was one Engelbert Humperdinck. Many took a while to make the connection. "I thought - hang on a minute, that face is familiar," said Mr Giddings. "Of course, looking back, it was the start of everything."

Nearly 40 years on, the self-same Dorsey - launderette manager's son, the ninth of 10 children who feared he lacked the looks to make it big - was back in his home city yesterday on a rare flying visit, during which he will celebrate his 70th birthday and reflect on the extraordinary turn of fortune which, after his failure to make it on to the Leicester club scene, has delivered him over 150 million record sales. He also boasts 72 gold and 23 platinum albums, four Grammy nominations, a Golden Globe Award and his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

It is a well known fact in the music fraternity that the words "crooner" and "cheesy" may not be used by interviewers granted an audience with him, but these are the attributes which have delivered Humper-dinck an estimated £70m fortune and a fan base to rival Barry Manilow.

By last night, "Hump" - as every adoring follower knows him - was back in the village of Great Glen, midway between Leicester and Market Harborough, where his faithful wife, Patricia, still lives. His infidelity might be legendary, but villagers here prefer to concentrate on the controversy which has filled the letters page of the Leicester Mercury since the New Year's Honours List was published: the knighthood which was bestowed upon Tom Jones, but denied to one of their own.

The debate did not take long to tease out at The Look hairdressers in the village, whose only other celebrity resident has been Willie Thorne, the snooker player. "No contest. He's more of a gentleman than Tom," said Marilyn Pinger, who was more minded to recall her favourite Hump hit, "Save the last waltz", than the legendary stories about Humperdinck's sexual exploits on the road. "He's also a better performer," she added.

In the local Yews pub, a villager, Sue, was inclined to agree. "There's not much in it. Tom's in Britain more often, but Hump does so much charity work. He's never forgotten where he's from." If she had plans to participate in the global event organised in celebration of Hump's birthday last night, Sue certainly wasn't admitting it. Inspired by the Idaho branch of the worldwide fan club, devotees staged an "Engelbert Humperdinck Global Warming" ceremony, in which fans were encouraged to hug each other and send him "positive thoughts and good vibes" for the day.

The official Humperdinck website chatroom revealed 70th birthday fever was taking hold, with some fans simply astonished to find that he came from Leicester in the first place. "Is that anywhere near Ashby de la Zouch?" asked one enthusiast.

But the man himself was predictably blasé about reaching his eighth decade. "I have no concept of time," he said yesterday. "I'm really excited about what lies ahead. I'm sure there's going to be a sequel to my autobiography.

"I look at people who have turned 70 and I think I don't feel that way. I mean, I still dance around on stage and my voice is still strong and everyone in the audience is still screaming."

Olive Dorsey could hardly have imagined such an outcome when she gave birth to Gerry in Madras, India, where her husband, Mervyn, was on a military attachment. The family moved back to the Highfields district of south Leicester when he was 11. It was six years later, after he had passed out of the Melbourne Road School for Boys and Girls to no particular acclaim, that singing came to him over a pint of bitter at Leicester's Bond Street working men's club. "[The pint] gave me the confidence to sing," he recalled recently.

He didn't have much luck in the clubs as Gerry Dorsey. He and Patricia were penniless in Hammersmith, London, with no furniture and ate mince every night before the agent he then shared with Sir Tom dreamt up the ridiculous name. The agent took it from a German composer most famous for making an opera of the fairytaleHansel and Gretel, and who died in 1921. What did he owe to the original Engelbert, he was recently asked? "Not very much, other than I am eternally grateful to his parents," came his American-accented reply.

But the new persona changed everything, especially when his sideburns and deep-voiced ballads such as "Release Me" and "Les Bicyclettes de Belsize" (which any self-respecting fan will tell you reached number five on 24 April 1968) were exported to the US in the late 1960s. It is even said that Hump gave Elvis the idea of growing sideburns.

The fruits of this success include homes all over the world, but Humperdinck evidently appreciates none more than Great Glen House, a Victorian pile built for the Duchess of Hamilton in 1856, where he was enjoying a private meal with his family last night. Though his time in Britain is limited, he has installed his own replica English pub, the Red Fox (complete with dartboard and locally brewed ale - the "Humper Drink"), red telephone box, post box and shale tennis court. Patricia - or Pat, as the locals know her - has made the grounds her passion, designing a memorial garden to Diana, Princess of Wales, a Japanese garden and meditation corner.

The house has not lacked its dramas and melodramas in recent months. First, Hump's son, Bradley, 31, was engulfed in flames when a bonfire of garden waste blew into his face in the grounds. Then Humperdinck's six-month-old German shepherd dog, Charnie, escaped, prompting fears that he might have been dognapped. The local press were recruited to help. "Please re-leash me", read the Leicester Mercury headline, before the dog was found by a local family.

Humperdinck's wife, who spends hours in the gardens on the tractor mower given to her as a birthday present by her husband, provided a taste of the infidelities she has had to endure in personal contributions to her husband's recent biography. "If I were always going to him about something he had done, I suppose he'd say something like 'Oh no, not again' and I'd feel I was being awful," she wrote. "So I've let things be that have happened in the past. Hump and I have known each other for so long, it feels like we grew up with each other - and that helps to forgive what I know."

Humperdinck's loyalty to his home city makes it easier for Leicesterians to forgive him. He has packed out the city's De Monfort Hall on a regular basis in recent years by agreeing to appear on his habitual September returns to the country. He first appeared there in 1967, graduating from the city's Palais de Dance, where he thrilled the crowds with his new identity.

"He's remembered the city and how much of a struggle it can be to make it," said Ann Oliver, who spent her teenage years in the same childhood streets as Humperdinck, and became a close friend after he agreed to become a patron of her dance school 30 years ago. Humperdinck's desire to help locals young artists to make it led him to help Ms Oliver to find premises for her school and to appear at its relaunch, several years ago, as the Leicester College of Performing Arts. "His message to us that day was 'keep in there'. He knows that so many people give up on a career in the business when they could have made it in the end," added Ms Oliver, who has dancers performing across the West End.

It is hoped that Humperdinck may make one of his visits to Ms Oliver's school before he leaves Leicester to get back on the road for the next of his 120 gigs a year, at the end of the week. "We'll have to wait and see. He's going to be terribly busy," she said. But the singer would only commit to his dining plans. "We'll have a meal and champagne and red wine [and] maybe a little piece [of] cake," he said. "I'm on a diet, always on a diet."

If there's half a chance, the singer's visit will be used to press claims that Leicester should, at the very least, add him to the list of freemen of the city, an honour which would add to the University of Leicester's decision this year to make him Dr Engelbert Humperdinck, for services to music. The current list of Leicester freemen includes Sir David and Sir Richard Attenborough and Gary Lineker. Ann Oliver has already paraded him before the Lord Mayor in the hope that he will be added.

"It's a scandal that America should hold him in such esteem and yet we cannot give him a knighthood," she said. "When my dancers ask who their patron is, I have to say 'ask your mother' - so there's an urgency about it. We need to get him honoured before people forget who he actually is."