Engelbert Humperdinck, singer
I started off working in clubs under my real name, Gerry Dorsey. Then I got tuberculosis and nobody in showbusiness wanted to handle me, because it was a serious disease back then. When I was in hospital I told my mother that a priest had come to visit me and been really kind. She said: “Son, he was giving you the last rites.”
Things started to turn round for me when Tom Jones’s manager, Gordon Mills – who I’d met when he was in the Viscounts and we toured together – started managing me as well. He suggested I change my name to something more unusual or unforgettable than Gerry Dorsey. Engelbert Humperdinck was a 19th-century German composer who is best known for his opera Hansel and Gretel. At first I said: “What kind of a name is that?” But if anything is unforgettable, that name is.
At the end of 1966 when I was looking for a hit song, I found an instrumental called Release Me by the jazz saxophonist Frank Weir. The melody was so beautiful. I said to Gordon: “This is a hit tune.” It was written [by Eddie “Piano” Miller and Robert Yount] in 1949 and had been done by a few people, but we found a lyric version by Esther Phillips, which was R&B. I wanted to do it more like the Frank Weir version, but with lyrics. Gordon also suggested it to Tom Jones, but Tom didn’t like it, so Gordon said to me: “You can have it.” I changed the key in the middle so I would hit this big “Pleeeeeease” and gave it to an arranger, Charles Blackwell, who did an amazing job.
The record sat on the shelf for three months, then [singer] Dickie Valentine got ill before the Sunday Night at the London Palladium show, and I got the opportunity to take his place on live television. The record sold 80,000 copies the next day and just kept selling. It stopped the Beatles from having their 12th No 1 [with Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever] and became the biggest-selling record of 1967. It still holds the record for the longest consecutive stay on the charts: 56 weeks.
It’s actually quite a dark song about wanting to get out of a relationship, but people love it and go crazy for it on the karaoke. When the Queen made me an MBE, I was relieved as that meant people would start to know who I was and stop thinking I was the one who did Hansel and Gretel.
Charles Blackwell, arranger
Joe Meek gave me my first chance as an arranger. The legendary producer heard me playing piano in Denmark Street, London, when I was 18. Before that, you needed to be 40 to do that job. When we worked at his flat in Holloway Road he’d have the rhythm section in one room, a string section in the dining room and French horns in the bathroom. The big one I did with Joe was Johnny Remember Me by John Leyton, which was a No 1. I left before things got pretty dark and Joe shot his landlady and himself, but I ended up working with Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Burt Bacharach … loads of people.
Jimmy Page was the session guitarist but I don't think he found it very interesting – he played pocket chess between takes
A week before I did Release Me with Engelbert, I recorded it with Tom Jones, but it never came out and Gordon said: “We now want to make it with Engelbert.” At the session everyone still called him Gerry. When we all found out about the new name everyone thought Gordon had gone crazy, but he was a very clever manager.
Tom Jones’s version was more gospel, so for Engelbert I changed the arrangement into what you might call orchestral country music. In those days you’d have a singer, rhythm section, choir and orchestra all in one big room. The two top guitarists I used were Big Jim Sullivan and a very young Jimmy Page, just before he formed Led Zeppelin. I don’t think they found the Release Me session all that interesting – they played pocket chess between the takes.
Then I remember the choir got the giggles. Every time we started the song they started laughing. After it happened for a fourth time, Engelbert whispered to me: “Are you sure this is a good song? Everyone’s laughing at it!” I don’t know if it was the song they were giggling at, but he had the last laugh. A couple of months later it was a worldwide No 1.
Engelbert Humperdinck tours UK, 31 October to 21 November. Details at engelbert.com