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Always in love

RONITA TORCATO

Engelbert's songs seem to emerge from the angst of a man unashamed of confessing he feels hopelessly miserable without love.



ROMANTIC BALLADEER: Engelbert Humperdinck has been around for a long time. Photo: V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

AN angel in disguise from a Mumbai broadsheet generously gives me a number — a hotline to romantic balladeer Engelbert Humperdinck. I had met him some 20 years ago and managed to speak to him on the day of his concert in Delhi. And was gratified to find he's got a pretty good sense of recall.

He'd been giving one-on-one interviews, which had left him "very tired because I'm not a young rock-and-roll star but yes, it's great to be back, and yes, I remember our meeting and I especially recall meeting David Gower too."

It was all of 20 years ago when, as a staffer on India's now sadly defunct first morning tabloid, I'd scooped Engelbert's hush-hush visit to India. He still likes to keep mum about it; the impresario promoting the India segment of Engelbert's concert tour was unaware of the trip.

Engelbert was scheduled to visit Anglo-Indian relatives from his mother's side in Madras. I was disappointed there would be no concerts and mighty pleased when my photographer Firoze Mistry shot a photograph of the two of us.

But that was back then. Firoze is now in the U.S. and Engelbert was finally singing in India where he continues to command a sizeable fan following.

Very popular

When we were young and callow, we had only a quartet of radio stations to choose from — BBC, VOA, AIR and Radio Ceylon. The last two especially AIR's "Saturday Date" played the music of singers like Engelbert Humperdinck, Jim Reeves, The Seekers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Carpenters and Tom Jones; all of whom were enormously popular with the "Macks" and the "Bawa" crowd. Engelbert was worshipped to the extent that the Konkani singers non-pareil, Alfred and Rita Rose, named an offspring after him.

When I grew older and wiser and started being really attentive to lyrics (see what happens when you really listen!) I found I couldn't empathise with the zeitgeist of songs that went "Please release me, let me go, for I don't love you anymore...".

Why couldn't people renew their vows of undying love? Why couldn't the man make a fresh start and fall in love all over again? Love, in my reckoning, was a many-splendored thing that lasted forever, which was why I liked Engel's "How Near is Love".

No Goan (and I dare say Parsi) event was complete without Engelbert's music. It was perfectly in sync for our weddings, dances, village socials and Sunday morning hops for the waltz, fox trot or dancing. "Release Me", his 1967 smash hit version of the 1950s country song was the one that started it all for Engelbert, displacing my favourite Beatles and Elvis from the charts to make it to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Records galore

Engelbert proceeded to garner sales in excess of 130 million records, including 64 gold albums and 24 platinum albums, four Grammy nominations, a Golden Globe and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In the coming years, he would perform for Queen Elizabeth II, several Presidents and heads of state.

And finally, finally, finally, concert in India; in the middle of a schedule that covered Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, Ireland, Germany and the US. In Mumbai, the promoter was unable to find a corporate sponsor and the prohibitively priced tickets (between Rs. 3,000 and Rs. 7,000) kept most of his fans away. Even so, the venue, the splendid Jamshed Bhabha Opera Hall was almost full. The Mumbai concert was book ended by performances in New Delhi and Bangalore. Enge's plans to sing in Chennai didn't fructify, which he hopes to remedy by coming back soon.

Like certain other showbiz people (like Vivien Leigh, Cliff Richard and Merle Oberon) Enge (or the Hump) has an India connection. He was born Arnold George Dorsey on May 2, 1936, in Madras — the result of his father being stationed here with the British army. In the mid-1940s the family relocated to Leicester, England.

"I have such wonderful childhood memories of Madras. I like the sun, and my 10 siblings and I went from a big home in India to relatively modest surroundings in England, which can be so cold and grey. Life in England was tough initially, but then we settled down."

Engelbert was musically gifted; playing the sax from the time he was 11. Did his father expect him to follow in his footsteps? "Well, I was conscripted into the army and I served for a while in Germany where I learnt a bit of German." Back in England, he tried to establish a firm foothold in the music arena when his manager thought Gerry Dorsey wasn't so hot a monicker, and came up with Engelbert Humperdinck. The original Engelbert Humperdinck was a German, best known for his 1893 opera "Hansel and Gretel".

He did not sing in German at the J.J. Bhabha Hall but rendered "Blue Spanish Eyes" in Spanish and English with his back up female singers. He also sang "The Last Waltz", "There Goes My Everything", "Release Me", "Quando", "Love Me With All of Your Heart" and excerpts from his new album "Let there be love" strutting his stuff, pretending his bones were stiff and he could only amble stiffly, spinning off-colour jokes; in short, he had the audience clamouring for more.

Writing poetry

Last year, he published his autobiography titled What's in a name? The Autobiography; on his website, you can hear him recite poetry, which he started writing 20 years ago, because "writing poems fulfilled my need for self-expression".

He doesn't have a favourite poet and he was reluctant to name his all-time favourite singer. "That's a hard question, because it will upset a lot of people, but I could tell you that I love Nat King Cole's classic style and warm, rich voice..."

Englebert's own songs seem to emerge from the angst of a man who is unashamed of confessing he feels hopelessly miserable without love. Unsurprisingly, he's been called the King of Romance even though he hasn't confined himself to romantic ballads, but sung disco, soft rock, themes from the movies, even gospel.

"The best thing about being a popular singer is love, love, love. The love of my family, the love of fans. I've had such a great time making music. I've been so lucky. I've had such a great life. And I'm so happy to be singing here at last because I absolutely love India."

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