Snapshots: Engelbert Humperdinck — What’s in a name?

By  Ian & Lauren Wright

Ian Wright’s portrait of Engelbert was recently accepted into the collection of The National Portrait Gallery in London (Ian Wright)

Ian Wright’s portrait of Engelbert was recently accepted into the collection of The National Portrait Gallery in London (Ian Wright)
On a freezing Tuesday night in January 1964, a flat-capped, tanked-up and heckling audience sat waiting for the star turn of the midnight show known as the graveyard shift at The La Bamba Club in Darlington, a market town in the Northeast of England.

For any entertainer this venue was about as bad as it gets. Dave Butler, the club’s resident comedian and compere, stepped up to the mike, “Testing, testing one two one two. I’m going to introduce tonight’s big turn, but before I do, there’s a couple of announcements: The lager has just gone off, the heating system is on the blink and it’s just started snowing. I’m off home. Ladies and gentlemen please put your hands together and welcome Mr. Gerry Dorsey.”

The less-than-enthusiastic backing combo — drums, double bass and guitar — played the first bars while our aspiring pop star emerged from his dressing room, which doubled as the men’s bog and a broom cupboard. He sauntered onto the stage done up in a tuxedo with waistcoat, watch chain, butterfly bow tie, bell-bottom trousers, white frilled front shirt, gold cuff links, top-pocket handkerchief and patent leather shoes.

I thought, my God, what a BOBBY DAZZLER. What on earth is someone like him doing in a place like this? I expected stale pork pies to come whizzing towards the stage at any moment. Impossibly elegant, tall, slender and good-looking with mutton-chop sideburns, Gerry Dorsey stood at Dave’s grimy mike with a cigarette in one hand and a Bacardi and Coke in the other, looking as if he were at the London Palladium instead of the La Bamba Club, which, to coin a good old Northeast expression, was a “bloody shithole,” a dark, damp, dreary dump with filthy threadbare carpet stinking of stale beer, cigarette ash and puke.

The stage was no better, with a fluorescent tube dangling precariously above the combo and two fixed spots to illuminate the star turn who had to stand dead center in the crossfire beams to be seen by the audience.

Gerry began his set, and unbelievably, nobody threw anything at the stage. In fact, after a couple of songs, the dozen or so people in the audience were unexpectedly quiet. Nobody shouted, “Get off you poof. Go back to London. Where’s the pies?”

The suit had a terrific voice, and they seemed to like what they were hearing. Most of the male solo singers of the time resorted to the hackneyed old gag of dragging an unwilling female onto the stage to sing to her, thus providing the hecklers a field day and leaving the hapless girl humiliated and embarrassed.

Instead, Gerry strolled over to an attractive blond at a nearby table, took her hand and sang “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” looking directly into her eyes as if she was the only woman in the room. He did it with taste, dignity and a sincerity that could not patronize.

When Gerry took a bow after his last number, he seemed somewhat taken aback by the audience reaction. Instead of heckling, someone shouted, “Belt out another one.” No one even got up to rush out to the toilet. Gerry did an encore and then said, “Ladies and gentlemen you have been the nicest, kindest audience anyone could have asked for. Stay where you are; I’m coming over to buy you all a drink”

Before long, Gerry was a hit on the club circuit in the Northeast of England, learning his trade on what was a notoriously tough ticket. In the second week of June 1965, Gerry was back at the La Bamba in Darlington. This time, every seat was occupied with the local talent — all bearing gifts of flowers for the star!

Like all acts playing locally, Gerry stayed in digs at the Orchard Road bed and breakfast of Mrs. Oakley, the town’s theatrical landlady. Her sign posted on every club’s notice board read, “Dinner bed and breakfast, twenty pounds per week and a latch key for the night shift. NO guest’s in the rooms after 10:00 pm.”

On Wednesday June 15, 1965, I came home from work at the Northern Echo’s photography department to find Gerry Dorsey sitting in my mum’s kitchen. He said Mrs. Oakley had sent him over to ask me to get a story about his name change in the evening edition. Gerry, saying his manager Gordon Mills had called up to say he needed a new image, held out a piece of notepaper where he’d jotted down the new name, “E N G E L B E R T  H U M P E R D I N C K.”

“I can’t pronounce it,” he said. “Gordon says the name belonged to some long-dead composer. Who am I?” I suggested we go to the library to find out, but mum reminded me, “Wednesdays are early closing.” So Gerry and I went to William’s Record Shop where we found an LP of the opera “Hansel and Gretel” composed by a German, Engelbert Humperdinck.

Gerry’s name change was of little news interest, but I did manage to persuade the editor to put in a short paragraph. But they missed out the C in Humperdinck, and there was no picture. Twenty months later, in February 1967, Engelbert Humperdinck became an international superstar with his first #1 hit, “Release Me.”

I hadn’t seen Engelbert again for another 43 years when his manager Bill Losapio invited my wife Lauren and me to the opening night of Humperdinck’s show at The Orleans in Las Vegas. To be honest, I was a bit anxious before the show, thinking he might have lost his voice — or lost his looks, as so many of our contemporaries have.

The lights dimmed, the band started playing and out sauntered that same impossibly elegant man, who hadn’t seemed to change a fraction since the last time I’d seen him a lifetime ago. You could hear people all around us in the audience saying, “Look he hasn’t changed — he’s just the same.” His voice was stupendous — the show was fantastic; we sat there transfixed. After his first set, the entire audience was on their feet, women rushing the stage with armloads of roses for the star.

 Later backstage, Engelbert was so gracious when I presented him with a copy of my book and copies of the old newspaper adverts announcing his name change. There was an easy camaraderie, as if we’d only seen each other yesterday, as if he was still an aspiring singer and I could help him instead of one of the biggest stars on the planet with record sales totaling over 250 million. As I signed the book, Engelbert quipped, “Hey usually that’s my job. I’m the one that signs everything”

On the way home, Lauren and I were still on a high about the show, marveling at his voice, his performance and I said, “I’m the lucky one. Not only do I know one great guy, but two.”

Coincidentally, Engelbert will be performing at The Orleans in Las Vegas June 11-14, marking the 44th anniversary of his name change. This tour coincides with the release, on his own label EH Productions, of his latest CD Legacy of Love, with 26 songs including “My Way” and six completely new recordings.

Later this year, Engelbert embarks on a European tour including U.K., Belgium, France, Austria and Russia. The man with the biggest fan club in the world, eight million and counting, is still “belting” out his music.

You can view Ian Wright’s archives of 1960s pop stars photographs at: http://tinyurl.com/Swinging60s

Or contact Ian directly at
ian.wright.photographer@gmail.com

© Ian Wright and Lauren Wright

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