Friday, August 24, 2007

Engelbert Humperdinck: Not That Easy to Forget


If I could catch a star
before it touched the ground,

I’d place it in a box,
tie ribbons all around,

and then I'd offer it to you
- a token of my love and deep devotion.
The world’s a better place with you to turn to.
I'm a better man for having loved you.

– “I’m a Better Man (For Having Loved You)”
Music by Burt Bacharach and lyrics by Hal David.
Recorded by Engelbert Humperdinck in 1969

When I was a little boy growing up in Australia I had a crush on Engelbert Humperdinck.

No, not the nineteenth century German composer but the suave, golden-voiced Anglo-Indian singer who rose to fame in the mid-late 1960s with hits such as “Release Me” (which broke the Beatles’ string of seven UK chart-topping hits), “Spanish Eyes,” “The Last Waltz,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and my all-time favorite, “Les Bicyclettes De Belsize.”

My parents owned an LP record of Engelbert’s greatest hits with the typically lame early-1970s title of This is Engelbert. On the cover, Engelbert stands in an elegant garden courtyard: impeccably dressed, smolderingly handsome, and sporting his trademark sideburns. What gay boy wouldn’t be smitten?

Like the “mystery man” on the cover of the Dynamic Hits compilation album, this picture of Engelbert Humperdinck is one of my earliest memories of male intrigue/attraction.

And then, of course, there was Engelbert’s voice – sensually evocative and warmly enigmatic (the opening lines of “The Last Waltz” send shivers down my spine to this day! – “I wonder should I go or should I stay?” An important and relevant question, I’ve since discovered, in more ways than one.)

Another thing that as a sensitive young boy I think I appreciated about Engelbert, was the fact that while clearly a very sexy and manly man, he nevertheless wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable – either through his voice or through the lyrics he chose to interpret. Unlike the hyper-masculinity exhibited by, say, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck kept his shirt buttoned-up! And with a bow-tie at his throat resembling a great black butterfly, he sang without shame of the tears that flowed from the ending of a relationship (“The Last Waltz”), and of how loving another had made him a better man (“I’m a Better Man For Having Loved You”).

In retrospect, I realize that he wasn’t afraid to get in touch with and express both his masculine and feminine energies. I wonder why such integration and expression comes so effortlessly to some and not to others. Who knows, but perhaps in Engelbert’s case, it was his Eastern heritage that played a role. After all, as I’ve discussed in a previous post, the Eastern outlook on life, spirituality, and sexuality is generally much more open and adept at unifying the opposites: the feminine and masculine, the Yin and the Yang.

Without doubt, harmony and healing result from such union. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that as a young gay boy growing into awareness that I was “different” and thus feeling often fearful and uncertain about my future, I would find Engelbert’s voice both calming and affirming. Of course, why this was so I couldn’t discern or articulate at the time. I just felt it. And that was enough.

As a schoolboy in the early-mid 1970s, it wasn’t very cool to like someone as sensitive and polished as Engelbert Humperdinck. Instead, I remember a number of my friends being into the more ragged sounds of Dr. Hook!

I can recall the first and only time I shared my admiration for Engelbert. In response, a classmate made a crude gesture as he gigglingly repeated, “Humper-dick! Humper-dick! Humper-dick!

If, at the time, I’d had the wherewithal (not to mention the vocabulary) I would have given this classmate an “I’m-so-not-impressed” look and muttered, “Moron!” In reality, my reaction was one of shock. How could anyone make fun of Engelbert?

Above: Some guy named Elvis (right), no doubt
getting a few tips from the great Engelbert.

Friday night being “music night” at the The Wild Reed, I’d thought I’d share a clip of Engelbert via YouTube.

This particular clip is from the late 1960s – perhaps even from Engelbert’s 1969 television series with the ATV network in the United Kingdom. Described by as a “showcase series for side-burned crooner [Arnold George] Dorsey [Engelbert’s real name] and produced by Colin Clews,  guests [on The Engelbert Humperdinck Show] included old pal Tom Jones. . . . Backing artists were the Mike Sammes Singers, the Jack Parnell Orchestra and the Paddy Stone Dancers.”

So here he is, Engelbert Humperdinck singing “Am I That Easy to Forget?” And, no, my beautiful man, you’re definitely not!

Last year I bought Engelbert Humperdinck – Gold, a double-CD compilation of Engelbert’s greatest hits. Imagine my surprise when I heard on disc one what can only be described as a lament for a lost gay love! No, honestly, it’s true.

The song is question is “Everybody Knows (We’re Through),” recorded in 1967. Written by Les Reed and Barry Mason, it’s the tale of a man coming to the realization that his relationship with his lover is over. The kicker is that the lyrics, as sang by Engelbert, make it clear that his lover is another man.

I remember listening to this song for the first time and thinking, I’m dreaming! He can’t be singing to another guy! But as you can see and hear from the lyrics, that’s exactly what Engelbert’s doing.

Wish they hadn’t seen him walk away,
And heard me beg him stay, please stay.
Why, why did we choose this crowded place?
They all know it, ’cause I show it in my face.

Everybody knows you said goodbye,
Everybody knows we’re through.
Now they all can see the tears I cry,
Running down my face for you.

They all said it’s too good to be true,
He’ll make a fool of you, one day.
I just laughed and said our love was strong,
But you left me, and they all know I was wrong.

Everybody knows you’re tired of me,
Everybody knows we’re through.
Though I’m on my own I can’t be free,
Baby, I just live for you.

Everybody knows you said goodbye,
Everybody knows we’re through.

Now, when recorded by the Dave Clark Five, the male pronouns in the above lyrics were changed to read as follows (emphasis mine):

Wish they hadn’t seen you walk away,
And heard me beg you stay, please stay.
Why, why did we choose this crowded place?
They all know it, ’cause I show it in my face.

They all said it’s too good to be true,
It’ll make a fool of you one day.
I just laughed and said our love was strong,
But you left me and they all know I was wrong.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Engelbert is gay. After all, the guy’s been happily married to his wife for decades. Yet for some reason he chose to sing and record the lyrics to this song so that it depicts a man heartbreakingly singing of his failed relationship with another man. That’s obvious. But I wonder why he would do such a thing.

Was it a way for Engelbert to acknowledge his gay fans? Did he even have a large gay fan base back then?

Was it a way of showing that he has no issue with gay people? After all, here he is with that same velvety yet unmistakably manly voice of his many heterosexual love songs, now singing about a lost gay love – and in such a way as if this experience was a common topic in the songs favored by easy-listening radio stations! It’s really quite amazing (as is the story line of the song, when you stop and think about it. I mean, what fool would break-up with Engelbert?!)

But seriously, whatever the reason for Engelbert’s recording of “Everybody Knows (We’re Through),” it undoubtedly was a very brave thing to do in 1967 – and for a guy famous the world over as a “ladies man.” Then again, perhaps that’s how he got away with it.

I’m just grateful and happy to have discovered a song with such an obvious yet nonchalantly expressed gay perspective being sung by my boyhood crush, Engelbert Humperdinck.

Above: A recent photograph of Engelbert Humperdinck.
He and those sideburns look as debonair as ever.

NEXT: Classic Engelbert

Recommended Off-site Links:
Engelbert Humperdinck’s Official Site
Official Engelbert Humperdinck Gallery
The Engelbert Fansite

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
One of These Boys is Not Like the Others
A Lesson from Play School
The Living Tree Trusting God’s Generous Invitation

And for more music at The Wild Reed, visit:
Rules and Regulations – Rufus Style
The Man I Love
Fleetwood Mac’s “Seven Wonders” – My Theme Song for 1987
Crackerjack Man
All at Sea
The Beauty and Wisdom of Rosanne Cash
Actually, I Do Feel Like Dancing
“And A Pitcher to Go”
Classic Dusty Soul Deep


Anonymous said...

Maybe he had a boyfriend at some point but was still on the straight end of the spectrum? Some say that was the case with Abraham Lincoln. Sounds like Lincoln was perfectly attached to his wife and kids, and happy as a heterosexual, but he had some extremely close male friendships. But then of course, others just say that we weren't so shy about expressing male affection in the 19th century and we're just pasting gayness on him from the 21st century world view. Who knows?

But it sounds like EH was and is a class act. Thanks for sharing, I really hadn't heard of him, to my knowledge. I dig the cigar. Pavorotti (sp?) also enjoys cigars, or claims to. There are those that say that cigars are OK if not good for the voice...?

crystal said...

I never really gave it thought, but it must be difficult to rarely see portrayals of one's situation in popular-culture movies, songs, etc. My ex-husband was Japanese, and he hated that there were so few Asians in movies, tv.

Michael-in-Norfolk said...

I found your site via the Gay Species (He doesn't agree with my religious views either). Unlike you, I gave up on the Catholic Church and joined the ELCA which has church services nearly identical to the Catholic mass, but none of the corrupt hypocrisy of the Vatican and Catholic hierarchy.

I was surprised to see that you like Engelbert Humperdinck. I always thought he was hot and liked his songs too.


den81164 said...

cher did a similar song to "everybody knows", called "the way of love" where the gender is reversed. she claims later that she didn't realize it at the time (altho i doubt if she'd had cared...