His beloved Patricia was diagnosed ten years ago, but Engelbert Humperdinck – who recently discovered he has a rare power to heal – is convinced that with his help she’s getting better
Engelbert Humperdinck reveals how he’s helping his beloved wife fight back against Alzheimer’s
Acareer spanning more than 50 years, record sales of more than 150 million and friendships with legends such as Elvis Presley and Dean Martin might be accomplishment enough for most people. But Engelbert Humperdinck, purveyor of classics such as Release Me and The Last Waltz, has yet another, rather surprising string to his bow.
He chanced upon it several years ago while on tour in Germany. Suffering from a viral infection that he hadn’t been able to shake for over four months, Engelbert visited an iridologist – an alternative therapist claiming to diagnose health problems by studying the eye’s iris – who cured him within two weeks. ‘He then said to me, “You have healing powers”, so of course I just laughed at him,’ says Engelbert. ‘But he insisted I had an aura. So I pray over people and sometimes it works.
‘ There was a lady in Leicester who had cancer and came to see me for t reatments. She’d been given about six weeks to live, but she lived another nine years, so maybe I’m partly responsible. Another guy I knew had Bell’s palsy [a type of facial paralysis] and his mouth was up here,’ he says, pulling his lip upwards. ‘I prayed for him and within three minutes his lip came down. People think I’m crazy, but I don’t care. If I can help somebody in any way, that’s fine by me.’
Engelbert, or ‘Enge, as in Stonehenge’, is himself looking in fine fettle. Now 82, he could pass for a good couple of decades younger, courtesy of that trademark lushly coiffed hair (‘I’ve been dyeing it since my 20s, but it’s still all mine,’ he says, giving it a sharp tug) and a newly-honed physique. He has a new Christmas album coming out, ‘and I also recently filmed a special in Hawaii, so I decided to lose some weight. I’ve been drinking shakes, working out in my gym and spending half an hour in my sauna. I’ve lost two stone. I also lie on my deck to get a tan, but I don’t use regular suntan lotion – I use a mixture of olive oil and vinegar. It makes your skin smooth and darkens you in a real hurry. Here, look,’ he says, helpfully ripping open his shirt and d i spl ayi ng a n impressively taut, tanned expanse of chest. ‘I’m in good health.’
While Engelbert appears to be in scant need of his own healing powers, he admits that the one person in the world he would most like to help is sadly beyond his reach. ‘With any healer, they say that the only person they can’t help is thei r spouse because they’re too close. I still pray over my wife, though. I do everything I can.’
Just over ten years ago, his wife Patricia, now 79, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and has 24- hour care at the family home in Bel Air, Cal ifornia, where we meet. The couple have been together for 62 years and have four children. Engelbert’s eyes moisten as he talks about his wife.
‘She’s doing OK considering that she’s had it for the past ten years,’ he says. ‘In fact, she still knows me and knows everybody. Our son Scott came over from Australia a couple of days ago a nd she called him by his name. Tha t ’ s totally unheard of because after ten years [of Alzheimer’s], nobody can say people’s names like that. And when Scott went back to Australia, she cried, so she knows who he is.
‘But we’re doing everything we can to help her. I have acupuncturists see her, as well as my regular doctor, who’s wonderful. I also have people from the holistic world and I’ve taken her to see healers. I want her to see everybody because I think it’s important to investigate every avenue. Somebody will touch that nerve that will help cure her. That’s what I’m looking for and I’ll search until I find it.’
Although there is no cure as yet for the disease, Engelbert remains touchingly and firmly convinced that his wife’s health will improve. ‘She’ll be back. I know she will,’ he insists. ‘And she’s already shown signs of improvement. Before, if you walked into her room, she’d just stare, but now she’ll turn around and look at you and smile. It’s wonderful to see the changes taking place. When the kids come over, she remembers them. And she remembers me. ‘Whenever I go in to see her, she puckers up for a kiss. Oh God, she gives me a lovely kiss every time,’ he grins, ‘so I don’t kiss her just once, I kiss her several times to make sure my lips are registered in her mind. It’s quite wonderful. But of course I miss her. We’ve been married for 54 years and I miss her in my boudoir. I miss holding her at night very much and feeling her presence.’
He first noticed a problem when Patricia started to forget phone numbers, ‘and when we got the diagnosis, it was such a shock’, he says. ‘But right from the start, I wanted to take care of it. I heard from a good friend about a doctor in Germany who did stem cell operations, so I took her over there immediately and paid a large amount to have this operation done. They said if she had this operation she’d be OK, but it didn’t work. This was about eight years ago and I think it was a little early in the stages of stem cell therapy at that point. But who knows? Maybe it contributed to her longevity, which I’m thankful for. But she gets good medical attention and as long as I have a breath in my body, I’ll provide that.
‘She doesn’t speak too much,’ he continues, ‘but I think it’s important to talk to her like there is nothing wrong because I know she can still understand. I’ll go in to see her and say, “Good morning, my darling”, and sometimes she’ll say, “Good morning” back, and sometimes not. But when I say, “How’s my baby?”, she’ll sometimes say, “You’re my baby”, which is wonderful. I pick her up and try to hold her. She doesn’t walk very well right now, but she will walk again, I promise you. I’m doing everything I can, and I have faith.’
While Engelbert’s optimism is moving, in quieter moments he admits that his wife’s condition can be hard to bear. ‘It is difficult,’ he says. ‘When I’m performing, sometimes a lyric will touch on my personal life and it can be difficult to sing. For instance, when I sing How I Love You, I’ll choke up. But I think
‘I miss holding her at night, her presence’
my audience understands and forgives me. My last album, The Man I Want To Be, is really a love letter to my wife. I don’t really talk to anyone about her illness and I try to cope as best I can on my own. It is what it is and you just have to take care of your responsibilities. A lot of people would have put their wife or husband in a home, but that never crossed my mind. But I do miss my wife, our communication,’ he says. ‘It’s lonely at times without her.’
It was love at first sight when the couple met in 1956 at the Palais de Danse in Leicester, where Engelbert grew up (he was born in Madras, India, and moved to Britain aged 11). Just 20 years of age and then plain old Arnold Dorsey, he was trying to make a name for himself as a singer. The couple married in 1964 and, a year later, he teamed up with manager Gordon Mills, who also managed Tom Jones. Mills convinced young Arnold Dorsey to change his name to the much more memorable Engelbert Humperdinck and success shortly followed.
He had a No 1 hit in 1967 with Release Me – notable for spending 56 weeks in the charts and for being the song that prevented The Beatles from attaining their 12th consecutive charttopper with double A-side Penny Lane/ Strawberry Fields Forever – and the couple went from living in a tiny flat in London’s Hammersmith to having a Beatle as their neighbour in a luxurious enclave in Surrey. ‘We had a dog named Cheb,’ he says, ‘and he used to go down to John Lennon’s house and steal the bread from his doorstep. John would shout out, “Tell that Humperdinck to get his bloody dog tied up!”’
Elvis was a friend (he even copied Engelbert’s sideburns), as was Dean Martin, who used to rent Engelbert’s Las Vegas home when he was away. ‘I’d come back to the house and find cigarette burns on the furniture,’ he says, ‘ but I never said anything because I adored the man.’
While Engelbert continued to enjoy huge worldwide success, by the late 1970s he had severed ties with Gordon Mills. He now refers to the move as, ‘the worst business decision I ever made, because I didn’t realise I had to give up all my possessions in the company and basically start from scratch again – his lawyers bamboozled me quite a lot’. It also led to a decadeslong feud between Engelbert and Tom Jones, who, says Engelbert, never really forgave him for not staying with Mills. ‘But I’m still here, still working. My walls are covered in gold and platinum albums and maybe it’s because of the amount of albums I’ve sold that he’s got a bee in his bonnet about me. Because,’ he says with a grin, ‘I’ve sold double what he’s sold!’
When Tom Jones’s wife of 59 years, Linda, died of cancer two years ago, did Engelbert get in touch? ‘Oh yes, I sent my condolences,’ he says, ‘but I never got a reciprocation. But that’s OK. I played my part. And I would shake his hand in a heartbeat. It was so sad when Linda died as she was a lovely girl. She was a very dear friend of my wife too. Tom likes my wife and my family – he just doesn’t get along with me and I don’t know why because I tried to make up with him many times. I hate holding grudges.’
The froideur between the two men exists despite, or perhaps because of, them having more in common than they care to acknowledge: those magnificent voices, the longevity of their careers and, of course, their fondness for women. Neither has made a secret of the fact that they haven’t always been faithful in their marriages (Engelbert once claimed he’d had ‘more paternity suits than casual suits’) and as he says now, ‘You think the grass is going to be greener, but you find it’s not. I think it’s because you only live one life and want to try things out, so you do. Yes, I hurt my wife, but my true love has always been where it began.’
He admits that he was never confident about his looks. ‘I was very unsure of myself when I was young and an ugly little beggar with protrud- ing teeth, so I used to lie on them at night to try to straighten them’, and concedes he was, ‘flattered by all the attention I got from women. There have been temptations along the way, and if you’re in this business you’re expected to get that sort of thing happening. But I’m living a very happy and contented life now.’ Does he still get women throwing their underwear at him on stage? ‘Sometimes. And it was wonderful when it used to happen,’ he admits. ‘I used to have truckloads of them, and after the show I’d give them to memorabilia museums.’
His fan base is still considerable, although it perhaps doesn’t include the voting panel of the Eurovision Song Contest, who placed him second last in the 2012 competition – something that still slightly rankles. ‘Half the performers were not professional,’ he says, ‘and one act was cooking on stage’. The Russian entry featured six singing grannies who opened their performance by sticking some bread in an oven; they came second. ‘But I was proud to represent my country.’
He still tours, but admits he finds it difficult, ‘because I don’t like to leave my wife. As soon as I get to the airport, I’ll call home and ask, “H ow’s my baby?”, and when I get to the other end I’ll call again. I miss taking her to the shows – she used to come until a couple of years ago. But she’ll be back. We still have a home in Leicester and I’m hoping my wife will be more capable of travelling next year so that we can spend next Christmas in England.’
It’s a festive time that’s always been important to Engelbert and his latest album, Warmest Christmas Wishes, will be his first Yuletide offering in four decades. Featuring classics such as Silent Night and White Christmas, as well as hits such as Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas and his pal Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Christmas Song, it is proof that Engelbert’s honeyed vocals, like the man himself, are still going very strong.
Interview over, he shows me into the dining room and offers me ‘some moonshine a friend made for me’ – it almost takes my head off, but has no discernible effect on The Hump, who’s clearly made of sturdy stuff. ‘Oh, I am,’ he says. ‘People always ask me when I’m going to retire, and I say, “What for?” As long as I have a career and a following, why should I stop? The best feeling I get is when I walk on stage. And,’ he adds, ‘I’ll keep going until God calls me.’
‘To straighten my teeth I would lie on them at night’
Engelbert and Patricia in 1968, with children Louise and Jason
Duetting with Tom Jones in 1969
The couple in 2012 and (inset below) with son Scott, his wife Jo and their children