Spring, 1967 saw one man sitting atop the charts. For seven weeks Engelbert Humperdinck was number 1 with Release Me. It was the year’s biggest seller, and famously, was the first song to prevent the Beatles from reaching number 1 since 1963. But before I go into that, what else was happening in the UK over those six weeks?
On 4 March the first North Sea gas was pumped ashore at Easington, East Riding. That same day, Queens Park Rangers became the first Third Division side to win the League Cup when they beat West Bromwich Albion 3-2 at Wembley Stadium. Supertanker SS Torrey Canyon ran aground between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles, creating the biggest oil spill in the world at the time, and it remains the biggest in UK history. At the Astoria Theatre in Finsbury Park, London on 31 March, guitar legend Jimi Hendrix set fire to his instrument for the first time. He was taken to hospital afterwards for burns to his hands. As he had superhuman axeman powers, it didn’t put him off doing it time and time again.
Norwell Roberts made history on 3 April, becoming the first black officer for the Metropolitan Police Service. Five days later the Grand National was won by 100-1 outsider Foinavon, and Sandie Shaw became the first singer to have an English-language entry win the Eurovision Song Contest, with Puppet on a String. It would soon become her third and final number 1. And as Humperdinck’s reign finally began to end, Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead received it’s premier at the Old Vic in London.
So, Release Me. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me after blogging so many hits of the time, but it wasn’t Humperdinck’s song originally. It was first written in 1949 by country music singer-songwriters Eddie Harris and Robert Yount, with James Pebworth also receiving a confusing third of the royalties. Confusing, because over the years he used several different pseudonyms that often cropped up on various versions, sometimes even two at once. Harris recorded the first version, but it was Ray Price who made it a hit for the first time in 1954. Then along came Humperdinck. Who was this bizarrely named singer?
It won’t come as a surprise to find out it’s not his real name. He was born Arnold George Dorsey in May 1936. One of ten children, he spent his first decade living in Madras, British India (now Chennai), before the Dorseys moved to the less exotic Leicester. Interested in music from a young age, he learnt the saxophone and would play it in nightclubs, and apparently didn’t attempt to sing live until he was 17, when his friends persuaded him to enter a pub contest. His impression of Jerry Lee Lewis earned him the name Gerry Dorsey, which he used for nearly a decade.
Dorsey’s career was interrupted by National Service, and he made his first recordings after being discharged with Decca Records in 1958. He failed to make his mark.
That all changed in 1965 when he teamed up with his old roommate Gordon Mills. Mills was Tom Jones’s manager, and was the one who came up with his name change. He reckoned he could do the same for Dorsey, and suggested ‘Engelbert Humperdinck’. Humperdinck was a German composer in the 19th century, and among his works was Hansel and Gretel. Quite why Mills thought this would be a reasonable name is unknown to me. At least ‘Tom Jones’ had been in the public eye at the time, having been the name of a big film.
Humperdinck signed a new contract with Decca under his new stage name, and things picked up when he started to do well in Europe, entering the Knokke song contest and having a hit in Belgium with Dommage, Dommage. Around this time he visited German songwriter Bert Kaempfert, and became keen on Strangers in the Night. He recorded it and wanted it released as a single, but Frank Sinatra got there first.
Fortune finally smiled on Humperdinck when Dickie Valentine fell ill and had to miss an appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He sang Release Me, and had rave reviews. Soon, his recording was at the top of the charts, and it held firm.
I thought that overfamiliarity with Release Me would make listening to it a waste of time, but there were a couple of surprises. For one, it was a lot slower than I remembered, but I think my brain had somehow replaced it with the version used on BBC Two Nineties comedy The Fast Show – a version which at least had some flair. Humperdinck’s version isn’t half dreary to begin with. Charles Blackwell’s production makes it all sound a little too slick, and doesn’t really give off the impression that Humperdinck is dying to move on from his partner (hard to believe it was produced by the man behind Come Outside). But I have to admit I was impressed with his singing in the latter half. He has a great voice, you have to give him that, and he does sound pretty anguished during that final run through the chorus. Apparently Humperdinck didn’t like being referred to as a crooner, because he felt his range was better than that, and I wouldn’t argue with him.
I can’t dislike Release Me as much as many Beatles fans do. Obviously it didn’t deserve to keep Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever from number 1, but it’s by far the worst number 1 I’ve heard, and there’s far worse to come. I like the lyrics too. Although the track is nearly 20 years old by this point, I can’t imagine it was easy to come by songs that hinted at separation and divorce back then. You’re only hearing one side of the argument, true, but you can’t help feeling some degree of empathy.
But, like Tears and Distant Drums in the two years previous, just why did this become so huge? And why does the list of 1967 number 1s feature lots of lengthy stints at the top, and from safer material than the previous few years? I think, perhaps, that things got a little too weird for many record buyers, and particularly the older ones. Whereas many of the number 1s of 1965 and 1966 still had commercial appeal, even if they were breaking new ground too. And so there was a return to the safe, slick world of easy listening and light-entertainment-style pop. Humperdinck was also a heart-throb, unlike Ken Dodd and Jim Reeves, so that will have helped him somewhat as well.
It wasn’t just Release Me that had a lasting impact – even the B-side left its mark. Ten Guitars was so popular in New Zealand, it’s considered the unofficial national anthem.
And so, as some of the greatest rock bands of all time prepared to release albums that would go down in history as 20th-century classics, an amusingly-named warbler who had struggled for years was the biggest singer in the UK with an easy listening cover of an old country song. And he had another chart-topper before the year was out, too.
Written by: Eddie Miller, James Pebworth & Robert Yount
Producer: Charles Blackwell
Weeks at number 1: 6 (2 March-12 April) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson – 4 March
Scottish actor John Barrowman – 11 March
Race walker Lisa Langford – 15 March
Lush singer Miki Berenyi – 18 March
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah – 24 March
Presenter Helen Chamberlain – 2 April
Author John Haden Bradley – 6 March