Dave Lanning meets Engelbert Humperdinck in 1967
AS I was saying last week… with pop songs some people just can’t go wrong. But with pop records, there are hits and myths — and right now, the biggest myth is about hits.
Last year, 84,871,000 records (of all kinds) were sold. In Tin Pan Alley it was chronicled as a “Beat Year.” Golden guitars and all that. In the half-year until July, 1967, 40,800,000 (approximately the same six-month figure as 1966) discs rang till bells. This week on Anglia Television, we have ballad-type singers Gigi Galon, in The Golden Shot, John Walker, in The Eamonn Andrews Show, and newcomer David McWilliams, who sings folksy ballads in About Anglia on Friday.
The pop scene traditionally defies conventional analysis, but the current image has much to do with Mr. Engelbert Humperdinck, who starts his own series on Anglia later this month. He has sold over 2,000,000 records and had three No. 1s. All sentimental ballads.
You could say Engelbert arrives on screen as a pop iconoclast; the quiet revolutionary who stirred it by putting sugar in the charts; the man who got Mums buying hits, influencing the charts.
Say it to Engelbert and he nearly chokes on his cigar — he smokes five a day.
“It’s not Mums who mob me and attempt to tear me limb from limb,” he retorts. “And I don’t honestly think it is respectable suburban mothers who scream when I sing in a theatre or cabaret.
“Dave, today there is a very wide public buying records. There always has been. And the record-buyers choose from a very wide range. They buy beat and ballad.
“Hits aren’t the exclusive property of teenagers, either. And there has always been a reasonable percentage of ballads in the charts.”
The facts seem to bear Engelbert out.
The world’s most successful recording artists are: Bing Crosby, basically a balladeer, who sold 250 million records up to July, 1964; and Elvis Presley, who has blended beat and ballad over the years, with over 100,000,000 sales.
The top selling song is a ballad — a corny one — “White Christmas,” with 44 million sales since first recorded in 1941.
Judging on the half-yearly returns, this year’s record sales are about the same as previous years.
Engelbert’s personal sales (over 2,000,000) don’t suggest the domination that The Beatles enjoyed in their heyday, when they had world-wide advance orders of 2,100,000 for “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
But let’s face it: The Beatles were — and still are — a once-a-lifetime phenomenon. Ballads haven’t ousted beat; the balance has simply returned to the charts.
Today, Engelbert believes people like a good melody and lyrics they understand. “There’s a lot of gibberish written now,” he says. “But I’m not saying kids are buying ballads instead of gibberish. They’re buying both.
“Maybe they don’t advertise they have my records because their Mums enjoy them too. To kids, Mums, inevitably, are square. And the kids hate to think they, too, are the teeniest bit square.
“But I don’t think it follows that they are just because they like what Mum likes. There’s some pretty swinging Mums around.
“It isn’t right to say adults are ruling the Top 10 and music is on the way back, either. Music has never been out of the charts. Look in Top 10’s of five and 10 years ago — you’ll find roughly the same proportion of ballads as you find today.
“I don’t think Mums actually buy many records. But they hear my records on radio and television. Fortunately, they enjoy them.
“I’m thrilled that I have a wide appeal. In show business that usually means you last. And I want to last.”
It’s interesting talking to Engelbert. Last time we met, he’d just arrived in the charts, after years of trying. He was still breathless and school-boyishly excited about the prospect of stardom after all the heartbreak.
Has he changed? Outwardly, not at all. He is still shy, friendly, quietly spoken, anxious to help, genuine. But under the surface, well…
I always called him Gerry (his real name). People around him did; it seemed the thing to do. Now he’s “Engel.”
Even his wife calls him that. He lives in a modest maisonette in Hammersmith, West London. But has visions of a cottage, with plenty of land, down Weybridge, Surrey, way.
Why lots of land — is he a gardener? “No, but I want a dog, a Pyrennean Mountain dog and maybe a horse, and they have got to have room to move, man.”
Carefully groomed, he smokes cigars, drinks champagne. drives the latest model Jaguar, and wears a magnificently elegant watch that cost three figures of £’s.
“But please don’t make me out as a flashy type,” he says. “I don’t throw money about. I don’t drink or smoke for the image bit; champagne is refreshing and good for the throat.
“Cigars won’t upset my health, either. Buying this watch worried me silly. I walked away from the shop once. I still feel a little guilty about spending so much money on myself.
“But I don’t worry about the money I’m earning; haven’t a clue how much I’ve earned. I have complete faith in my handlers.”
He isn’t flashy; but modest and relaxed. I fancy it would take plenty to make Engel lose his head. Recently, one of his infants knocked over and completely wrecked the television. Engel just laughed. “Well, it was funny,” he said. “And, surely, it’s best to see the humorous side of any accident?”
He’s the man who has sold a million records and launched a million theories about changing pop tastes.
The controversy he prefers to ignore; he’s just happy doing what he’s doing.
And the incredible world that Thomas Alva Edison created when he patented the gramophone on February 19, 1878, keeps spinning along.
Hits, misses, or myths, it’s impossible to ignore it.