27
Feb 06

ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK – “Release Me”

Popular64 comments • 10,337 views

#230, 4th March 1967

“Release Me” spent 56 weeks on the UK charts, but its position in modern pop history is as a footnote – the single that kept The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” off number one, an injustice so apparently staggering that it’s often the first case cited when critics want to cast disdain on the entire singles chart, or the public who help create it.

I’m not going to argue that “Release Me” is a better record than the Beatles’ one – because it’s not – but I was interested in exactly why it gripped the charts so hard. Listening to it on the train home tonight what struck me was its directness – “Release Me” is a three-minute divorce plea, never cruel but frank, reasonable and allowing no way back. I can’t offhand think of another huge hit which had tackled that sort of subject – break-ups yes, but the word “release” implies a contract. (The line about “your lips are cold” suggests that the lady might be dead, but Engelbert doesn’t play it goth!)

A quick bit of research turned up a couple of intriguing facts. During the mid-late 1960s the median age of first marriage was at a historical low point – the lowest it would be through the entire 20th centry, barely over 21 for women and 23 for men. I can think of a few possible reasons for this – higher affluence, increased sexual pressure, earlier puberty – but whatever the reason the median age had been falling since the end of the war. So the generation of teens who had been buying cheap gramophones and records by the ton in the late 50s had also been getting married earlier than ever.

The divorce rate, meanwhile, was rising – it hit a post-war low at the turn of the 60s and then increased sharply every year since. In 1969 the Divorce Reform Act was passed, making “irretrievable breakdown of marriage” grounds for divorce and cutting the legal barriers which had made it such a difficult (and humiliating) experience. It came into force in 1971 and the divorce rate skyrocketed. It almost trebled over the next three years, suggesting that there were a lot of unhappy marriages which could now be mercifully ended.

A lot of young people in the mid-60s, in other words, were caught between a pressure to marry young (for whatever reason) and the ever-increasing possibility that this decision need not be irreveraible. In 1967 though, divorce was still difficult even if it was more common, and it’s hardly a surprise that in these circumstances “Release Me” struck a massive chord. The particular genius of the record was its slow, soothing arrangement – too stark and the lyrical pill would have been entirely unsugared. As it is, for someone in the agony of a failing relationship, Humperdinck’s appeal to reason might well have seemed like a sympathetic and necessary shoulder.

4

Comments

1 2 All
  1. 1
    Michael on 28 Feb 2006 #

    Interesting. In the United States, the median age for first marriages bottomed out a little deeper, and at least a decade earlier. For men, it was 20.1 in 1956; for women, 22.5 in 1956 and 1959. Meanwhile, the divorce rate went from 2.9 per 1,000 people in 1944 to 3.4 in 1947, 2.8 in 1948, and 2.6 in 1967 — then climbed to its peak of 5.3 in 1979.

  2. 2
    Anonymous on 28 Feb 2006 #

    Doctor Mod said:

    The correlation with the divorce rate is an interesting connection; people do tend to buy records that reflect their predominant mood at any given moment. (Something to think about during those streaks of sentimental glop at the top of the charts.)

    But “Release Me” was by no means a new song in 1966. It was done several years earlier–and much better–by [Little] Esther Phillips, one of the early pioneers of Southern California R&B. I’m not sure of the actual origin of the song–it sounds as if it might have C&W roots. But there were a number of R&B/C&W crossovers on the fringes of US popular music in the late 1950s and early 1960s–Ray Charles was one of most notable figures to produce such hybrids.

    The lyrics evoke deep and painful emotions. Esther Phillips (who died too young and painfully) knew that, and the inner conflict between duty and desire is manifest in her version. Engelbert, on the other hand, simply croons along as if the song could be about most anything; if one didn’t understand English, one might not know what emotions were involved at all. I’ve always found his recording a baleful misdeed against the song.

    Strange, after all these years I can still abide Pet Clark’s “This is My Song” (though I can’t actually say that I ever really liked it), but I still find Humpy’s “Release Me” insufferable (and “The Last Waltz” even worse).

    I guess I’m still offended that this kept one of the Beatles’ breakthrough recordings off the top of the charts. The horror, the horror.

  3. 3
    Tom on 28 Feb 2006 #

    Yeah the songwriter (Eddie something – Miller?) was a C&W guy, he wrote “Release Me” in the 40s and apparently recorded it 8 times – at one stage 3 of his own versions were in the country charts!

    There had been plenty of other versions, but none of them had been hits in the UK, so the song was fresh for the vast majority of its 1967 listeners.

    I can well imagine much better versions: the mark I gave it reflects the fact that I like the song, more than anything Engelbert brings to it (though commercially I think blanding it out was a canny move).

    Mike – interesting figures – the UK divorce rate in ’67 was around 4, and after the 1969 act it hit 12 or so quite quickly. (All sources = “a paper I found on the Interweb”, but one using Office of National Statistics figures at least)

  4. 4
    Anonymous on 28 Feb 2006 #

    Yeah, seriously, poor little Petula didn’t deserve a 1. I’ve never heard a song more worthless than this piece of crap; I’m most familiar with this song as karaoke sung constantly by my dad on his DVD karaoke machine. I just downloaded it and was absolutely amazed to find it to actually be a worse version than my dad’s.

  5. 5
    Joe Williams on 28 Feb 2006 #

    The writing credits are Eddie Miller/Robert Yount/Dub Williams/Robert Harris, though apparently the last two are both the same guy, also known as James Pebworth.

    I think I’ll go with what appears to be the majority view on this one. Good song, uninspiring performance. It’s not bad enough to deserve a place in the list of worst Number Ones, and if it hadn’t hit the top when it did I’m sure it wouldn’t be considered in so bad a light now.

  6. 6
    Pete Baran on 28 Feb 2006 #

    What i find remarkable about Release Me is how entrenched it is in the UK imagination for, as mentioned, a relatively lacklustre performance. One need only look at the recent John Smith’s advert with Peter Kay to illustrate that the song has a resonance way beyond its flickering moment in the spotlight. (And one need only compare it to how completely invisible Petula’s “This Is My Song” is to history. So bad that all the comments about it are on Humperdink’s page.)

    My Mum got married in 1966 at the age of 24 and considered herself on the shelf.

  7. 7
    Tom on 28 Feb 2006 #

    Another bit of triv for you: when Humperdinck was on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs the first song he picked was “Penny Lane”.

  8. 8
    Anonymous on 28 Feb 2006 #

    Also, when on that infamous ’67 package tour with Hendrix and the Walker Brothers, Hendrix made a point of watching Humperdinck’s act closely to learn about stagecraft and handling of audiences.

  9. 9
    Anonymous on 28 Feb 2006 #

    It’s also worth pointing out that part of the reason for “Release Me”‘s chart longevity was because of its B-side – though it was never actually a double A-side, “Ten Guitars” was almost as popular a song, particularly in Scotland, as evidenced by Billy Connolly’s subsequent savaging of the song on 1973’s Solo Concert.

  10. 10
    Michael on 28 Feb 2006 #

    Oops, I mixed up the sexes in my first post: for women, it was 20.1 in 1956; for men, 22.5 in 1956 and 1959. Also interesting: the census document I linked to shows an age disparity for median age of first marriages for men & women that’s stayed about 2.5 (plus or minus a few tenths) for most years since WWII until 1997.

    Twelve, Tom?!? Holy cow!

  11. 11
    Anonymous on 28 Feb 2006 #

    According to the invaluable “Who Wrote That Song?,” Ray Price had the first big hit version of “Release Me” in 1954. A successful cover version was also recorded by Kitty Wells. So it did start life as a country song. That makes sense: the long note on “Please–” wouldn’t have been out of place on a Hank Williams record, now that I think of it. But it’s a long way from Hank to Eng, as far as the singing goes. (We can only imagine what Hank would have done with “After the Lovin’.” Poured kerosine on it and burned it, I hope.)

    I’ve never heard “This Is My Song.” Chances are, though, it’s the best song on this list written by a silent movie star.

    wwolfe

  12. 12
    Anonymous on 1 Mar 2006 #

    Doctor Mod says:

    I’d forgotten all about “After the Loving”–selective amnesia, probably. Now THAT really is worse than “Release Me” or “The Last Waltz”! (Not to mention the ludicrous “Les Bicylettes de Belsize”–why sing some big dramatic ballad about cyclists in Belsize anyway, much less designate them in French?)

  13. 13
    Mark Gamon on 1 Mar 2006 #

    You’re making too much of this, Tom. Release Me was a number one because it had a tune middle-aged people could hum; because it was the ideal slow waltz to stick on at the end of the dance so everyone knew when to go home; and because Gordon whatsisface who manager Hump and Tom Jones knew EXACTLY how to hype an act to the prime time ITV audience.

    Dross. Horrible shlocky unpleasant cynical dross.

    Do Penny Lane instead. It’s your blog. Break the rules.

  14. 14
    Anonymous on 1 Mar 2006 #

    Well “Penny/Strawberry” did get to number one in the NME singles chart (as did “Please Please Me” and “My Generation” and “19th Nervous Breakdown”…)…

  15. 15
    Tom on 1 Mar 2006 #

    Robin C had a nice little bloglet going where he wrote about the ‘other’ No.1s, but I don’t think it ever got to Penny Lane.

    I’m usually more interested in why people liked stuff I don’t like than why they liked stuff I do, Mark. (Also I think the reasons people buy bad records are usually the same as the reasons people buy good ones.)

    There will be one Popular entry for a song that didn’t officially get to #1 – it shouldn’t be difficult to work out which.

    In terms of No.1 injustices, the only one I really regret is the “Bo Rhap” re-release stopping “Everybody In The Place” by Prodigy from making #1, and later that year KWS keeping SL2’s “On A Ragga Tip” (a nailed-on 10) off the top. It means that the most fertile period for UK dance music never really had a representative #1.

  16. 16
    Anonymous on 1 Mar 2006 #

    “3AM Eternal”? (at a stretch?)

  17. 17
    Tom on 1 Mar 2006 #

    Good point! It’s not quite the same though.

    This list was sparked by this comments box exchange and may be of mild interest to particularly dedicated readers.

  18. 18
    Rosie on 1 Mar 2006 #

    A middle-aged person writes:

    It’s a good song for smooching to, and I’d imagine there were a lot of twenty- and thirty-somethings in 1967 – the last of the pre-war generation, recovering from their ritual austerity first marriages and enjoying sealing the second chance with a smooch to this. And when you’re smooching, who’s listening to the words? Or anything much beyond the slow, swaying rhythm (and that all but subliminally)

    We’ve lost the art of smooching and I, for one, regret that. The ‘desperation discos’ at Open University summer schools always used to end with Gladys Knight’s version of ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ to ensure that anybody who hadn’t scored earlier in the week could score on the last night. But heaven forbid, these days, that dancing should have anything to do with sex!

    Meh! I and a lot of other people think that SFF/PL is far better than this, and that will always be so regardless of how quickly records sold.

  19. 19
    p^nk s on 1 Mar 2006 #

    i’d be more drawn to mark g’s sweeping contempt for a. the middle-aged and b. cynicism if he used it to explore two facts viz i. he is himself currently middle-aged and ii. his own default response is cynicism

  20. 20
    Anonymous on 1 Mar 2006 #

    plus, “Release Me” isn’t a waltz.

  21. 21
    p^nk s on 1 Mar 2006 #

    hmm apologies for needless snippiness which plz to be gracious and ignore mark g: i have a stupid pressure headache this morning which is no excuse

  22. 22
    Chris Brown on 1 Mar 2006 #

    Not having been around in 1967 myself, I can honestly claim to have disliked this record long before I knew that it had kept the Beatles off the top.

    It’s still a curious thing to consider though; people always remember it for what landed behind it, but it also holds the record for the longest-ever continuous chart run (James Blunt can’t beat it). I didn’t know about the B-side thing before, and that might be the explanation.

  23. 23
    ITF on 2 Mar 2006 #

    I think it’s quite interesting that the singles market was so diverse at this time. Singles were bought by every age group hence a piece of bland pop like this could be hoisted to the top of the charts by the older singles buyers over-powering the (presumably more cash strapped) teen market who would have been buying the more contemporary pop of The Beatles, Stones, Who etc. (possibly the fact that they would tend towards a favourite artist diluted sales of any one particular record).

    I always imagine that this sort of record would have been played endlessly at smoky, dingy working mens clubs. Also Engelbert would have been heavily promoted on TV variety shows almost exclusively aimed at the middle-aged market (as was Doddy before) thus ensuring long painful stays in the charts.

    ITF

  24. 24
    Anonymous on 7 Mar 2006 #

    are you people deaf or just ignorant? engelbert is an incredible vocalist with a 3 and a half octave range. he has sold over 130 million records, has been a legend for over 40 years and continues to sell out venues. he kept the beatles from number one because release me is a great song done by a great artist never given his due except by his fans (who are many) who recognize his incredible ability that seems to be lost on a lot of you. too bad you can’t appreciate true talent. see an engelbert concert and realize what showmanship, charisma, star power and singing ability is all about.

  25. 25
    Anonymous on 8 Mar 2006 #

    hi engelbert!

  26. 26
    Anonymous on 17 Mar 2006 #

    Agree that Engelbert is a fabulous professional singer. As for his showmanship it is exceptional He is totally charismatic. Once you’ve seen him you never forget him. His voices is just fabulous – this being the reason why Michael Boublay (spelling) and others just listen and listen to Engelbert’s music today. He has sold so many records and he is truly, truly professional and a lovely person.

  27. 27
    Anonymous on 18 Apr 2006 #

    Release Me has been one of the favorites since 1967. I attended my first Engelbert concert this month and found his voice to be as great as ever and his performance outstanding. I think some of the earler comments above are way off base… Engelbert is great and so are his hits.
    EH Fan 4/17/06

  28. 28
    Garneta Miller Johnston on 15 Jul 2006 #

    A little information for you on the song “Release Me” written by Eddie Miller. It was first recorded by The songwriter himself and then Jimmy Heap made a hit with it. after Ray price recorded it, it was off and running. Humperdinck made it #1 around the world. It has been recorded by so many artists that I have lost track. For those of you who think it is a terrible song, The songwriter’s royalties last year (2005), fifty two years after it was written, was in excess of $120,000.00. I bet any of you would love to write a bad song just like it. As one of Eddie;s four heirs I have to leave now and go to the bank. HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!

  29. 29
    Tom on 17 Jul 2006 #

    Best comment ever!

  30. 30
    anonymous on 6 Aug 2006 #

    I agree with those who say that Engelbert has a wonderful voice and is a wonderful performer. I have had the pleasure to meet him several times in my life and I for certain will never forget or cease to admire and care for him He is a truly lovely and talented person. How many of those coming to your website are worth over $100M? This must surely be a reflection of a special man.

1 2 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)

Required

Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page