Arnold Dorsey struggled to break into the music industry until he was advised to adopt a more interesting stage name. Dorsey took the name Engelbert Humperdinck from the German composer of Hansel and Gretel. Already in his early thirties, the change worked; Humperdinck enjoyed unlikely success with his easy listening music. In 1967 Humperdinck crooned though Eddie Miller’s 1949 composition ‘Release Me’. It was the number one single for six weeks in the UK and famously kept The Beatles’ double a-side ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’ from the top of the charts.
‘Release Me’ was also successful in New Zealand, reaching number two, but it was the single’s b-side that made the bigger impact. Rotorua DJ Eddie O’Strange was listening through the week’s singles, and presciently decided that the song’s flip-side, ‘Ten Guitars’, would become popular in New Zealand. ‘Ten Guitars’ was a strum-along favourite for boozy parties, and became known as the national anthem of Patea.
One reason for the song’s appeal in New Zealand is the use of the Maori strum. The Maori guitar strum uses a percussive, dampened sound on the offbeat. It can be traced back to Hawaiian ukulele music, and it’s used on New Zealand songs like Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ and The Howard Morrison Quartet’s ‘Hoki Mai’.
According to Geoff Cawthorn, who made a 1996 documentary of the success of ‘Ten Guitars’ in New Zealand, Humperdinck was oblivious to the song’s local success. When he first toured New Zealand in the 1970s, the crowd at his Christchurch show was flummoxed when he finished his first show without playing it. His band hastily learnt it (it’s not that hard, as it only has three chords) adding it as the encore for his Auckland show.
‘Ten Guitars’ isn’t Humperdinck’s only connection to New Zealand – perhaps more relevant to younger generations of NZ music fans is his uncanny resemblance to Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement.
Trainspotters out there – I know that, as opposed to the other b-sides in this series, ‘Ten Guitars’ was also featured on an album. But because Humperdinck wasn’t known as an album artist and because it had an interesting story behind it, I think ‘Ten Guitars’ is fair game.