Engelbert Humperdinck awaits Eurovision vote

Engelbert Humperdinck performing in the Eurovision final 2012 Humperdinck, also a grandfather, faces strong competition from the six Russian pensioners

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Britain's Engelbert Humperdinck opened the 57th Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, singing the ballad Love Will Set You Free.

The veteran crooner, 76, joined six rival Russian pensioners, as 26 countries took part in the final in Azerbaijan's Crystal Hall.

The "Buranovo Grannies" are among the favourites to win the contest, alongside Swedish singer Loreen.

Up to 125 million typically watch the annual contest around the world.

Britain has fared poorly in recent years. The UK has not won since 1997 and has come last three times in the past 10 years.

There were high hopes for Humperdinck - affectionately known as "The Hump" - given his huge global fanbase, but his draw as first to sing in the contest came as a disappointment to the star and his British fans.

Eurovision Song Contest

  • Created by Marcel Bezencon in 1955
  • First held in Lugano, Switzerland, in 1956, when the winning song was Refrain performed by Lys Assia
  • Twenty-six countries are competing in the 2012 final
  • Watch clips and find out more at the Eurovision website (www.eurovision.tv)
  • Country profile: Azerbaijian

Viewers often tune in late and miss the early contenders. No opening act has gone on to win since 1984.

Earlier Humperdinck revealed he is wearing a special 'tcb' necklace given to him by Elvis - with whom he has sung - as a good luck charm. The 'tcb' reportedly stands for 'taking care of business' and was one of only a handful given to Elvis' close associates.

The British singer, who has sold more 150 million records, told the audience in the purpose-built arena afterwards: "I sang it from my heart." He added that the contest was "a wonderful extravaganza of music".

'Criticism'

The event began at midnight local time, promising a late night for the contestants and the 20,000 spectators in the newly-built Crystal Hall.

Following last year's unprecedented Eurovision victory by Nikki and Ell in Germany, the Azerbaijani government - eager to boost the oil-rich country's global image - has poured money into preparations for the contest.

But the Eurovision host has met criticism for the country's poor human rights record.

Crystal Hall, Baku Eurovision was the first event to take place in Baku's new Crystal Hall

On Friday, dozens of protesters calling for greater civil liberties were arrested near the contest venue. Three were jailed for up to six days and at least 16 others fined or given warnings, opposition activists said.

Earlier this week 42 countries competed in the semi-finals for 20 places, with the Eastern European candidates dominating the list of finalists.

France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the UK automatically qualified for the final as they contribute the most money to the competition. Hosts Azerbaijan also went straight through.

Sweden's Euphoria - a club hit by former Swedish Idol contestant Loreen that has already topped the charts in five countries - remains the favourite, but Serbia, Romania and Italy are also tipped for success.

Eurovision spotlight on Azerbaijan

But they will face stiff competition from the "Buranovo Grannies" - a group of pensioners from a rural church choir who performed Party for Everyone, a cross between a traditional folk tune and a dance track, to rapturous applause.

With ages ranging from 53 to 77 years in age, they include the contest's oldest ever participant.

Ireland was represented by pop duo Jedward for the second year running. Their performance of pop track Waterline closed with the 20-year-old Grimes twins jumping into a fountain in the middle of the stage.

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