Roger Whittaker: A Musical Journey That Spanned Decades
September 20, 2023
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Roger Whittaker, the beloved folk singer and whistler, has passed away at the age of 87. His career, which extended over six remarkable decades, garnered a massive international following. Whittaker’s stage performances were characterized by a unique calmness, and as the Boston Globe observed, “No one gets high. No one gets hysterical with excitement. And yet Roger Whittaker is one of the most popular entertainers in the world.”
Whittaker’s velvety baritone voice and songs of love, longing, and loss resonated with audiences around the globe. His most iconic tracks, often accompanied by emotive strings, included the 1969 hit “Durham Town (the Leavin’),” “I Don’t Believe in If Anymore” (1970), “The Last Farewell” (1971, reissued in 1975, topping charts in 11 countries), and “Wind Beneath My Wings” (1982).
One of his signature talents was whistling, showcased in his duet with Des O’Connor on “The Skye Boat Song,” which reached the UK Top 10 in 1986.
Although he didn’t amass chart-topping hits like the Beatles or Abba, his frequent appearances on television and live performances made him a household name in many nations. In the mid-1980s, he was celebrated as Germany’s most successful recording artist, even recording songs in German, mastering the language phonetically.
Whittaker was never considered a trendsetter, yet he perpetually connected with his audience. His rendition of songs like “Green, Green Grass of Home” and “Song Sung Blue” lacked the theatrics of others but became emblematic of his musical style.
He often referred to himself as representing the “silent majority” – those who, after marrying, became parents and taxpayers, dedicating themselves to raising their children responsibly.
In the 1970s, during the rock music era’s dominance, RCA dropped Whittaker despite his multi-million record sales. Undeterred, he chose to market his 1977 album, “All My Best,” on television, pioneering the concept of promoting records through this medium. The result? “All My Best” sold nearly a million copies.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Whittaker’s parents, Vi and Edward Whittaker, had run a grocery shop in Staffordshire before relocating to a farm near Thika due to Edward’s severe motorcycle accident. There, Edward established a successful grocery business while Vi pursued a career in teaching. Roger, who initially spoke Swahili, attended the Prince of Wales school in Nairobi and began learning the guitar at a tender age.
After his schooling and a stint in the Kenyan Regiment, where he was involved in anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion fighting, Whittaker attended the University of Cape Town to study medicine. However, he switched paths after 18 months and opted for teaching.
In 1959, he moved to Britain and enrolled at Bangor University, delving into zoology, biochemistry, and marine biology. Simultaneously, he embarked on his musical journey, performing gigs and recording songs for the university newspaper’s flexi discs.
His talent soon attracted Fontana records’ attention, leading to the release of his first singles in 1962 – “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and “Steel Men.”
Whittaker’s career blossomed with constant touring across Britain, inspired by his experiences performing in the working men’s clubs of the north-east of England.
In 1964, he married Natalie O’Brien. By 1968, he was touring globally and even had a television showcase in the Soviet Union. His participation in the 1968 Knokke song contest in Belgium, where he performed “If I Were a Rich Man” and his own whistling composition, “Mexican Whistler,” contributed to Britain’s victory. Both tunes became hits in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
In 1969, Whittaker secured his first UK Top 20 hit with “Durham Town (the Leavin’),” a poignant track marked by its sentiments of war and loss.