of the week

Whistling in songs is quite a rarity these days, a bit like understanding the words or is that just me getting old? Whatever, but whistling can sometimes be the most memorable part of a song as many won’t forget its contribution to (Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay, Roxy Music’s version of Jealous Guy or The Scorpions’ number two hit Wind of Change. Some artists are known for their whistling contributions like Bobby McFerrin and Billy Joel especially on the title track on The Stranger, but, arguably, Roger Whittaker is the most famous.

Life began in an unlikely place for Roger. His father was a greengrocer from Staffordshire who suffered a little with his health and in 1929, on his doctor’s advice, it was suggested that he moved to Africa. One can only presume that the hot dry weather would help, but he decided to move to Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Seven years later Roger was born and once he started school he loved to sing in the choir. He seems keen on learning guitar and, according to Wayne Jancik, a local Italian prisoner of war built him a guitar. After school, Whittaker served in the Kenya Regiment and, in an interview with Sharon Tracy Whittaker said, “Being stuck in the bush camps for months on end meant we had to make our own entertainment. Before I knew it, I was standing on a make-shift stage, guitar in hand having enormous fun developing into a second Elvis.”

Once he was demobbed Roger went to University in Cape Town, South Africa and on completion there, the family moved back to the UK and Roger continued his education at the University of Bangor where he studied Zoology and bio-chemistry eventually graduating with a BSc.

His loved of music remained and, in 1962, he got a record deal with Fontana records and recorded a handful of songs including Steel Man, The Charge Of The Light Brigade, Mud Puddle and Jenny’s Gone all under the name Rog Whittaker. None of those 45s made any impact and so he changed label to Columbia and recorded the song The Mexican Whistler. The following year, his rich baritone voice lent itself well to a cover of Topol’s If I Were A Rich Man, but Topol won the chart battle.

In 1969, Roger landed his first UK hit, Durham Town (The Leaving) which led a lot of people who hadn’t heard of him to believe that he came from the north east of England, a few months later I Don’t Believe In If Anymore gave him his first top 10 hit.

His biggest hit came in 1975, The Last Farewell told the story of a nineteenth century British soldier who, tomorrow, will leave his unspecified location, ‘Far away from your land of endless sunshine’ back to his home in England, the one he describes as ‘To my land full of rainy skies and gales’ and doing it with sadness, ‘Though my heart is full of tears at this farewell’. The song sailed up the chart to number two and, ironically, kept off the top spot by Rod Stewart’s Sailing.

Is it a true story? In a word, no. It wasn’t even written by anyone remotely connected with the profession. Roger’s beautiful smooth singing voice was not too different from his speaking voice and in 1971 it led him to being invited to host his own radio show. It wasn’t a typical radio show because he had a full orchestra led by the music arranger Zack Lawrence and they backed Roger on any songs he sang live during the show. Roger also wanted to include the listener rather than just talk to them and, “One of the ideas I had was to invite listeners to send their poems or lyrics to me, and I would make songs out of them,” he explained to Wayne Jancik in the Billboard Book of One Hit Wonders. “We got a million replies, and I did one each week for 26 weeks.” Each week Whittaker and Lawrence would sit down and choose one a week to record and they fulfilled their goal of 26 songs.

The first one was Why which was submitted by Joan Stanton and Roger set it to music and it was released as a single but stalled at number 47 on the chart. The Last Farewell was submitted by Ronald Arthur Webster who explained that the inspiration came to him whilst riding on a bus home from work in Birmingham on a dreary, rainy evening and wishing he was anywhere but on that bus. He imagined himself in the role of a marine sailor who was about to embark on voyage far away in another time and place. Roger recalled, “It was quite a story and I tried to find out more about Mr. Webster but I learned very little, but I can’t help but think there is more to the story.”

Roger wrote the music to Webster’s lyrics and Lawrence orchestrated a beautiful arrangement with cascading brass and recorded it for his 1971 album Special Kind of Man and it remained an album track for four years, that was until the wife of a radio producer on a radio station in Atlanta, Georgia, heard it played on a Canadian radio station whilst she was on holiday and on her return suggested to her husband that he programmed the song into a radio show. On the strength of that, it was released as a single and became Whittaker’s only US top 40 hit peaking at number 19. It was subsequently released around the world and made the top 20 in 11 countries including number three in Australia and New Zealand, number two in Ireland and the UK and number one in Norway.

In 1976, the BBC aired a major documentary series called Sailor which was all about life aboard a British aircraft carrier called the HMS Ark Royal and followed its journey to North America for nearly six months, the theme tune to that programme was a cover of The Last Farewell which was credit to The Ship’s Company And Royal Marine Band Of H.M.S. Ark Royal and peaked at number 46 in the UK chart. That version was produced by the folk singer Mike Harding who said, “I am proud to be present on board the great ship on her last voyage. The floating town that is the H.M.S Ark Royal will soon sail into the past taking with her for ever, something that is part of all of us, something that could be called Tradition, National Pride and our Island history.”

The song has also been covered by Joe Egan formally of Stealer’s Wheel, Matt Monro and Elvis Presley who limped to number 48 posthumously in 1984. He had recorded it in 1976 and was one of the first songs he had recorded in his home ‘Jungle Room’ studio in Graceland. Elvis heard it, loved it and really wanted to record it saying to his then girlfriend, Melissa Blackwood, “I just kind of like that song.”

The Last Farewell, was, ironically, Roger’s last UK hit until, unexpectedly he found himself back in the top 10 in 1986 in collaboration with his friend Des O’Connor covereing the traditional Skye Boat Song, a 19th century Scottish song which was adapted from a Gaelic song composed by William Ross in around 1782.

Roger won two Ivor Novello Awards for song writing for both Why and The Last Farewell as well as numerous silver, gold, and platinum awards.

In 2004, I was featured on a section of the BBC documentary Inside Out which focused on my Sunday night music quiz in Bedford – the longest running music quiz in the UK. At that point the quiz was 13 years old, it’s still going to this week and we’ve just marked our 33rd birthday. Anyway, the lady who introduced that section was Jessica Whittaker – Roger’s daughter and I remember having a brief conversation about her father and his music. She was immensely proud of him.

This story ends on a sad note which is, after graduating from Bangor University his parents were proud of him and was keen to see his son excel in the medical profession, but Roger decided on a career in music and his father never forgave him for making that choice. Even sadder is that their differences were never resolved, his parents never attended any of Roger’s shows and, when he was the subject on This is Your Life in 1982, both his parents refused to participate.

In 2012, he and his wife, Natalie, relocated to Toulouse in France and they lived happily until September 2023 when Roger died from a stroke in hospital aged 87. He said, “I’d like to be remembered as somebody who wrote some pretty good songs, the sort of songs that people will listen to again and again. Durham Town is in the British Folk Library now and I’m delighted with that.”