Remembering Roger Whittaker: The Iconic Artist, His Music, and Legacy

2023-09-18 17:11:49

Whittaker died in the middle of the previous week, on September 13th, in a hospital in southern France in the presence of his closest family. “It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved Roger Whittaker,” said the statement distributed by record label Sony. “Roger was an iconic artist, a wonderful husband and father. He touched so many hearts in his life with his music and will always live on in our memories,” the statement continued.

The son of English immigrants was born in 1936 in Nairobi in what was then the British colony of Kenya. After military service, dropping out of medical school in Cape Town and a temporary job as a teacher in Nairobi, Whittaker moved to Europe. He then completed his Bachelor of Science in Zoology, Marine Biology and Biochemistry in Wales.

He financed his studies by performing as a singer in clubs and bars – and also composed his own songs. So one thing led to another. In 1962 he recorded his first single “The Charge Of The Light Brigade”, a pompous country number. The musician only found his own style, with which he enjoyed worldwide success, at the end of the 1960s.

Smart hits and a prominent fan

The all-whistled instrumental number “Mexican Whistler” was his first hit in the UK in 1967. The ballad “Durham Town” marked the big breakthrough two years later. Songs like “Indian Lady” soon made Roger Whittaker popular in other countries. His most prominent fan was former US President George HW Bush, who invited him to his house and sang at his golden wedding anniversary.

One of Whittaker’s biggest hits, “The Last Farewell”, only became a success four years after its release. After the song made it onto American radio and the US top 20 in 1975, it also became a huge success in Europe. In the UK it reached number two on the charts, just behind Rod Stewart’s “Sailing”. Later even Elvis Presley recorded “The Last Farewell”.

IMAGO/Mary Evans/Rights Managed Permanent guest on German TV shows, here from 1976

Success in Finland

His success was based in large part on the fact that he repeatedly specialized in the music markets of individual countries and regions: As early as the early 1970s, Whittaker initially set his sights on the Northern European music market. In 1974, for example, he took part in the Finnish preliminary round of the Song Contest. Although he didn’t make it to the event with “The Finnish Whistler”, the song made him popular in Finland and served as the theme song for the cooking show “Patakakkonen” for more than two decades. It also gained particular popularity in Denmark and the Netherlands.

He also once contributed a number to an English song contest preliminary round: “Call My Name” was interpreted by the singer Eleanor Keenan – also without making it to the competition. Whittaker was much more successful when he recorded the number himself and it entered the charts in some countries.

Suddenly a pop singer

Whittaker first moved to German-speaking countries in the mid-1970s. Later he also tried his hand at German texts. “My German Album” was released in 1979 – without the singer knowing a word of German. The trick: His producers wrote down how he had to sing the words phonetically. And Whittaker then struggled through the nuances of pronunciation so as not to confuse “tenderness” with “deadliness,” as he later recounted.

In the 80s he turned to German hits. The sticky-sweet folk ballads became songs with lyrics that put him more in the whimsy department: “Farewell is a sharp sword that often cuts so deep into your heart,” says one of his biggest hits. “Sometime even the best time will come to an end, ooh ooh.” Producer Klaus “Nick” Munro, who was also responsible for the success of Vicky Leandros, played a key role in this.

Dozens of records, many cover versions

Whittaker’s recipe for success, however, was his releases tailored to different countries: during his lifetime he released almost 90 albums for the US market alone, a large proportion of which were best-of compilations. And among his own songs he generously mixed his versions of classics and traditionals such as “Those Were The Days”, “Dirty Old Town” and “Streets of London”. In addition to Europe and the USA, he celebrated success in Canada and New Zealand.

IMAGO/BRIGANI-ART/Heinrich Whittaker on his farewell tour in 2013

He released his last record in 2012 – in German. And in 2013 he also said goodbye to his concert audience. Whittaker also lived up to his friendly image in his private life. The family man had been married to his wife Natalie since 1964, who later also became his manager. The couple has five children, several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. After living in Ireland for a long time, the Whittakers moved to the south of France in 2012. His son Guy has followed in his musical footsteps: he is the bass player for the English singer and songwriter Fink.

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