Roger Whittaker, Legendary Musician, Passes Away at 87
Roger Whittaker, an avuncular singer-songwriter whose soothing baritone, virtuosic whistling, and gentle interpretations of pop standards earned him an international following for more than four decades, died Sept. 12 at a hospital near Toulouse, France. He was 87.
His worldwide album sales reached an estimated 50 million, establishing him as a prominent figure on easy-listening charts while cultivating a unique folk-pop sound that resonated with listeners. Although Whittaker was considered a one-hit wonder in the United States, his devoted fan base hailed mainly from Europe, particularly Germany.
A self-described “wandering minstrel,” Whittaker captivated audiences with his mesmerizing performances of various music genres, spanning country standards, calypso songs, Scottish ballads, South African dance music, and Broadway show tunes. His repertoire also included original compositions that showcased his birdlike whistling and alpine yodeling.
Throughout his career, Whittaker faced mixed reviews from critics who alternated between praising his showmanship and criticizing his music as bland and melodramatic. Nevertheless, he persevered and continued to release successful hits such as “New World in the Morning,” the antiwar anthem “I Don’t Believe in If Anymore,” and a duet version of “The Skye Boat Song” with comedian Des O’Connor.
Whittaker’s breakthrough single in Britain came with the release of “Durham Town (The Leavin’)” in 1969. Despite the artist’s initial doubts about the song’s potential, it soared to No. 12 on the charts and marked his first Top 20 hit above songs by renowned acts such as Tom Jones, the Beatles, and Fleetwood Mac.
Whittaker achieved a belated U.S. hit with “The Last Farewell,” which climbed the Billboard Hot 100 four years after its original release, following its rediscovery by an Atlanta radio programmer. The song’s lyrics were not written by Whittaker himself but by a British silversmith who won a contest held by the singer to compose the words for the music.
Whittaker’s music even influenced legendary musician Elvis Presley, who reportedly played Whittaker’s version of “The Last Farewell” numerous times in the recording studio as an example of how records should be made.
In his personal life, Whittaker overcame a tragedy when his parents were victims of a violent home invasion in 1989. The incident deeply affected him, but he remained committed to living a life free of hate.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, to British parents in 1936, Whittaker discovered his passion for music at a young age. He honed his skills as a guitarist and singer in school and later joined the army, where he found solace in music while stationed in bush camps during the fight against the Mau Mau rebels. After his military service, Whittaker pursued a teaching career, all while secretly harboring dreams of becoming a musician.
Whittaker’s musical journey began when a tune he wrote made its way to a British music publisher, resulting in his first single, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” in 1962. Although it didn’t achieve success, Whittaker’s subsequent release of Jimmy Dean’s “Steel Men” coincided with his graduation from University College of North Wales, and the song climbed the charts.
Moving forward, Whittaker extensively toured and performed in pubs in northeastern England, entertaining coal miners after their long workdays. His career took off in 1967, winning the Knokke song contest in Belgium and performing songs such as “Mexican Whistler” and “If I Were a Rich Man.”
Roger Whittaker’s impact on the music industry extended beyond his own vocal performances. He used his influence to support various causes, such as the UNESCO education program for children with disabilities, which was financed by his song “I Am But a Small Voice.”
In his later years, Whittaker resided in England, Ireland, and France, where he ultimately retired in 2012 at the age of 76. Despite withdrawing from the stage, he remained active in his creative pursuits and continued to write new songs.
Roger Whittaker leaves behind a lasting musical legacy, survived by his wife Natalie O’Brien, who proudly served as his manager, five children, a sister, twelve grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
He touched the hearts of millions around the world with his talent, and his music will continue to be cherished for generations to come.
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