Roger Whittaker, whistling balladeer who found global fame, dies at 87

Roger Whittaker, an avuncular singer-songwriter whose soothing baritone, virtuosic whistling and delicate interpretations of pop requirements earned him a world following for greater than 4 many years, died Sept. 12 at a hospital close to Toulouse, France. He was 87.

His longtime publicist, Howard Elson, confirmed the demise however didn’t present a trigger.

Mr. Whittaker, who was born to British mother and father in colonial Kenya, offered an estimated 50 million albums worldwide, turning into a staple of easy-listening charts whereas cultivating a sunny and infrequently sentimental folk-pop sound. Although he was thought-about a one-hit surprise within the United States, the place his track “The Last Farewell” peaked at No. 19 in 1975, he had a faithful fan base throughout Europe and particularly in Germany, the place he toured commonly and launched songs in German — recorded phonetically, he stated, as a result of he couldn’t communicate the language.

A self-described “wandering minstrel” with a well-trimmed beard and wire-rimmed glasses, Mr. Whittaker carried out nation requirements, calypso songs, Scottish ballads, South African dance music and Broadway present tunes, together with compositions that showcased his birdlike whistling and alpine yodeling. Critics praised his showmanship whilst they usually scoffed at his music, calling it bland and melodramatic.

Reviewing a 1981 live performance at Constitution Hall, The Washington Post’s Harry Sumrall wrote that Mr. Whittaker’s model of pop “bordered on the banal” at occasions, “one step above Muzak and one below a Mitch Miller singalong.” He went on to name Mr. Whittaker “an entertainer of the first order,” praising his “remarkably clean and refined vocal style” and “uncanny skill” as a whistler.

“At times, he may have seemed behind the times,” Sumrall added, “but at others, he was timeless.”

Mr. Whittaker first drew consideration in Britain with the discharge of his 1969 single “Durham Town (The Leavin’),” which opened with a wistful flute solo, closed with a string of valedictory “la la las” and featured some questionable geography, referencing “the banks of the River Tyne” regardless that Durham is situated on the Wear. To Mr. Whittaker, it initially appeared to have all of the makings of a dud.

“I just didn’t have any faith in that song at all,” he recalled on his website. “Far from promoting the single in Britain, I went off to Finland for a cabaret season and television appearances.”

Yet the observe grew to become his first Top 20 hit in Britain, peaking at No. 12, above songs by Tom Jones, the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac. Mr. Whittaker went on to seek out further success with hits together with “New World in the Morning,” the antiwar anthem “I Don’t Believe in If Anymore” and a duet model of “The Skye Boat Song,” with comic Des O’Connor.

He additionally scored a belated U.S. hit with “The Last Farewell,” which climbed the Billboard Hot 100 4 years after its launch in 1971, following its rediscovery by an Atlanta radio programmer. (According to Mr. Whittaker, the programmer’s spouse heard the observe whereas on trip in Canada and persuaded her husband to place it on the air.) Its lyrics, a few sailor bidding goodbye to his lover earlier than boarding a man-of-war certain for England, have been written not by Mr. Whittaker however by a British silversmith who responded to a radio contest during which Mr. Whittaker invited listeners to ship in verses, with the perfect put to music.

The track was coated by Elvis Presley, a lot to the delight of Mr. Whittaker, who usually carried out a model of “Hound Dog.” Interviewed by Britain’s Express newspaper in 2014, he recalled how Presley’s “drummer told me that, when they were preparing to record anything, Elvis would play my version of ‘The Last Farewell’ about 20 times over to people in the studio, and he’d say, ‘And that’s how we should make records.’ ”

The youthful of two kids, Roger Henry Brough Whittaker was born in Nairobi on March 22, 1936. His father, a grocer, moved to Kenya from Staffordshire, England, after he was injured in a bike crash and sought a hotter local weather for his restoration. His mom was a schoolteacher.

In 1989, a gang of burglars broke into his mother and father’ house in Nairobi, torturing his mom and killing his 84-year-old father. “It will affect me for the rest of my life,” Mr. Whittaker later stated, “but I believe we should all live without hate if we can.”

Growing up, Mr. Whittaker performed the guitar and sang within the choir at the Prince of Wales School, now generally known as the Nairobi School. In his telling, he “was stupid, selfish and angry” earlier than he joined the military for his obligatory nationwide service, spending two years with the Kenya Regiment throughout its combat towards East African rebels generally known as the Mau Mau.

The expertise additionally pushed him towards music.

“Stuck in the bush camps for months on end meant we had to make our own entertainment,” he stated. “Before I knew it, I was standing on a makeshift stage, guitar in hand, having enormous fun developing into a second Elvis.”

Mr. Whittaker later spent 18 months at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, finding out for a medical profession earlier than dropping out to grow to be a trainer. To burnish his instructing {qualifications}, he enrolled at University College of North Wales (now Bangor University) in 1959, taking lessons in zoology, biochemistry and marine biology.

A tune he wrote for a pupil live performance made its option to a British music writer, resulting in the discharge of his first single, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” in 1962. The track flopped — Mr. Whittaker later lamented that he had “tried to sing like Mario Lanza,” the operatic tenor — however later that yr he launched a model of Jimmy Dean’s “Steel Men,” which rose up the charts simply as he earned his diploma.

Its success led him to commerce instructing for music, kicking off a years-long interval during which he apprenticed at pubs in northeastern England, attempting to entertain miners as they knocked again pints after work. By 1967, his fortunes have been starting to vary, as he helped England win the Knokke track contest in Belgium together with his performances of “Mexican Whistler,” which featured his signature warble, and “If I Were a Rich Man,” from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

After the success of “The Last Farewell,” Mr. Whittaker participated in one other songwriting contest that resulted within the 1980 observe “I Am But a Small Voice,” with lyrics by a 13-year-old lady from the Philippines. Proceeds from the track financed a UNESCO training program for kids with disabilities.

Two years later, he grew to become the primary singer to launch a model of the ballad “Wind Beneath My Wings,” by songwriters Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley. He was adopted by singers together with Sheena Easton, Lee Greenwood, Gladys Knight and Bette Midler, whose 1988 recording, for the soundtrack of the movie “Beaches,” went to No. 1 and received two Grammy Awards.

Survivors embody his spouse of 59 years, the previous Natalie O’Brien, who labored as his supervisor; 5 kids, Emily Kennedy and Lauren, Jessica, Guy and Alexander Whittaker; a sister; 12 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. Whittaker seldom returned to East Africa in maturity, other than a pilgrimage within the early Eighties to movie a tv particular, “Roger Whittaker in Kenya.” He lived in England and Ireland, the place he restored a ten,000-square-foot mansion and overhauled a Seventeenth-century convent, earlier than shifting to France in 2012 and asserting his retirement.

There was no returning to the stage, though at age 78 he informed the Express that he had “written 18 new songs for an album — and I still whistle very well.”

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