Roger Whittaker, balladeer with an international following, dies at 87
By Robert D. McFadden
Roger Whittaker, a British singer whose easy-listening ballads and folk songs caught the sentiments of perfect summer days and last farewells, touching the hearts of mainly older fans across Europe and America for four decades, died on Sept. 12 in a hospital near Toulouse, in the south of France. He was 87.
His longtime publicist Howard Elson said the cause was “complications following a long illness.” Whittaker had retired to the region.
Born to British parents in Nairobi, Kenya, Whittaker grew up there with the infectious rhythms of East African music in his bloodstream. His grandfather had been a club singer in England, and his father, a Staffordshire grocer who played the violin, had been disabled in a motorcycle crash and moved his family to Kenya for the warm climate.
Roger learned to play the guitar at 7 and developed a rich baritone in school choirs, where he sometimes sang in Swahili. At 18, he was drafted into the British colonial Kenya Regiment, and for two years he fought Mau Mau rebels in the struggle that led to Kenyan independence. He then studied medicine in South Africa and science in Wales, intending to become a teacher.
But music intervened. He had played club dates to pay for college, and he also recorded songs on flexible discs distributed with the campus newspaper, The Bangor University Rag. A record company liked them and in 1962 released his first professional singles, including “Steel Men,” his cover of a Jimmy Dean hit about bridge builders.
“Steel Men” leaped onto the British charts, the opening wedge in a career of international tours and record albums that celebrated ethnic and working-class pride, the passing seasons and family gatherings at Christmas. Over the years Whittaker recorded for various labels, including EMI, RCA Victor and his own Tembo (Swahili for elephant) Records.
Tours took him repeatedly to Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, a concert grind that often exceeded 100 gigs a year and outlasted the millennium. He learned to fly small planes and sometimes used them on his tours.
He wrote much of the music he performed, made a documentary film about Kenya, wrote an autobiography, appeared frequently on television and radio and sold a reported 60 million albums worldwide. One of them, “‘The Last Farewell’ and Other Hits,” recorded in 1971 and forgotten, became a sensation later, reaching No. 1 on the pop charts in 11 countries and eventually selling 11 million copies.
“‘The Last Farewell’ is an ersatz show tune about a British man-of-war, love, heartache and heroism,” Henry Edwards wrote in The New York Times in 1975. “Released four years ago, the tune was discovered by an Atlanta disc jockey while idly going through a pile of discarded LPs. He liked the song, played it on the air, and soon Atlanta was liking it too. That affection soon spread to Nashville, Tennessee, then to the entire country-music market, then to the pop audience at large.” It became Whittaker’s signature song.
In 1980, Whittaker invited children to submit lyrics and poems about peace for a songwriting contest. It drew 1 million entries from 57 countries. He wrote and recorded music for the winning entry, written by Odina Batnag, 13, of Manila, Philippines. She was flown to New York and introduced, with her song, “I Am But a Small Voice,” at Radio City Music Hall. Proceeds went to a UNESCO program for disabled children.
By the 1980s, Whittaker was performing in 50 to 70 U.S. cities regularly. Boston was a stronghold.
In addition to singing, he whistled, yodeled and had audiences sing along. Critics called it schmaltzy, but crowds loved it and joined in, especially on hits like “Durham Town (The Leavin’)” (1969) and covers of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and Jethro Tull’s “Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll, Too Young to Die.”
“Whittaker’s audience is mostly white and middle-class, probably daytime TV watchers who enjoy the kind of plain, folksy charm he projects,” Thomas Sabulis wrote in The Boston Globe. “He’s no great singer or songwriter; he doesn’t have Neil Diamond’s talent, Tom Jones’ sex appeal or Barry Manilow’s knack for milking the obvious. What he does have is a steady, unspectacular baritone and an avuncular, almost evangelical tone as comforting as it is mediocre.”
Tragedy struck in 1989. Whittaker’s parents, still living in Kenya, were victims of a brutal home invasion by four robbers. His mother was tortured for eight hours and his father murdered. The killers were never caught. His mother moved back to England.
“It will affect me for the rest of my life,” Whittaker told reporters, “but I believe we should all live without hate if we can.”
After a period of mourning, Whittaker resumed recording and touring. In 1995, he sang at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville at a 50th-anniversary party for former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, who were fans. In 1997, despite a surgical knee replacement, he kept some 100 concert dates in Europe and America.
He stopped touring in 2013, at 77, and retired to the south of France after years living in England and Ireland.
Roger Henry Brough Whittaker was born in Nairobi on March 22, 1936, to Edward and Viola (Showan) Whittaker, who, after his motorcycle accident in 1930, had settled on a farm in Thika, outside Nairobi. His father recovered and became a successful builder and businessperson in Kenya. His mother managed theaters.
In 1964, he married Natalie O’Brien, who became his manager and co-author of his 1986 memoir, “So Far, So Good.” She survives him, as do their five children, Emily Kennedy and Lauren, Jessica, Guy and Alexander Whittaker; 12 grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and an elder sister.
A documentary film, “Roger Whittaker in Kenya: A Musical Safari,” which related a history of Kenya and revisited settings of the singer’s early life there, was released in 1982.
Whittaker found his greatest European success in Germany. While he admitted he could not speak German at first, he sang and recorded in German “phonetically,” as he put it, until he became more fluent. He matured into one of Germany’s favorite singers, selling 10 million albums there.
He also had a devoted following in the United States, where he was best known for “I Don’t Believe in ‘If’ Anymore” (1970); his version of “Wind Beneath My Wings” (1982); and “New World in the Morning” (1971), the title track of an album that also included “The Last Farewell” and “A Special Kind of Man.”
“Women do not throw underclothes or room keys onstage at his concerts,” Diane White said in a sweet-and-sour appreciation in The Boston Globe. “No one gets high. No one gets hysterical with excitement. And yet Roger Whittaker is one of the most popular entertainers in the world.”