Roger Whittaker, the singer-songwriter, who has died aged 87, seemed to defy pop music’s laws of gravity in January 1970 when Durham Town (The leavin’), his wistful if inelegantly titled ballad, catapulted him into the Top 20 at No 12 and went on to achieve further success in America and Australia.
Musically categorised somewhere between folk and easy listening – he was once rather rudely dismissed as “a cheesy crooner with a penchant for whistling” – Whittaker came up with his breakthrough number in a studio dressing-room while waiting to appear on a television show with Michael Aspel. He said it seemed to write itself, and recalled that it was “the first decent song I had written”.
Its remarkable success was impaired neither by its bleak references to depression and bereavement nor the fact that Whittaker’s lyric downgraded Durham from a city to a town and mistakenly located it on “the banks of the River Tyne” rather than the River Wear, 20 miles to the south.
With his easy-going folksy manner, oversized spectacles and distinctive beard, Whittaker continued to have hits throughout the 1970s including I Don’t Believe in ‘If’ Any More (1970), and, most notably, The Last Farewell (1975), another downbeat number which became his biggest hit, reaching No 2 in the British charts and selling more than 11 million copies.
Although Whittaker wrote the tune, the poignant words to The Last Farewell were the work of Ron Webster, an amateur folk singer from Solihull. Returning home from work one night, Webster found himself wishing he was somewhere warmer, not peering into the gloom through the rain-lashed windows of a Midland Red bus.
He jotted down some lines based on the imaginary thoughts of a British sailor during an 18th-century naval campaign in the West Indies and sent them to Whittaker, who set them to music and included the song on a 1971 album.
Four years later, when the wife of an American radio station executive travelling in Canada heard it on the air and persuaded her husband to include it on his station’s playlist, the song unexpectedly and belatedly took off. In the summer of 1975 Whittaker’s single reached No 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, No 1 on the Billboard adult contemporary chart, and was only denied the No 1 spot in the British Top 20 by Rod Stewart’s Sailing.
Elvis Presley recorded The Last Farewell, and regarded Whittaker’s mellow baritone version as exemplary. Another American fan was the former president George HW Bush, who owned a collection of his records and invited him to play for his golden wedding anniversary.
In all Whittaker sold some 60 million records in the course of a 40-year career, and was particularly revered in Germany, where he became something of a borrowed national treasure, recording in German and starring in sell-out concert tours.
As a skilled exponent of the performance art of whistling, he first demonstrated this unusual aspect of his talent in 1967 with his wordless single Mexican Whistler, a virtuosic display of vibratos, trills and subtle variations in pitch which he achieved through his throat as well as through the lips. He applied the same skills on his hit single New World in the Morning (1970).
In 1986 Whittaker duetted with Des O’Connor on their Top 10 single The Skye Boat Song, and in 1996 recorded another sentimental duet, A Perfect Day, with his 23-year-old daughter, Jessica.
Roger Whittaker was born on March 22 1936 in Nairobi, Kenya, his British father having been advised to live in a hot, dry climate to recover from injuries received in a serious motorcycle crash. While his father developed a successful grocery business, his mother worked as a teacher, leaving Roger and his sister Betty in the care of African nannies.
Roger knew Swahili before he could speak English, and learnt to play the guitar after a grateful Italian prisoner-of-war captured in North Africa and transported to Kenya made him a gift of his own instrument.
As a boarder at Nairobi School, then known as Prince of Wales, he sang in the choir and during the Mau Mau uprising patrolled the grounds at night armed with a rifle. But it was Army life that proved transformative. “Before I did National Service in the Kenya Regiment I was stupid, selfish and angry,” Whittaker recalled. “The Army made a man out of me.”
Encouraged by his parents he studied medicine at the University of Cape Town, but finding he lacked the stomach for the doctoring life trained as a teacher. Moving to Britain in 1959, he read zoology, biochemistry and marine biology at Bangor University, where he also composed songs for the rag week show, one of which, The Charge of the Light Brigade, became his first single.
His second, Steel Man, fared better, inching into the charts in 1962 while Whittaker was sitting his finals, which he passed with the second-highest marks of his year.
A summer season in Northern Ireland and his own series on Ulster Television launched him on a showbusiness career, to his parents’ dismay. At first he struggled to make a living, appearing mostly in clubs, but he soon began receiving cabaret bookings.
In 1967 he joined a British team for the annual music festival at Knokke in Belgium, singing If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof, and his own composition Mexican Whistler, which reached No 1 in three European countries when it was released as a single, finally setting Whittaker on the road to success.
In 1989, three years after he published his autobiography, So Far, So Good, co-written with his wife, Whittaker’s elderly parents were brutally attacked in Kenya by a gang of four men who murdered his father and tortured his mother for eight hours and left her for dead.
A knowledgeable connoisseur of antiques, Whittaker amassed a collection ranging from 18th-century French commodes to silver spoons and insects in amber, which he studied through a microscope, photographing them from every angle.
“One of the reasons I’m so interested in English history and antiques is that I came from a country that was absolutely brand new,” he said. “When you are deprived of something, you value it more.” He disposed of almost his entire collection for over £1 million when he sold his country home in Herefordshire in 1999.
Having suffered a heart attack in 2006 and retired from touring in 2013, he latterly lived in the south of France with his wife Natalie, whom he married in 1964, and who became his manager in 1989. She survives him with their five children.
Roger Whittaker, born March 22 1936, died September 13 2023