Roger Whittaker is a British-Kenyan singer, songwriter, and musician known for his folk and pop music, distinctive baritone voice, and impressive whistling skills. He was born Roger Henry Brough Whittaker on March 22, 1936, in Nairobi, Kenya, which was then a British colony. He spent his early years in Kenya and developed a love for music and the outdoors during his upbringing.
His English parents, Vi (née Snowden) and Edward Whittaker were from Staffordshire, where they owned and operated a grocery shop. His father was injured in a motorcycle accident and the family moved to a farm near Thika, Kenya, because of its warmer climate. His grandfather sang in various clubs and his father played the violin. Whittaker learned to play the guitar on an instrument made for him during World War II by an Italian prisoner of war from the North African campaign. Roger attended Prince of Wales School in Nairobi, where he completed his high school education.
Upon completing he was called up for national service and spent two years in the Kenya Regiment fighting the Mau Mau in the Aberdare Forest. He later received a scholarship to study zoology and marine biology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
While in South Africa, he began to perform in local clubs and gained recognition for his musical talents. Roger Whittaker’s music career took off when he moved to the United Kingdom in the early 1960s. He signed a recording contract with Fontana Records.
They released his first professional single, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, in 1962. (On the labels of the Fontana singles, he is billed as “Rog Whittaker”.) That summer, Whittaker performed in Portrush, Northern Ireland. He achieved a breakthrough when he was signed to appear on an Ulster Television show called This and That. His second single was a cover version of “Steel Men”, released in June 1962.
In 1966, Whittaker switched from Fontana to EMI’s Columbia label and was billed as Roger Whittaker from this point forward. In 1967, Roger released the single “If I Were a Rich Man” (IMP 200.015), a cover of a show tune from the 1964 Fiddler on the Roof musical. Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock wrote it and Whittaker delivers it well.
His next single was his self-composed “Durham Town (The Leavin’)”, which in 1969, became Whittaker’s first UK Top 20 hit in the UK Singles Chart (in the US it was on RCA). He released the uptempo “New World in the Morning” in 1970, where it became a Top 20 hit in Billboard magazine’s Easy Listening chart.
That same year, his downbeat theme song “No Blade of Grass”, written for the film adaptation of the same name that was sung during both the opening and ending titles, became his first film credit. In 1975, EMI released “The Last Farewell”, a track from Whittaker’s 1971 New World in the Morning album. It became his biggest hit and a signature song, selling more than 11 million copies worldwide.
The record would go largely unnoticed until 1975, when, as Whittaker often recalled, the wife of a program director for an Atlanta radio station happened to hear the song while traveling through Canada. She suggested her husband play the record on his station, and the song caught on with listeners.
“The Last Farewell,” perhaps best remembered for its opening line “There’s a ship lies rigged and ready in the harbor” or its sweet, earworm chorus “For you are beautiful, I have loved you dearly/More dearly than the spoken word can tell,” reached the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart by June of that year and went on to #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
Whittaker will undoubtedly be remembered by many American TV viewers of the 1970s and early ’80s for his ubiquitous TV commercials touting greatest hit collections and cover songs such as “Imagine,” “Annie’s Song” and “Feelings,” released on labels K-tel Records and TeeVee Records. The spots occasionally included Whittaker’s whistling, a popular feature among his many fans.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Whittaker had success in Germany, with German-language songs produced by Nick Munro. Unable to speak German, Whittaker sang the songs phonetically. In 1978 he released his very popular Christmas album titled The Roger Whittaker Christmas Album.
In 1989, a gang of burglars broke into his parents’ home in Nairobi, torturing his mother and killing his 84-year-old father. “It will affect me for the rest of my life,” Mr. Whittaker later said, “but I believe we should all live without hate if we can.”
During his career, Whittaker earned over 250 silver, gold, and platinum awards. He was awarded a ‘Gold Badge Award’, from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers, and Authors (BASCA) in 1988 and earned a Goldene Stimmgabel (“Golden Tuning Fork”) in Germany in 1986, based on record sales and TV viewer votes. Over his career, he released about 80 albums and over 100 compilation albums.
Roger Whittaker died September 13, 2023, in Toulouse, France, following a lengthy illness. He was 87. His death was announced on his official website. The statement attributed to his family and Sony Music said Whittaker died “in peace in the presence of his family. Roger was an iconic artist, and a wonderful husband and father.
He touched so many hearts with his music during his lifetime and will always live on in our memories.” He is survived by his wife of 59 years, the former Natalie O’Brien, who worked as his manager; five children, Emily Kennedy and Lauren, Jessica, Guy, and Alexander Whittaker; a sister; 12 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
- The Mau Mau was a militant nationalist movement in Kenya during the 1950s that sought to end British colonial rule and gain independence for Kenya. Comprised primarily of members of the Kikuyu ethnic group, the Mau Mau engaged in armed struggle against British colonial forces, leading to a state of emergency being declared in 1952. The conflict was marked by violence and atrocities on both sides, with the British employing harsh counterinsurgency measures, including detention camps. Ultimately, the Mau Mau rebellion played a significant role in Kenya’s path to independence, as it contributed to the political negotiations that led to Kenya gaining self-rule in 1963. Jomo Kenyatta, a former Mau Mau leader, became the country’s first Prime Minister and later its President.
- Ulster Television, often abbreviated as UTV, is a television broadcaster serving Northern Ireland. Founded in 1959, it has been an integral part of the Northern Irish media landscape. Originally an independent television company, it became part of the ITV network in 1969. Ulster Television produces and airs a wide range of programs, including news, entertainment, drama, and documentaries, catering to the unique cultural and political context of Northern Ireland. Over the years, UTV has played a crucial role in providing news and entertainment services to the region, and it has contributed to the development of Northern Irish television and media. [Back]
- Roger Whittaker – Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.rogerwhittaker.com/biography/
- Roger Whittaker. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roger-Whittaker
- Roger Whittaker – Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.allmusic.com/artist/roger-whittaker-mn0000283440/biography
- “Roger Whittaker Dies: ‘The Last Farewell’ Singer Was 87” (September 20, 2023) https://deadline.com/2023/09/roger-whittaker-dead-1235551219/
- “Roger Whittaker, whistling balladeer who found global fame, dies at 87” (September 19, 2023) https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2023/09/19/roger-whittaker-dead/
- “The Last Farewell by Roger Whittaker” https://www.songfacts.com/lyrics/roger-whittaker/the-last-farewell
- UTV Media. (n.d.). About Us. Retrieved from https://www.utvmedia.co.uk/about-us/