If the name of Roger Whittaker isn’t familiar to you, see if the TV compilation spot up there, from the early 90s, refreshes your recollection of that kindly looking English gentleman, with an impossibly resonant voice and perfect diction, who made the sort of music your mother or grandmother would have liked.
Whittaker’s life story is kind of interesting. He was born in England but grew up in Kenya after his parents moved there for the more salubrious climate. He served in the Kenyan army during the late 50s, then moved back to England to attend university. At the same time, he began a singing career, and landed a record deal in 1962. He recorded throughout the 60s, finally cracking the UK charts with “Durham Town” in 1969. “New World in the Morning” was an easy-listening hit in the States in 1970. He became popular in Scandinavia and Germany, and recorded a long streak of albums in phonetic German.
In 1975, Whittaker’s American label released a 1971 recording, “The Last Farewell.” There must have been something in the air late that spring and into the summer: it’s hard to imagine “The Last Farewell” becoming a pop hit in any other season. It got a boost from WSB in Atlanta, after the program director’s wife heard it on a Canadian station, possibly CKLW, which was one of the first to chart it. After hitting #1 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart, it became a Top-10 hit on Top 40 stations not just in Detroit but in Philadelphia, Dayton, Houston, Columbus, Denver, Boston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Hartford. At WLCX in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, it was #1 for five weeks in June and July, stayed in the station’s Top Five for four weeks after that, and ended up #2 for the entire year. On the Hot 100, it peaked at #19 for the week of June 21, 1975, doing a total of nine weeks in the Top 4o and 15 on the Hot 100. It went to #2 in the UK. Around the world, “The Last Farewell” moved something like 11 million copies.
For the next several years, Roger Whittaker was an easy-listening star in America, with six more chart hits, including a reissue of “I Don’t Believe in If Anymore,” which made the Easy Listening Top 10 in 1975 after being a relative stiff in 1970; “Durham Town” got an American release late in ’75 and made #23. He charted six albums: The Last Farewell and Other Hits was the biggest, making #31 on the Billboard 200. Although he never charted after the early 80s, he was a consistent seller, and claims to have received over 250 gold, silver, and platinum awards. It’s easy to understand how mail-order compilations like the one in the ad at the top of this post might have found a very rabid, loyal audience: ultra-familiar songs, most of them very romantic, quietly sung in a traditional and completely unthreatening way.
Roger Whittaker retired from performing in the early 00s, but he has continued to record a little, most recently a German-language album in 2012. (No more phonetic singing; after his earlier success in Germany, he learned the language.) He lives in Ireland now and is still among us at age 84.
When I got to the elevator-music station in the late 80s, “Durham Town,” “New World in the Morning,” and “The Last Farewell” were in the library. They’re maybe not your cup of tea and maybe not mine, but they were surely somebody’s. Although in the summer of 1975, “The Last Farewell” was my cup of tea. The introduction of it—that lush, rich, orchestrated thing. (Cable TV viewers got very familiar with it in the late 70s and early 80s; WGN-TV in Chicago used it for station IDs several years running.) That very romantic lyric—brave sailor stoically leaves his beloved to fight a war and hopes he won’t get dead and can return to her one day. And Whittaker’s voice, which certainly doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. I liked it, and I still kind of like it now, on those rare occasions when I hear it.
Though death and darkness gather all about me
And my ship be torn apart upon the sea
I shall smell again the fragrance of these islands
In the healing waves that brought me once to thee
And I should I return safe home again to England
I shall watch the English mist roll through the dell
For you are beautiful
And I have loved you dearly
More dearly than the spoken word can tell