For more than 40 years, Roger Whittaker has been singing, whistling, and telling stories that have had audiences laughing with joy and crying with sentiment. He has used his skills for political causes and charities as well as entertaining, and sales of his recordings exceed 50 million worldwide.
Whittaker’s parents were originally from Staffordshire in England, but had relocated to Nairobi, Kenya, because of his father’s ailing health. Roger was born there on March 22, 1936. His father, Edward, was from a family of grocers and his mother, Valda Viola, was a teacher.
Growing up, Whittaker was a good student, and especially enjoyed singing in the choir at school. While his fellow students would be nervous to sing in front of an audience, Whittaker would be eager to sing. “In the last three years of my formal education, I managed to work hard enough to get top grades in all my school exams and I had great hopes later of studying to become a teacher or a doctor,” he said on his official website. However, Whittaker was drafted into the national service just three weeks after he finished school at the Prince of Wales School of Nairobi, and spent the next two years in the Kenya Regiment. In the army, he enjoyed singing for an audience. He told Billboard, “Somebody played piano and I sang Tennessee Ernie Ford and Frankie Laine songs like ’Sixteen Tons,’ ’Mule Train,’ and ’Jezebel.’ It was a great success and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I had no nerves or inhibitions. It seemed such a natural thing for me to do.” He also began to compose his own music during this time.
In 1956, Whittaker was demobilized from the army and began to concentrate on studying medicine. He enrolled at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, but found he wasn’t ready to settle into a life of constant studying. He did enjoy singing and entertaining during school breaks at the Equator Club in Nairobi, Kenya. After 18 months, he left the university and joined the civil service education department to try teaching in an apprenticeship. He enjoyed teaching, and after the apprenticeship he decided to get further qualifications, enrolling at the University of Bangor in Wales.
Arriving in Britain in 1959, he studied for three years, earning his bachelor of science degree and achieving the second highest grades in his class. During this time, he also sang and entertained in local clubs and continued to write his own music. While in school, he became involved in the University Rag Week to sing in the Rag Show. Songs from Rag Week were recorded on flexidiscs to sell to raise money for charity. “We hired a studio in London and laid down a number of tracks. A member of the studio staff sent a copy to a music publisher. The next thing I knew, there was an offer of a recording contract from Fontana Records, for whom
For the Record…
Born on March 22, 1936, in Nairobi, Kenya; son of Edward (a grocer) and Valda Viola (a teacher); married Natalie, 1964; wife’s name, Natalie; children: Emily, Lauren, Jessica, Edward (Guy), Alexander. Education: Attended the University of Cape Town, South Africa; earned bachelor of science degree, University of Bangor, Wales.
Drafted into the Kenyan national service; demobilized from the Kenyan army, 1956; joined the Kenyan civil service education department to try teaching in an apprenticeship, late 1950s; arrived in Britain, 1959; sang and entertained in local clubs and continued to write music, late 1950s-early 1960s; earned a spot on television show This and That, early 1960s; got own British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television series called Whistle Stop, 1968; hosted radio series on the BBC, early 1970s; began touring in Germany, mid-1970s; made movie called Roger Whittaker in Kenya for the BBC, 1982; recorded Celebration, 1993; released A Perfect Day, His Greatest Hits and More, 1996.
Awards: Three gold medals representing Britain in the Brazil Song Festival in Rio de Janeiro, 1969; B’nai B’rith Humanitarian Award, 1980; British Academy of Songwriters, Composers, and Authors, Gold Badge of Merit, 1989.
Addresses: Management —Bruce Lahti, BML Management, 1730 Tree Boulevard, Unit 2, St. Augustine, FL 32086, phone: (904) 808-4772, fax: (904) 808-4767. Publicist —c/o Tembo Productions North America, Inc., 1730 Tree Boulevard, Unit 2, St. Augustine, FL 32086. Website— Roger Whittaker Official Website: http://www.rogerwhittaker.com.
I recorded my first single, ’The Charge of the Light Brigade,’” Whittaker told Billboard. “It was possibly the worst record ever made. But the follow-up single, ’Steel Men,’ actually crept into the British charts.”
While Whittaker was taking his final exams, “Steel Men” began to pick up airtime on the radio. Shortly thereafter, he learned that he had passed his exams. His life was at a crossroads, as he tried to decide which career path to follow. His website reports that Whittaker asked one of his professors for advice. The professor replied, “Take your chance. Have a try in show business and if you haven’t made it in ten years, come back here and teach. I shall always have a place at the University for you.”
Whittaker found an agent and a manager and was almost immediately booked for the summer season at Port Rush in Northern Ireland. Not long after, he met John Schultz Conway, a television producer with a weekly show called This and That. “He gave me a spot on the show, and it was so well received that I was signed for a 15-minute spot on the next 12 shows. The series became so popular that its run was extended to 48 weeks—and each show was networked throughout the United Kingdom. That was really a major break for me,” Whittaker told Billboard. In the spring of 1964, he met his future wife, Natalie. They were married just a few months later, on August 15, 1964, and would have five children.
Whittaker continued to build his name. In 1967, he was asked to join a British team for the annual music festival at Knokke, Belgium. He sang the tune “If I Were a Rich Man,” from the popular musical Fiddler on the Roof, and his own composition, “Mexican Whistler,” which Billboarded “a vehicle for his dexterous whistling technique.” His team won the competition. “Mexican Whistler” was recorded in Paris, and soon became number one on charts around the continent. Suddenly, Whittaker was receiving tour and television offers.
In 1968, he got his own British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television series called Whistle Stop. In 1969, he recorded “The Leavin’ (Durham Town).” Not thinking much of the song, he left Britain to go on tour. Upon his return, he was surprised to find that “Durham Town” was rapidly climbing the British charts. He also won three gold medals representing Britain in the Brazil Song Festival in Rio de Janeiro.
Two years later, Whittaker was hosting a radio series on the BBC. A contest was held for lyrics and poems to be sent in that Whittaker would put to music. A silversmith from Birmingham, England, submitted the lyrics for ’The Last Farewell.” Although the song did not win the contest, it was included on an album along with the winning song. Initially, the song got very little attention. However, after several years, the wife of a program director in Atlanta, Georgia, heard the song and requested that it be played on the radio. Within weeks, it became a huge hit, selling more than eleven million copies worldwide.
In the mid-1970s, Whittaker began to tour in Germany. Although he did not speak any German, he began to record his songs phonetically in German. “I was originally not too enthusiastic about doing a German-language album,” Whittaker told Billboard, “but in the end I decided to have a go and, incredibly, it worked.” He became a superstar in Germany, and by 1985 was acclaimed as the country’s most successful recording artist.
Whittaker launched a major international songwriting competition called “Children Helping Children” in 1980. Children from around the world were asked to send in lyrics and poems about peace and understanding. The contest received more than a million entries from 57 countries. A 13-year-old girl from Manila in the Philippines named Odina Batnag won the contest with “I Am But a Small Voice.” She was flown to New York and introduced to the audience at Radio City Music Hall where the song debuted. It was released worldwide, with all sales proceeds supporting the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) education for handicapped children program. That same year, Whittaker received America’s prestigious B’nai B’rith Humanitarian Award for his work with children.
In 1982, he was involved in the making of a movie about the history of Kenya through his own words and music. Roger Whittaker in Kenya was shown in Britain on BBC Television in the fall of 1983, and shown worldwide shortly after. In 1986, he hit the United Kingdom top ten singles with “The Skye Boat Song,” which he performed with Des O’Connor. He also cow-rote his autobiography with his wife, entitled So Far, So Good: The Autobiography of a Wandering Minstrel.
Whittaker was awarded the Gold Badge of Merit from his peers in the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers, and Authors in 1989. However, the year was a difficult one, as his 81-year-old father, Edward Whittaker, was murdered when burglars entered his home in Kenya.
Whittaker continued to tour and record, and was honored in 1991 by being specially invited by Bob Hope to appear and perform at the Gala Charity Show at the London Palladium. In 1993, he recorded Celebration. His album A Perfect Day, His Greatest Hits and More, released in 1996, includes a sentimental duet with his daughter, Jessica.
Whittaker still has a place in his heart for his homeland, and has expressed concern for the diminishing of wildlife in his native Kenya due to poaching. This led him to speak out for the cause and write the song “Rescue the Rhinos” to help raise funds. Whittaker continues to perform at engagements around the world. Along with his deep, rich baritone, and his legendary whistling skills, he entertains by telling stories about his life and family. His ability to sing a variety of music, including folk, country, Broadway, yodeling, and African music, provides something for everyone in any audience.
Reflecting on his ambitions, he told the Virginian-Pilot, “I want to enjoy life and my family, and I hope my children will be happy in everything they do.” Regarding his professional life, he stated, “I want to continue to make good albums, and to work with great musicians.”
New World in the Morning, RCA, 1971.
Folk Songs of Our time, RCA, 1977.
The Wind Beneath My Wings, RCA, 1982.
TheWorld of Roger Whittaker, RCA, 1988.
Christmas with Roger Whittaker, Liberty, 1992.
Live, Drive, 1993.
A Perfect Day: His Greatest Hits & More, RCA, 1996.
The Very Best, Camden, 1999.
Larkin, Colin, The Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Virgin Books Ltd., 2002.
Whittaker, Roger, with Natalie Whittaker. So Far, So Good: The Autobiography of a Wandering Minstrel, Tembo Publications, 1986.
Billboard, December 5, 1992.
Denver Post, September 21, 1998, p. G-05.
Virginian-Pilot, October 31, 1999, p. E16.
“Roger Whittaker,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 12, 2002).
“Roger Whittaker Biography,” Roger Whittaker Official Website, http://www.rogerwhittaker.com/bio/htm (October 29, 2002).
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