Free & Easy night in a club in the 1970s. Anywhere north of Leicester Forest East. The waves of cigarette smoke. The organist paid in ale. John from the cricket club is leaning against the wall by the organ. His chin in his chest, he gives murderous vent to the week’s travails at British Ropes in his weekly assault on Roger Whittaker’s The Last Farewell.
Remembering Roger Whittaker
Whittaker died this week aged 87 and his passing was largely unheralded. There was a 24-hour gap before his obituaries popped up on news websites (an aeon in the modern media landscape), and there was no queue of C-list celebs paying tribute to try and raise their profile.
All of which is interesting and a bit unfair on poor old Rog. No artist embodies the 1970s more than him.
Don’t get me wrong: I thought he was comically poor. My dad, however, loved him and whenever he commandeered the family stereo (a Phillips with no headphone socket, since you ask), it was the signal for inter-generational conflict in what was, normally, a very jolly household.
Having endured Dad’s jibes at my elevated taste in music (Slade: “Noise.” Pink Floyd: “When’s it get going then?” Yes: “When they going to play something we know?”), Roger Whitaker was very much Fair Game. It was that sort of house.
Though much travelled, having been born in Nairobi to English parents in 1936 (the same year as my dad), and having done his National Service in Africa (probably best not go there), geography wasn’t a particular strong point for the musician.
As I may have occasionally pointed out as Dad flopped in his chair after a brisk 12-hour day on the building sites, in the hit Durham Town, Whittaker wouldn’t have had a very good view…
Sitting on the banks of the River Tyne
Watching all the ships go sailing by,
… seeing as how Durham is on the River Wear, 15 miles to the south. Not only that, but in The Last Farewell the location of the ship that lay “rigged and ready in the harbour” seemed to vary from verse to verse. Not only that, but the lyrics seemed to imply that the narrator had died several times. So who was he singing it to, where and how? A mess, I helpfully used to explain.
There’s just a chance I may have missed the point.
In a career which began in folk clubs whilst doing a teaching degree, Whitaker sold 50 million (yes, FIFTY MILLION: eat that, Ocean Colour Scene) albums to mums and dads who lapped up his baritone easy-listening style. Not only that, but in the 1970s it was relatively easy to see him live in cabaret, at places like Wakefield Theatre Club where, for about three quid, people like my dad could clean their trowel, nip home, have a bath and go to enjoy million-selling acts on a fairly regular basis. Up close and personal. My dad always insisted on shaking hands with him at the end of his spot.
A lost world.
All sorts of whistles
It’s easy to forget, when pop historians tend to edit the past according to what makes then look edgy, that, in an era before X-Factor-style career pathways, there were hundreds of acts who made records, did the circuit and sold millions despite their lack of cool. They actually could turn up, armed with just a guitar, have a quick rehearsal with Willie Hirst and his Swingin’ Brass and deliver a 45-minute set full of hits to knackered parents sick of power cuts.
Whittaker was as much the 1970s as the cover of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. In fact, that whole glam schtick only makes sense in the context of a world where Roger Whitaker sold more records than Ziggy Stardust. In photos, he is a quiet riot of beige and brown. His voice even sounded beige. He looked like your geography teacher. Massive in Germany (by dint of learning his entire repertoire phonetically): the music critic of Der Spiegel described him as having “the diligence and charisma of an accountant”.
And then there was the whistling. When not ladling out soothing ballads during the Three-Day Week, his other speciality was whistling. There was Mexican Whistler, African Whistler, all sorts of flippin’ whistlers. The word “WIMOWEH” figured large. Conflict just short of small arms fire would always follow in our house. Strange thing was, we never argued about anything else.
When my dad passed away, we played the Benny Hill theme tune (he had the album by Boots Randolph, since you ask), we all had a laugh and felt the loss peacefully – as good as it gets, I suppose.
While writing this article, I looked up that dratted Mexican Bloody Whistler and was in floods.
Noel Coward was right about cheap music.