Roger Whittaker talks to Judi Spiers
PUBLISHED: 11:50 18 March 2009 | UPDATED: 15:52 20 February 2013
The singer songwriter and whistler talks about his fifty golden years in the music business
When he first heard that the record company was releasing The Leaving (Durham Town), Roger Whittaker said, "Now, there's a mistake. Gee, that'll never do anything. So I went to Finland to work, and I was doing cabaret in a fish restaurant, and halfway through the three-week gig somebody said 'You've gotta come back and do Top of the Pops, it's the fastest climber!' So I did, and after that everything went right."
A little bit of an understatement! That was 1969 and to date Roger has clocked up worldwide record sales of over 55 million. He has more than 250 silver, gold and platinum albums and two Ivor Novello awards. He's also just brought out an album celebrating 50 years of making music.
I first met Roger many years ago when he came to Plymouth to make a series for Westward Television.
"I used to fly down every week and I'd land at Plymouth," he told me, "and the guy that flew me was a flying teacher and I said to him, this seems a good idea to me, if I'm going to do 300 concerts a year, I should get my own plane," And so I did, and it was delivered to Plymouth and I learned to fly it, and I upgraded to a bigger plane and I flew my group and myself all over the world."
The series was a six-parter and every week Roger opened the show wearing a different coloured velvet jacket and bow tie. I used to stand at the edge of the studio set and marvel as this gentle, softly spoken man whistled up a storm. How can he do that to order, I used to wonder, and where does it come from, whistling in the middle of a song? I had to wait nearly 30 years to hear the answer.
"Well you know, when I was much younger," Roger explained, "I fell in love with Paraguayan music. They play it on flutes and harps and guitars and drums, and I took a couple of songs by the Triolos Paraguayos that I'd found in a record store, and I played my guitar like a harp - it sounded like a harp and a guitar at the same time - and I took a couple of these melodies and whistled them until I got them right. I did it just for me.
"And then one day I was in Scotland working and the cabaret audience was pretty difficult and I thought what can I do to impress this audience? And one Wednesday night I went in and I whistled Skye Boat Song and they went ballistic, they loved it; and I thought, wait a minute, I'm missing something here. People love whistling so much, why not include it in your act and do it, specially in difficult places where the audience is too high-brow or too low-brow they don't want to listen really, you need to grab their attention? And whistling's been an important part of it ever since."
It even helped Britain to win the Knokke Music Festival in Belgium in the late '60s.
"That's absolutely right," he confirmed. "That was a very important event in my life. 1967, and I didn't want to go. NEMS Enterprises said, 'We want to make up this team, we want Gerry Marsden to regain his stature and we want you to go there and help the team', so I said oh well, all right. I needed the money to pay the mortgage. So, anyway, I went out there and sang If I Were a Rich Man, and they said, 'What's your second song?' and I said what? 'Second song', they said. I said, oh well, I'll whistle Mexican Whistler, because I could do it on my own. And I thought this is tricky, I'd better write some words to this. So I wrote a verse to it and sang the verse, and then I whistled some more, and this really did it, and I got the press prize, which was a prize I didn't even know existed. And lo and behold, suddenly Rich Man was number one in the Benelux countries and France, and all over the place."
To think that Roger was a gnat's whisker away from a career in teaching. Born in Kenya to British parents, he went to Bangor University to study biochemistry and zoology. In the last year before sitting his degree he became involved with the university Rag Week when he was approached to compose some songs to sing in the Rag Show. In doing so he made a demo track that found its way to a major music publisher. Before he knew it he was back in the studio recording his first single, but it was his second release, Steel Men, that started to pick up airtime.
"My mates used to come in and say 'hey, your record's on', and I'd say, get out, I'm working! I did my final exams and then I was offered a summer season in Port Rush in Northern Ireland, and I said to my dad, look, it seems I'm destined to entertain people, I'm over the big barriers that people have, so why don't I just do it for a year and get it out of my system?"
That was 50 years ago and retirement has been mentioned on a couple of occasions. In fact, Roger did have a stab at it in 2001.
"I was in Germany and I'd had flu for five weeks, I was singing terribly, and I said this is it, I'm too old for this. And six months later I was saying have we got a guitar in the house? Let me buy a little DAT machine, I'll write a few songs... and then they said, 'Oh come back and do another tour of Germany', and I said OK."
When we talked he was off there and not due to finish until the end of March. Ah well, biochemistry and zoology's loss.
The Golden Age of Roger Whittaker: 50 years of classic hits is out now.