Poster Roger Whittaker
Roger Whittaker performs during rehearsals for a German TV show in 2007.
Ralf Juergens/Getty Images

How an orchestra helped create Roger Whittaker’s biggest hit

British folk singer Roger Whittaker, who died last week at 87, ruled the airwaves in the 1970s with easy-listening hits that included “Durham Town” and “New World in the Morning.” You – or maybe your parents or grandparents – couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing one of his smoothly delivered songs or watch TV without seeing a commercial for his greatest-hits collections. But it’s his biggest song, “The Last Farewell,” that has a lovely connection to the orchestral world.

To say that “The Last Farewell” was a hit would be an understatement. Released in 1971, it is one of only about 44 physical singles to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide. And it remains stunningly beautiful, with a nautical theme and picturesque lyrics:

There's a ship lies rigged and ready in the harbor
Tomorrow for old England she sails
Far away from your land of endless sunshine
To my land full of rainy skies and gales
And I shall be aboard that ship tomorrow
Though my heart is full of tears at this farewell
For you are beautiful, and I have loved you dearly
More dearly than the spoken word can tell

The song came to be from a contest Whittaker ran as part of a British radio program he hosted in the early ‘70s, in which he would sing with the backing of an orchestra.

"One of the ideas I had was to invite listeners to send their poems or lyrics to me, and I would make songs out of them,” he says in the 1999 book The Billboard Book of #1 Adult Contemporary Hits. “We got a million replies, and I did one each week for 26 weeks."

One of those entries was by Ron A. Webster, and his words became “The Last Farewell.” Whittaker wrote the music, driven by a wistful melody. But it was composer Zack Lawrence who took the tune to another level with a stunning orchestral arrangement that included a majestic horn solo, a classical nod that Whittaker cited as creating much of the song’s appeal.

“I'm old enough to remember when this song first came out,” one commenter said on YouTube after Whittaker’s passing. “It still gives me chills.”

See if you agree.

Rest in peace, Roger Whittaker.

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