Where have all the whistlers gone?


WHEN was the last time you heard someone whistling a merry tune? In my younger days it seemed that every labourer whistled while he worked and some were real virtuosi, adding trills and frills to the popular tunes of the day.

Lip-pursing performances were compulsory for boys at my old grammar school after the rumour went round that an inability to whistle meant you were a ‘poof’. As I have written before here, I used to whistle Frank Zappa’s Willie the Pimp on the way to and from school and occasionally succeeded in matching the recorded time of nine minutes 21 seconds. I suppose that if I were a schoolboy walking (!) to school nowadays I would have earbuds connected to my mobile phone blasting out modern rap ‘music’ which has no tune anyway. Perhaps that’s why we got out of the habit.

Strangely enough, you seldom heard a girl whistle, perhaps because it was seen as not ladylike, and this carried through to later life. My wife Margaret still cannot. One exception is a girl named Sarah, who used to clean for us and cheerily whistled non-stop as she mopped and scrubbed. Another is an Indian girl, Pooja Chandramohan, who at the age of 19 whistled non-stop for a world record 30 hours, one minute and 30 seconds. Here’s a sample of her performance at a hall in Wallajah Road, Chennai, in September 2017.

In the words of the New Indian Express, ‘the talented whistler confidently whistled out popular songs from Tamil, English, Hindi and Korean and made it look as easy as breathing. She took the audience on a musical roller coaster ride, swaying between genres and breathing out feel-good foot-tapping numbers that got the audience clapping in rhythm to soulful melancholic renditions that gave everyone goosebumps. When she whistled the rendition of Doli Saja ke Rakhna, her friends couldn’t help dancing to her tunes which further fuelled the amusement of the audience.

‘Rajat Tarkas, Pooja’s trainer and the founder of A Whistling World, said: “As a little girl of seven years, she first approached me in this very same hall. I am proud that she has successfully completed her attempt. No matter what, she will remain the number one in the world to me”.’

I have always been a sucker for whistling on records, even the novelty single I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman, which reached No 5 in the charts in 1967. Written by Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook, its original title was Too Much Birdseed. It went out under the name Whistling Jack Smith, although it was mainly performed by the Mike Sammes Singers. Some sources say the principal whistler was trumpeter John O’Neill, others that it was the producer, Noel Walker. On Top of the Pops and other TV programmes including Germany’s Beat Club,  it was mimed by an actor named Coby Wells.

Hard on its heels came another novelty tune, Mexican Whistler, by Roger Whittaker, who was born in Kenya to British parents and came to England in 1959 at the age of 23. He studied zoology, biochemistry and marine biology and was apparently a brilliant scholar but he gave up science to become an entertainer. Mexican Whistler was his breakthrough record although he gained more success as a singer with hits including The Leavin’ (Durham Town). He is still with us, aged 86.

Also in 1967, on the B-side of She, the great Roy Orbison recorded Here Comes the Rain, Baby. Even his whistling has a vibrato effect.

Perhaps the greatest song including whistling, and definitely my favourite, is Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay. Redding, who co-wrote it with guitarist Steve Cropper, recorded it in November 1967 with overdubs on December 7. Three days after that he was among six killed when his charter plane crashed into a lake in Wisconsin. Dock Of The Bay was rush-released the following month and became the first posthumous American No 1, also reaching No 3 in the UK. I’ll never forget an edition of Top of the Pops which, as Otis’s whistling ended the tune, crassly showed a picture of water with his face emerging from the deep.

I could mention many more whistling hits, but I’ll restrict myself to John Lennon’s Jealous Guy, which was covered more than adequately by Bryan Ferry, and of course Monty Python’s excruciatingly tasteless Always Look On The Bright Side of Life.

The Essex Angel

I DON’T know if you believe in angels, but Margaret and I do since more than 30 years ago when we were living in Shoeburyness, Essex, and working for the Daily Mail in London. On the way home one rainy morning at about 2.30am we were on a desolate unlit stretch of road which linked the A13 with the A127 when my Peugeot 205 got a flat tyre. I went to the boot for the spare but found there was no jack – it must have been mislaid during the last service. This not being a motorway, there were of course no roadside telephones and it was long before the age of mobiles. At that time of night there was no one on the road from whom to thumb a lift. Despair. We were just about to begin the long trudge to civilisation when a pair of headlights appeared through the gloom and I flagged down the approaching vehicle. It was an AA van!

Although the driver had finished his shift and was on the way home, and we weren’t even AA members (we were in the RAC), he was happy to change the tyre for us and was loath to accept the £20 note I offered, agreeing only when I insisted. And with a flap of his wings, he was gone.

Old jokes’ home

Why should you take an old bluesman with you when you go on a pub crawl? Because it’s always wise to have a WC Handy.

A PS from PG

I’ve seen him a couple of times in the arena, and was profoundly impressed by his virtuosity. Rugby football is more or less a sealed book to me, I never having gone in for it, but even I could see he was good. The lissomness with which he moved hither and thither was most impressive, as was his homicidal ardour when doing what I believe is called tackling. Like the Canadian Mounted Police he always got his man, and when he did so the air was vibrant with the excited cries of the morticians in the audience making bids for the body.

PG Wodehouse: Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves


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