The definition of whistling is “to emit a clear, high-pitched sound by forcing breath through a small hole between one’s lips or teeth”. This musical instrument is well within the playing skills of most of us non-musicians so whistling songs hold a special fondness when listening to a familiar tune on your fave sound generating device allowing you to join in. My wife Aimee thought a blog post devoted to whistling songs might be fun and I agreed. I figured these sorts of songs were a lost genre like instrumentals till I started hunting. Turns out artists like Flo Rida (“Whistle”), Peter Bjorn & John (“Young Folk”) and Bruno Mars (“The Lazy Song” – great video too) have kept the style alive that goes back at least as far as Bing Crosby’s “Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day)” from the ’30s. Looking on-line, there have been a few lists devoted to whistling songs, but none of them seemed to reflect all the great songs I wanted to highlight. I was surprised at how many nifty songs I came up with meaning that several ended up hitting the cutting room floor. I decided to eliminate the show tunes (though I do love songs like “Heigh Ho” and “Whistle While You Work” plus newer ones like “Always Look At The Bright Side Of Life”) and concentrate on the rock era. I also eliminated songs that only featured a non-musical whistle like “Walkin’ The Dog” by Rufus Thomas and “Short Shorts” by the Royal Teens. So many of the songs that people think are humans whistling are actually synthesized fakes so they were eliminated from my potential list right away. My favorite song with that title (“The Whistler” – Jethro Tull) doesn’t even contain any whistling – only fife – go figure. Grab a beverage to wet your whistler and get ready to pucker to the following.
1.Whistling Jack Smith – I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman
Quite the jaunty tune composed by British Rogers Cook and Greenaway, this was a #20 U.S. hit in 1967 just pre-summer of love. The actual identity of who did the whistling is still a mystery since it was a studio session with no real artist. When it became a hit, Billy Moeller (aka Coby Wells) was drafted in to pretend to be Mr. Smith and record a quick (but fun) cash-in LP. John O’ Neill or the producer Noel Walker have been rumored to have been the lead whistlers. Either way, this is pure ear candy.
2.Gordon Lightfoot – Ghosts Of Cape Horn
This neo sea shanty comes from Canadian Gordon Lightfoot’s fine 1980 LP Dream Street Rose. He seemed particularly skilled at songs about the sea with my favorite song by him being “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” which was a #2 hit in 1976. By the ’80s he was still recording nice folk styled LPs but finding it harder to crack the charts (this album peaked at #60).
3.Mitch Miller & His Orchestra & Chorus – March from The River Kwai & Colonel Bogey
As the head of A&R for Columbia records, Miller’s sound created a pile of hits including this medley from the 1957 Alec Guinness movie about the miseries suffered at a Japanese prisoner of war camp in World War II by British prisoners. The main theme was composed by Malcolm Arnold with an added counter melody of the 1914 “Colonel Bogey March” composed by Lieutenant F. J. Ricketts. Miller’s sound was always bold, bright and layered with heavy echo giving it a stirring quality. Sing-along with Mitch became a big thing in the ’60s, but no singing here – only heavily echoed whistling.
4.Earle Hagen & His Orchestra – The Andy Griffith Theme
Boy if every boomer can’t whistle this song, I would be stunned. Hagen composed (with Herbert Spencer) and whistled a really catchy tune that had the advantage of being on an extremely popular and long-running TV show so we have heard this song hundreds of times. I own the 1961 single on the old purple Capitol label though it didn’t chart. With lyrics written by Everett Sloan, the song was titled “The Fishin’ Hole” but it was the whistled instrumental we all knew by heart. Hagen was a prolific composer writing ” Harlem Nocturne” plus themes for shows like Make Room for Daddy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Spy and The Mod Squad.
5.The Beatles – Two Of Us
This Paul McCartney composition was one of the happier songs from the dismal experience that was the recording sessions for what became the Beatles last released LP – Let It Be. While Paul says he wrote it for wife Linda, the lyrics sound more like a tribute to his musical partner John. Over a year after they recorded it, the clip of this song from the movie Let It Be was shown on the Ed Sullivan Show. March 1, 1970 would be their last appearance on the show that over 6 years earlier had launched them into the U.S. living rooms of so many kids and their parents. John Lennon is credited with the whistled line towards the end of the song.
6.Glen Campbell – Sunflower
One of my fave Glen Campbell songs, this happy ditty was written by the prolific Neil Diamond and was a perfect summer song in 1977. This was the second single released from his hugely successful Southern Nights LP and was arranged by Jack Nitzsche . While it only hit #39 on the Hot 100, it charted #1 Easy Listening and #4 Country. The whistling refrain near the end feels like someone walking down a country road in the sunshine.
7.Perry Como – Magic Moments
Burt Bacharach and Hal David had a very successful writing career mainly in the ’60s and mostly for Dionne Warwick. This was one of their very first compositions. The Ray Charles Singers, bassoon and whistling arrangement lend a wistful air to this huge early 1958 hit. With 8 weeks at #1, it was Perry’s biggest U.K. hit. In the U.S. this #4 hit was paired on one great single with the #1 hit “Catch A Falling Star” on the A-side.
8.Paul McCartney – Dance Tonight
Between the mandolin and happy whistling, this is a McCartney composition guaranteed to make you smile. Some 40 years after Sgt. Pepper…, Paul could still write a catchy tune. It was from his Memory Almost Full album and was released as a single in the U.K. on his 65th birthday June 18, 2007 (my dad’s 79th as well). It charted there at #34 and in the U.S. at #69. I bought this album when it was released through Starbucks in Monterey, CA on the 5th of June. It always reminds me of our 30th Anniversary trip that also marked the anniversary of the big pop festival held there in 1967.
9.Pat Boone – Love Letters In The Sand
Pat Boone should be in the rock and roll hall of fame. Whatever you think about his sanitized covers of songs like “Tutti Frutti” and “Ain’t That A Shame”, he and Connie Francis were pioneers of early rock and roll – period. This song fit his style far better than his rock covers and like many of Connie’s hits was a cover of a much older song. With piano triplets and Boone’s whistling, it was a #1 in the summer of 1957. The original song was published in 1931 with music by J. Fred Coots and lyrics by Charles & Nick Kenny.
10.Hugo Montenegro, His Orchestra & Chorus – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
The Clint Eastwood starring Sergio Leone movies were dubbed “Spaghetti Westerns” as they were made in Italy (and Spain). The Italian cowboy pictures made Eastwood a rugged action hero after his initial run on the TV series Rawhide ended in 1966. This was the theme song to the third Leone western becoming a #2 hit in early 1968 – 2 years after the film was released in Italy and a year after it came out here. Composer Ennio Morricone used snips of his theme throughout the movie featured the whistling of John O’Neill who may have also been Whistling Jack Smith as we saw earlier. Hugo’s version used an ocarina (also in the Troggs hit “Wild Thing”) with whistled counterpoint.
11.The Lovin’ Spoonful – Daydream
For a short period mainly in 1966, John Sebastian was a hit writing machine making the first 7 Spoonful singles top 10 chart hits – a feat matched in that era only by Gary Lewis & The Playboys. At a concert a few years ago, he said the opening chords were inspired by the song “Baby Love” by the Supremes. The relaxed good-time vibe of the song in turn inspired Paul McCartney to write “Good Day Sunshine”.
12.Otis Redding – (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay
How bittersweet was it that Otis wouldn’t live to see his crowning success of having this fine song top the charts in early 1968? After his breakout appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Otis rented a houseboat in Sausalito, CA and was inspired to write about his experience which guitarist Steve Cropper helped lyrically turn into a hit totally different than his other rawer r&b songs. Otis recorded his vocal November 22nd and died in a plane crash December 10th near Madison, WI. The whistling at the end is credited to Sam Taylor.
13.The Tremeloes – Here Comes My Baby
The first U.S. chart hit for the Tremeloes was this cover of a Cat Stevens composition. It would hit a peak of #13 in the U.S. just before the summer of love in 1967. Mike Smith produced this raucous sounding session of the group that he had chosen over the Beatles for a Decca recording contract in 1962 (at that time Brian Poole was their leader, but later left for a failed solo career). In addition to the whistled lead break, you also get cowbell as an added bonus. The band is still going today with only drummer Dave Munden left from the original members.
14.John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band (with the Flux Fiddlers) – Jealous Guy
It was hard to choose this version over the excellent Lennon tribute remake by Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, but it gets the edge because this is John Lennon, after all. This was originally an album track from John’s best solo album 1971’s Imagine. After his murder in 1980, “Jealous Guy” charted at #80 as a single from the 1988 documentary Imagine: John Lennon. Bootleg recordings from 1968 show this tune used on another song inspired by the Beatles’ trip to India – “Child Of Nature”. Paul’s “Mother Nature’s Son” was also inspired by the same subject. John later changed the lyrics to talk about his feelings of inadequacy.
15.Bobby Bloom – Montego Bay
Bobby Bloom is known mostly as a one-hit wonder for this island’s inspired percussive treat from 1970 (#8 chart hit). He was a songwriter mostly in a pop-bubblegum vein which included this co-write with Jeff Barry. The song is about Jamaica and is arranged as a calypso with whistling. Bloom died in 1974 at age 28 from what was deemed an accidental gunshot wound.
16.Larry Williams – Short Fat Fannie
At #5 (1957) this was rocker Williams’ biggest success on the charts. He is far better known, however, from the great covers of his songs by the Beatles and The Rolling Stones (“Dizzy Miss Lizzy”, “Bony Moronie”, “Slow Down”, “She Said Yeah” just to name 4). Williams couldn’t overcome his demons and would go to jail for dealing drugs in 1960. At age 44 on Jan. 7, 1980, Williams was found dead in L.A. from a gunshot. It was ruled a suicide at the time, but was suspicious.
17.Gene Pitney – Only Love Can Break A Heart
So many of the whistled songs are happy, but this was an aching ballad trilled by the late singer Gene Pitney. In the fall of 1962 Pitney took this Burt Bacharach & Hal David song to #2. In an ironic twist, the song that kept Gene from #1 was “He’s A Rebel” by the Crystals – a song Pitney wrote.
18.The New Vaudeville Band – Winchester Cathedral
The whole first part of the song is whistled till the megaphoned crooner comes in on the next verse taking the song to #1 in December 1966. British songwriter Geoff Stephens had recorded his song as a studio session with another songwriter John Carter (the Ivy League) singing lead. When the record became a hit, an unrelated New Vaudeville Band was quickly assembled for touring. The song won the 1967 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary (R&R) Recording which is about as rock and roll as the Grammy awards got back then.
19.The Highwaymen – Michael
During the early ’60s folk boom, this cover of the African-American song “Michael, Row The Boat Ashore” went to #1 on the charts in the U.S. Perhaps it was the slightly out of tune whistling or the simpleness of the song, but the rest of the world ate it up too pushing the song to #1 in the U.K and #4 in Germany. Their only other top 20 hit was “Cotton Fields”. Note that the country act with folks like Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash was not the same Highwaymen.
20.Mitch Miller & His Orchestra & Chorus – Tunes Of Glory
There must be something about Alec Guinness movies that inspired Mitch Miller whistling hits – then again maybe it was because the music in this 1960 movie was supplied again by Malcolm Arnold who had done The Bridge Over The River Kwai. The tune is better known as an unofficial anthem of Scotland – “Scotland The Brave”. The song is usually performed on bagpipes, but Miller chose a whistler to lead instead. While it only got to #88 in 1961, it is indeed a stirring anthem.
21.Fitz & The Tantrums – The Walker
Michael Fitzpatrick, Noelle Scaggs and James King proved that a catchy song can still be made with whistling in 2013. The song’s popularity in culture (being used in movies and TV a number of times) is at odds with the low chart placement of #67. The band’s indie soul inflected pop sound isn’t in tune with the modern hip-hop culture which is a pity as they write catchy songs including this and “HandClap”.
22.Peter Gabriel – Games Without Frontier
While only a #48 charter in the U.S., this single charted at #4 in the U.K. in the fall of 1980 for the former Genesis lead singer. If one can believe Wikipedia, the whistling is performed by Gabriel with producers Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham. Gabriel’s quirky lyrics seem to be a commentary on world politics and war. Background vocals are by Kate Bush.
23.The Monkees – Tapioca Tundra
I was at first resistant to include this Mike Nesmith tune due to his atonal whistling at the beginning, but since the song is catchy and has some of his finest lyrics, it stays on the list (plus Mike was my fave Monkee at the time – sort of their Lennon). By the time of the 5th Monkees LP The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, the band members were pretty much working on their own songs without help from other band members. This was mostly a Nesmith solo record with Eddie Hoh on drums and charted as a single B-side at #34 in early 1968 (the A-side was “Valleri”).
24.J. Geils Band – Centerfold
The first two J. Geils Band albums were excellent American blues-rock and their Atlantic album Full House is one of the best live albums ever. After that I lost interest in the band for a number of years as they dabbled in various r&b styles. It was, however, hard not to get renewed interest in the band in the ’80s with great songs like “Love Stinks”, “Freeze Frame” and this #1 hit (February 1981). This song was their only real U.K hit at #3. There is just enough whistling at the end of this Seth Justman composition to qualify for this list.
25.Don Robertson – The Happy Whistler
Songwriter Don Robertson passed away at age 92 in 2015 having composed such hits as “Ringo” (Lorne Greene), “Anything That’s Part Of You” (Elvis Presley) and “Born To Be With You” (The Chordettes). As a one-hit wonder he hit #6 whistling this merry little tune in 1956 (#8 in the U.K.).