Slim Whitman, Yodeling Country Singer With a Regular-Guy Image, Dies at 90
Published: June 19, 2013
In the 1996 movie comedy “Mars Attacks!” Slim Whitman’s yodeling, high-octave rendition of “Indian Love Call” causes the heads of the invading Martians to explode, saving Planet Earth.
Mr. Whitman, the country crooner with the weather-beaten face, velvet voice and sentimental lyrics, was often the object of humor, almost always good-natured. In the early 1980s a disc jockey offered Slim Whitman makeup kits “complete with receding hairline, furry black eyebrows and a cream to make your upper lip quiver.” In 1997 Rush Limbaugh whimsically suggested that when Mr. Whitman’s songs were played backward, the Devil’s voice could be heard. (It couldn’t.)
In 2003 Jim Nayder, who hosts “The Annoying Music Show!” on NPR, announced that he was giving Mr. Whitman a lifetime achievement award. A generation of late-night television hosts joked about him.
The reason for all this jocularity about Mr. Whitman — who died at 90 on Wednesday in Orange Park, Fla. — was his ordinary-guy, squeaky-clean sincerity in writing and singing songs that were, depending on one’s taste, inspiring love ballads aimed at middle-agers or pure cornball. But the bottom line is that Mr. Whitman could laugh all the way to the proverbial bank.
He recorded more than 500 songs, made more than 100 albums and sold more than 70 million records. In the 1970s his recording of “Rose Marie” was No. 1 on the British pop charts for 11 weeks, a feat the Beatles never accomplished. Michael Jackson named Mr. Whitman one of his 10 favorite vocalists. George Harrison credited him as an early influence. Paul McCartney said Mr. Whitman gave him the idea of playing the guitar left-handed.
Elvis Presley, in his first professional appearance in Memphis in 1954, opened for Mr. Whitman. Mistakenly billed as Ellis, he was paid $50; Mr. Whitman got $500. Mr. Whitman later let Presley borrow his trademark white rhinestone jacket.
Through an eclectic repertory that included Broadway show tunes, European folk music, religious songs, cowboy songs and, of course, love songs, Mr. Whitman said he strove to reach everyday people, to bring “the big songs down to the people’s size,” as he put it.
For better or worse, he helped put a twist on how records were sold. In 1979 he blitzed daytime and late-night television for months with advertisements for a greatest-hits album, “All My Best.” Without radio airplay or record-store sales, it became a strong seller. He followed up with three more albums of old songs in the 1980s and ’90s. “Twilight on the Trail,” his first studio album in 20 years, came out in 2010.
Ottis (pronounced AH-tis) Dewey Whitman Jr. was born in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 23, 1923, and liked to listen to Jimmie Rodgers yodel on the family radio. After leaving high school he worked at a meatpacking plant, where he lost part of a finger in an accident. In 1941 he eloped with Alma Crist, who would help him overcome his severe stutter.
He joined the Navy, where he served in the South Pacific and entertained shipmates by singing, yodeling and playing the guitar, which he had learned to play upside down and left-handed.
After the war he played weekly in a supermarket and was hired to perform on local radio stations. Colonel Tom Parker, who later managed Presley, heard him and helped him get a contract with RCA Victor Records. Mr. Whitman adopted the stage name Slim and began to appear on the radio show “Louisiana Hayride,” whose performers also included Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
In 1952 he had his first hit song, “Love Song of the Waterfall,” which 25 years later became part of the soundtrack for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” He nonetheless kept his day job as a postman. “Indian Love Call,” which later killed fictional Martians, soon followed and also became a hit. Mr. Whitman stopped carrying mail.
In 1954 he recorded “Rose Marie,” which raced to the top of the charts. His long popularity in Britain began when a promoter arranged to have the song broadcast there from a radio station in Luxembourg. Not until 1992 was the song’s long reign at the top of the charts surpassed, by Bryan Adams’s “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You.” In 1956 Mr. Whitman became the first American country artist to play the London Palladium.
His other hits included “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” “Red River Valley,” “Danny Boy” and “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.” He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
His wife of 67 years died in 2009. Mr. Whitman, who lived in Middleburg, Fla., is survived by his daughter, Sharon Beagle; his son, Byron; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His son told The Associated Press that he died of heart failure.
Mr. Whitman told The A.P. in 1991 that he wanted to be thought of as “a nice guy” and a good father. “I’d like people to remember me,” he said, “as having a good voice and a clean suit.”