Slim Whitman: One of the biggest-selling musicians in the history of country and western

 

Slim Whitman was one of the biggest-selling country and western performers. He became famous with such classic 1950s singles as "Rose Marie", "Indian Love Call" and "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" and then 20 years later recorded a succession of best-selling TV-marketed albums. In November 1991 he joined Bryan Adams on stage at Wembley Arena and sang "Rose Marie", which had topped the chart for a record 11 consecutive weeks. He then presented Adams with a plaque for breaking his achievement with "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You".

Ottis Dewey Whitman Jr became Slim Whitman in homage to the country star Montana Slim (Wilf Carter). He was born into a family of five children in Tampa, Florida in 1924. His family was musical and he became intrigued by Jimmie Rodgers' records and found that he could emulate his yodel. Because of a stammer he was unhappy at school and left as soon as he could.

He sang at the Church of the Brethren and there in 1938 he met the new minister's daughter, Geraldine Crisp. They married in 1941; he regarded his marriage as crucial to his success as she gave him standards he might otherwise have lacked. Despite being a country singer (and however improbable this may sound), he never sang about bar-rooms and adultery. He told me, "If I'm given new songs to look at and one of them is about drinking, I'll ask for the next. I don't care how good it is. I know that songs about the boozer sell a lot of records, but I won't sing them. Many of the songs are about a guy in a bar-room with another man's wife and I won't touch those either. David Houston may have sold a million with 'Almost Persuaded' but I would never have recorded it."

During the war he worked in a shipyard and saw action in the navy. His singing was so popular that his captain blocked his transfer to another ship – fortunately for Whitman, as the other ship was sunk with all hands lost. After his discharge he was a pitcher for the Plant City Berries but he preferred singing, and recorded for RCA-Victor at the suggestion of Colonel Tom Parker in 1949. After moderate success with "I'm Casting My Lasso Towards The Sky" and "Birmingham Jail", he moved to Shreveport, Louisiana so he could appear each week on the radio show Louisiana Hayride.

In 1952, Whitman's steel player, Hoot Rains, overshot a note while they were recording "Love Song Of The Waterfall", and this became a trademark. It became his first major hit but he continued as a postman. "I was a postman when 'Love Song Of The Waterfall' was selling half a million copies. I was a Top 10 artist and I was delivering mail. When I had 'Indian Love Call' in the charts I decided it was time to go."

The 1920s operetta Rose Marie, which tells how a Canadian Mountie always gets his woman, was staged on Broadway in 1924, and two songs became standards, the title song and "Indian Love Call". It was filmed with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in 1935, and when Whitman's wife Jerry was playing the score on the piano he realised its potential. This was followed by country hits with "China Doll", "North Wind" and "Secret Love". Touring wasn't always plain sailing, he told me. "Elvis was on tour with us in 1955. He'd gotten one or two records out and it was obvious that he was going to be very special. We realised what he was like and put him on last."

In 1955 Whitman returned to Florida, which restricted his appearances on Grand Ole Opry as going to Nashville every week was too time-consuming. He returned to Rudolf Friml and Oscar Hammerstein's musical for "Rose Marie" itself – "I took it from classical to country," he said, "and threw in some yodels for good measure." The record was a smash hit and established him in the UK. "I knew the record was getting big in England as I remember getting a telegram saying 'ROSE MARIE HAS SOLD 80,000 AND IS NUMBER 10'. The next week it was 'ROSE MARIE HAS SOLD 150,000 AND IS NUMBER 4' and then it was 'ROSE MARIE HAS SOLD 400,000 AND IS NUMBER 1'."

The song topped the UK charts from 30 July to 8 October 1955 and was followed by chart success for "Indian Love Call", "China Doll" and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds". Whitman became the first country star to top a London Palladium bill and he toured the UK on a variety bill with the comedian Tommy Trinder and specialist acts. A young Paul McCartney saw him at the Liverpool Empire and realised he could play the guitar left-handed. Whitman couldn't play any other way because he had lost part of a finger in an accident at a meat-packing plant.

He was out of place in the 1957 rock'n'roll film Disc Jockey Jamboree; his whole body of work was as if rock'n'roll had never happened. During the 1960s he was something of a stopped clock but his records appealed to his large and dedicated fan base. The accuracy and breath control of his yodelling can be heard to superb effect on "Chime Bells" (1963) and "There's A Rainbow In Every Teardrop" (1967).

Whitman loved coming to the UK and in 1973, his 25th anniversary concert at the Empire Theatre, Liverpool, was recorded for an album. It led to a hit single, "Happy Anniversary", the following year.

An executive with United Artists, Alan Warner, thought that he should record pop standards the Whitman way for albums which could be marketed on television. Both The Very Best Of Slim Whitman (1976) and Red River Valley (1977) topped the album charts, with Home On The Range making No 2. He was marketed in the same way in the US with considerable success and became a huge touring attraction.

Whitman was not one for throwing surprises but UK audiences were bewildered when he asked his son, Byron Keith (born in 1957), to tour with him. At first his son had little of his father's ability, but gradually came to match him "yodel for yodel". The cover of The Legendary Slim Whitman with Son Byron Whitman (2002) showed that Byron had copied his father right down to the famous moustache.

Whitman effectively retired in 2002 although he still performed occasional weeks in Las Vegas. He was a modest, unassuming man, who said, "I don't know the secret of my success. I guess it's the songs I sing and the friendly attitude. When I say hello, I mean it."

Spencer Leigh

Ottis Dewey Whitman Jr (Slim Whitman), guitarist, singer and songwriter: born Tampa, Florida 20 January 1924; married 1941 Geraldine Crisp (died 2009; one son, one daughter); died Orange Park, Florida 19 June 2013.

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