Slim Whitman (born Ottis Dewey Whitman, Jr., 1923) was the butt of many jokes and parodies. In 1996, Tim Burton theorized that his yodeling might make aliens' heads explode: Mars Attacks featured Whitman's song "Indian Love Call" as the source of the martians' agony and death. Johnny Carson once pretended to be suffering from "Slim Whitman's Disease," which caused him to break out uncontrollably into yodels while speaking. Luckily, the made-up ad promised, Yodel Hills Hospital can help when "someone you love talks silly" (click here to see that skit). And, according to writer Graham Reid, Playboy magazine unceremoniously ridiculed him: "With a hairline that can't quite decide where it's receding to, a pair of front teeth you could pass a table knife between, and a dazzling black suit of rhinestone and polyester, Slim was the most arresting screen image since Yoda."
But, Slim got the last laugh. He influenced scores of musicians. Paul McCartney was supposedly inspired by a photo of Whitman to restring his guitar opposite from the way it is strung for right-handed players (read Barry Miles' book Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now, p. 21). Whitman was actually right-handed, but he had lost most of the second finger on his left hand in an accident so he learned to fret with his right hand instead and reversed the order of the strings. With his No. 1 hit "Rose Marie," he held the record for the longest time a single stayed on the UK pop music charts. "Rose Marie" was No. 1 for 11 weeks, a record unmatched even by The Beatles or Elvis! (embarrassing end to the story: he held that record for 36 years, from 1955 to 1991, until Bryan Adams, of all people, broke that record). And judging from the number of RIP's about Slim on Facebook today (even on a day when the internet was flooded with James Gandolfini obits), Whitman has not been forgotten.
His overall career trajectory looks like an upside-down bell curve. He had a string of hits in the '50s, partly due to the fact that he had won the attention of Col. Tom Parker, Elvis's manager during his RCA years. Performing on Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry, Whitman wowed audiences with his unique falsetto and yodeling style. Following the smooth crooner "countrypolitan" trend of the day, he picked and recorded mostly songs that focused on love and romance rather hard-drinking woes: "Love Song of the Waterfall" (#10 on the Country chart, 1952, written by Bob Nolan), "Indian Love Call" (#2, 1952, a song from the soundtrack to Rose-Marie, a 1924 musical partially penned by Oscar Hammerstein II), "Secret Love" (#2, 1954, written by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster), "Rose Marie" (#4, 1953, from the same musical that "Indian Love Call" came from), and more.
But as was the case with other homegrown musical styles, like blues, the Brits took more long-term interest in Slim Whitman than his own countrymen did. While he continued to enjoy tremendous success in the UK and in Australia from the late '50s to the late '70s, Whitman sort of faded from view in the U.S. with his recordings charting mostly at the bottom end of the Top 100 Country chart (as if that's a bad thing - I'd be happy to once in my lifetime make the Top 100!).
That was the dip in his career, until it all changed with an invitation by Malcolm Smith, the head of Suffolk Marketing's mail order record company. Smith urged Whitman to make a television commercial to promote a greatest hits album. All My Best became the best-selling TV-marketed record in history, selling something like 2 million units (reported figures range from 1.5 to 2 million). He went on to achieve household-name status again from the late '70s to the early '90s with three different TV-marketed compilation records. That's when he also became fodder for various parodies, but who cares, he was bringing in the dough anyway! In fact, in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Whitman is name-checked as the only country star to have ever made any money!
Whitman is of interest to rockabilly and psychobilly fans because we can perhaps appreciate the interesting way that he built on Jimmie Rodgers' yodeling contributions to country music, combining the "singing brakeman's" iconic hillbilly falsetto with the smooth, romantic, countrypolitan style that became popular in later years (particularly with the Col. Tom Parker - RCA period of Elvis' career). Plus, what psychobilly fan doesn't like Mars Attacks? I'm sure that was the first time I looked into this character, and I am glad I did.
He lived a heck of a lot longer than hard-drinking, pill-popping, hard-partying country legends like Hank Williams. His grandson remembers Slim as a humble man with a firm handshake who didn't drink or smoke or participate in crazy music industry parties. He worked on his farm, grew his garden, and hoed the weeds, living to a ripe old age, outliving most of his contemporaries. Slim Whitman died of heart failure on June 19, 2013 in Florida at the age of 90.