Slim Whitman, country crooner loved and mocked in equal measure, dies at 90

Saturday, June 22, 2013
Slim Whitman, the country crooner and yodeler who influenced members of the Beatles and whose voice helped repel an alien invasion in director Tim Burton’s 1996 sci-fi parody Mars Attacks!, died Wednesday at a hospital in Orange Park, Fla. He was 90.

The cause was heart and kidney ailments, said a son-in-law, Roy Beagle.

To his fans, Whitman’s music was wholesome and sentimental. To others, it was just plain cornball. Either way, he sold more than 70 million recordings.

His hits included Indian Love Call (1952), which reached the Billboard Pop Top 10, Danny Boy (1953), Secret Love (1953) and Rose Marie (1954). Each was replete with yodeling, leading one former colleague to describe him as “an Irish tenor singing Sigmund Romberg.”

None was a typical song for a country singer, but the odd choices had much to do with his appeal. His repertoire of show tunes, cowboy songs and innocent love songs contrasted with the cheating and drinking songs of honky-tonk singers such as Hank Williams and Webb Pierce.

“I was bringing the big songs down to the people’s size,” Whitman told The Washington Post in 1981. “I’ve always been with a good song. There’s nothing I say, either, that couldn’t be said in church.”

Whitman’s clear, bell-like tones earned him a spot on the nation’s two most popular country programs, Louisiana Hayride, broadcast from Shreveport, La., and Grand Ole Opry, from Nashville. In 1956, he became one of the first country stars to perform at the London Palladium.

Whitman’s popularity in the United States waned in the 1960s, but he remained a consistent draw in England and Australia for decades. His remake of Rose Marie reached No. 1 on the U.K. pop charts in 1970.

Future Beatle George Harrison recalled his father, a merchant seaman, bringing Whitman’s records home. Whitman, who strummed the guitar with his left hand, also bolstered fellow lefty Paul McCartney’s resolve to play in the way that came naturally. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Whitman blanketed the United States with late-night television ads hawking his greatest-hits collection, All My Best. These ads were instrumental in revitalizing his career among American record buyers and culminated in the use of Indian Love Call in the climax of Burton’s Mars Attacks!

In the movie, the invading Martians are repulsed — in many ways — when an elderly woman plays the record. The aliens’ innards explode when they hear Whitman yodel.

Whitman — who received a 2003 lifetime achievement award from NPR’s The Annoying Music Show! — took the joke in stride and perhaps even with some pride. “Yes,” he told an interviewer, “I’m the one who killed the blasted Martians.”

Ottis (pronounced AH-tis) Dewey Whitman Jr. was born Jan. 20, 1923, in Tampa, Fla. As a youngster, he fell in love with yodeling from the records of Jimmie Rodgers and the singing cowboy known as Montana Slim.

After completing high school, he sang on local radio and worked in a meatpacking plant. While in his teens, he married Geraldine Crist, a Tampa radio announcer who helped him overcome a stutter.

His wife died in 2009. Survivors include two children, Sharron Beagle and Byron Whitman, both of Middleburg, Fla.; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

After Navy service in World War II, Whitman toured with the Dallas-based western swing group the Light Crust Doughboys. Tom Parker, who later managed Elvis Presley, was an early supporter of Whitman’s recording career.

At a 1954 concert in Memphis, Presley — mistakenly billed as “Ellis Presley” — opened for Whitman.

“I have no idea what he sang,” Whitman told a Memphis reporter decades later. “I don’t think the girls liked his singing too much, but they loved his wiggle.”

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