Slim Whitman Biography

Otis Dewey Whitman Jnr., 20 January 1924, Tampa, Florida, USA. As a child, Whitman’s stutter was ridiculed by other children and consequently, he left school as soon as he could. Even though his stutter is now cured, he has never cared for public speaking and says little during his stage act. Several members of his family were musical and he became interested in Jimmie Rodgers’ recordings when he discovered that he too could yodel. After leaving school, he worked in a meat-packing plant where he lost part of a finger, which, several years later, led to him turning a guitar tutor upside down and learning to play left-handed. He later remarked, ‘ Paul McCartney saw me in Liverpool and realized that he too could play the guitar left-handed.’ Whitman sang at his family’s local church, the Church of the Brethren, and it was here, in 1938, that he met the new minister’s daughter, Geraldine Crisp. After borrowing $10 from his mother for the license, he married her in 1941. Whitman regards his long-standing marriage as a major ingredient in his success, and he wrote and dedicated a song to her, ‘Jerry’. During World War II, he worked as a fitter in a shipyard and then saw action in the US Navy. While on board, he soon realized his talents for entertaining his fellow crew members, but in his first concert, he tempted fate by singing ‘When I’m Gone You’ll Soon Forget Me’. However, his singing became so popular that the captain blocked his transfer to another ship - fortunately for Whitman, as the other ship was sunk with all hands lost.

After his discharge, he had some success in baseball, but he preferred singing, choosing the name Slim Whitman as a tribute to Wilf Carter (Montana Slim), and often working on radio. He first recorded for RCA - Victor Records at the suggestion of Tom Parker, in 1949. After moderate successes with ‘I’m Casting My Lasso Towards The Sky’ and ‘Birmingham Jail’, he moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, so that he could appear each week on the radio show Louisiana Hayride. His wife embroidered black shirts for Whitman and the band, which has led him to claim he was the original ‘Man In Black’. His steel player, Hoot Rains, developed an identifiable sound, but it came about by accident: when Rains overshot a note on ‘Love Song Of The Waterfall’, Whitman decided to retain it as a trademark. Whitman maintained a level-headed attitude towards his career and was working as a postman while his first single for Imperial Records, ‘Love Song Of The Waterfall’, was selling half a million copies. ‘You don’t quit on one record, ’ he says, ‘then I had ‘Indian Love Call’ and I decided to go. I was told that if I ever wanted my job back, I could have it’. ‘Indian Love Call’ came from Rudolph Friml’s operetta Rose Marie, and in 1955, the song gave Slim Whitman 11 consecutive weeks at the top of the UK charts. ‘All I did was throw in a few yodels for good measure, ’ says Slim, ‘and the folks seemed to go for it.’ The b-side of ‘Indian Love Call’, ‘China Doll’, was a UK hit in its own right, and his other chart records include ‘Cattle Call’, ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’, ‘Serenade’ and ‘I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen’, although, astonishingly, he has never topped the US country charts. He says, ‘A lot of people think of me as a cowboy because I’ve sung ‘Cattle Call’ and one or two others. The truth is, I’ve never been on a horse in my life.’

In 1955, Whitman moved back to Florida, which restricted his appearances on the Grand Ole Opry because he found the trips too time-consuming. In 1956 Whitman became the first country star to top the bill at the London Palladium. Despite being a light-voiced country balladeer, he was featured in the 1957 rock ‘n’ roll movie Disc Jockey Jamboree. He has always taken a moral stance on what he records, refusing, for example, to record ‘Almost Persuaded’. He says, ‘I’m not a saint. It’s just that I’ve no interest in singing songs about cheating or the boozer’. His popularity in Britain was such that his 25th Anniversary Concert album was recorded at the Empire Theatre, Liverpool, in March 1973. He had a UK hit in 1974 with ‘Happy Anniversary’, but United Artists executive Alan Warner decided that his US country albums were unsuitable for the UK market, and that he should record albums of pop standards that could be marketed on television. His 1976 album, The Very Best Of Slim Whitman, entered the UK album charts at number 1, and was followed by Red River Valley (number 1) and Home On The Range (number 2). Whitman then repeated his role as a purveyor of love songs for the middle-aged in the USA. Since 1977, Whitman has toured with his son Byron (b. 1957), who, he says, is matching him ‘yodel for yodel’, and they have pioneered the double yodel. Of his continued success, constantly playing to full houses, he says, ‘I don’t know the secret. I guess it’s the songs I sing and my friendly attitude. When I say hello, I mean it’. In 1996, Whitman’s name was made known to younger audiences in the movie Mars Attacks! - after failing to destroy the evil, marauding Martian invaders with nuclear strikes, it is discovered that their brains explode upon hearing any Slim Whitman recording.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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