Slim Whitman was born Ottis Dewey Whitman Jr, in Tampa, Florida, on January 20, 1923. Growing up, he liked the country music of Jimmie Rodgers and the songs of Gene Autry, but he did not embark on a musical career of his own until the end of World War II, after he had served in the South Pacific with the United States Navy.
Whitman, a self-taught left-handed guitarist was right-handed, but he had lost almost all of the second finger on his left hand in an accident. He worked at a Tampa shipyard while developing a musical career, eventually performing with a band known as the Variety Rhythm Boys. Whitman’s first big break came when talent manager “Colonel” Thomas Parker heard him singing on the radio and offered to represent him. After signing with RCA Records, he was billed as “the cowboy singer Slim Whitman” and released his first single in 1948. He toured and sang at a variety of venues, including on the radio show Louisiana Hayride.
INDIAN LOVE CALL by SLIM WHITMAN
At first, he was not able to make a living from music and kept a part-time job. That changed in the early 1950s after he recorded a version of the Bob Nolan hit Love Song of the Waterfall, which made it into the country music top ten. His next single, “Indian Love Call,” was even more successful, reaching number two in the country music charts and appearing in the pop music charts top ten in the US.
A yodeller, Whitman avoided the “down on yer luck buried in booze” songs, preferring instead to sing laid-back romantic melodies about simple life and love. Critics dubbed his style “countrypolitan,” owing to its fusion of country music and a more sophisticated crooning vocal style. Although he recorded many western tunes, love and romance songs figured prominently in his repertoire.
In 1955 in the United Kingdom, he had a No.1 hit on the pop music charts with “Rose Marie.” With nineteen weeks in the charts and eleven weeks at the top of the UK Singles Chart, the song set a record that lasted for 36 years. In 1956 he became the first ever country music singer to perform at the London Palladium. Soon after, Whitman was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry, and in 1957, along with other musical stars, he appeared in the film musical Jamboree. Despite this exposure, he never achieved the level of stardom in the United States that he did in Britain, where he had a number of other hits during the 1950s. Throughout the early 1970s, he continued to record and was a guest on Wolfman Jack’s television show The Midnight Special. At the time, Whitman’s recording efforts were yielding only minor hits in the US. The mid 1970s were a successful time for Whitman in the UK Albums Chart. In 1976 a compilation album, “The Very Best of Slim Whitman” was number one for six weeks staying seventeen weeks on the chart. Another number one album followed in 1977 with Red River Valley; four weeks at number one and fourteen weeks on the chart. Later the same year his album “Home on the Range” made number 2 on the chart amassing a chart stay of thirteen weeks only to be kept from the top place by 20 Golden Greats by the Supremes.
LOVE SONG OF THE WATERFALL by SLIM WHITMAN
The TV albums briefly made Whitman a household name in America for the first time in his career, resulting in everything from a first-time appearance on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson to Whitman being parodied in a comic skit on SCTV with him (played by Joe Flaherty) starring in the Che-like male lead in an Evita-like Broadway musical on the life of Indira Gandhi. More importantly, the TV albums gave him a brief resurgence in mainstream country music with new album releases on major labels and a few new singles making the country charts. During this time he toured Europe and Australia with moderate success.
In late January 2008, a false rumor of his death spread on the internet, believed to have been started by an erroneous report posted on the website of the Nashville Tennessean newspaper.
In 2010, after more than eight years in production, Whitman released the album Twilight on the Trail, his first new studio album in 26 years. It was produced by his son Byron Whitman and featuring many well known session musicians, including long time band member Harold Bradley.
Beatle George Harrison cited Whitman as an early influence: “The first person I ever saw playing a guitar was Slim Whitman, either a photo of him in a magazine or live on television. Guitars were definitely coming in.” When a young Paul McCartney purchased his first guitar, the left-handed musician was unsure how to play an instrument that was manufactured and strung for a right-handed player. It was not until McCartney saw a picture of Whitman playing left-handed that he re-strung his guitar so that he too could play left-handed. American pop singer Michael Jackson cited Whitman as one of his ten favorite vocalists.
The 1996 film Mars Attacks! features Whitman’s rendition of “Indian Love Call” as a weapon against alien invaders. In 2003, Rob Zombie used Whitman’s version of “I Remember You” in his movie directorial debut in House of 1000 Corpses.