The down-on-his-luck singer sat on the steps of Nashville's famed Grand Ole Opry, bemoaning the job he'd just lost at a radio station, when out walked country legend Hank Williams.
The celebrated but troubled singer and songwriter, who had just been fired from the Louisiana Hayride radio show in 1949, suggested they apply for each other's former jobs.
"Just go down there and give them all you've got," Williams told cowboy balladeer
His death was announced by his son-in-law, Roy Beagle.
Williams' advice worked out beautifully for Whitman, the yodeling singer who parlayed his string of 1950s country hits into even greater commercial success and broad-based recognition three decades later through a savvy telemarketing campaign for his recordings.
Those ads turned Whitman into both a beloved and much-lampooned symbol of an earlier age of western music marked by his signature leap-frogging vocals.
Ottis Dewey Whitman was born Jan. 20,1923, in
As a boy "I would sing like him at parties and even do the yodels," Whitman told the Florida Times-Union in 2000. He also later modeled himself on country singer
His 1954 single "Rose Marie" spent 11 weeks at No. 1 in the United Kingdom, a record that stood until Bryan Adams surpassed it in 1991 with "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)."
During World War II Whitman served in the Navy on a ship stationed in the South Pacific. After his discharge, he landed a contract in 1948 with RCA Records on the recommendation of Col. Tom Parker, who had been guiding Eddy Arnold's career before handling Elvis Presley's business affairs. Whitman joined the Louisiana Hayride in 1950 after the encounter with Williams.
Whitman's pencil-thin black mustache, sharp eyebrows, squinting smile and angular features gave him the look of a bad guy out of a 1940s B Western, but Whitman — nicknamed "The Smilin' Star Duster" — always prized his unsullied reputation as a musician and public figure.
"When other guys were out drinking, I would call my wife every night when I was on the road," he told the Florida Times-Union.
Millions remember him from the ubiquitous TV ads that began in 1980, when New York-based
Whitman said that he was reluctant to commit to the TV ads, and that he had been talked into it by his son, Byron, who joined his father's stage show in later years.
"My son has put spunk in the old man," Whitman told the Associated Press in 1991. "He has the same type high voice. He can match my yodels."
Whitman did not expect the television marketing to "catch on like it did," he told the
In 2002 he stopped touring to care for his wife, Jerry, who was on dialysis. The couple had been married for 67 years when she died in 2009. In addition to their son, they had a daughter, Sharron.
Whitman wanted to be remembered "as a nice guy — with a white hat," he had said in the AP interview. "I don't think you've ever heard anything bad about me, and I'd like to keep it that way.