About 12 years ago, few people gave him much thought. So why is Slim Whitman one of the best-known singers in the world?
Two quick answers: TV ads and Johnny Carson.
His tenor falsetto and his ebony mustache and sideburns have become global trademarks thanks to TV commercials pitching his records. And for the better part of a decade, he’s been consistent fodder for Carson’s monologues on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
“That TV ad is the reason I’m still here,” Whitman says by telephone from his home outside Jacksonville, Fla., before heading out to fish. “It buys fuel for the boat.”
His career has spanned six decades, beginning in the late 1940s.
“It’s still going. That’s the good part,” said the 67-year-old Whitman, who has upcoming concerts in England and Australia.
He’s gained almost cult status over the last decade as an ordinary guy singing romantic ballads.
“All of a sudden, here comes a guy in a black-and-white suit, with a mustache and a receding hairline, playing a guitar and singing ‘Rose Marie,’ ” Whitman said. “They hadn’t seen that.”
The TV spots were done reluctantly. “I almost didn’t do them. I had seen those kinds of commercials and didn’t like them. But it was one of the smartest things I ever did.”
Besides the jokes, there’ve also been Slim Whitman look-alike contests.
“Everything they did is keeping this Whitman guy alive,” the singer said. Whitman was born Ottis Dewey Whitman in Tampa, Fla. As a young man, he was a mail carrier and also worked in a meat packing plant and at a shipyard.
In 1949, he signed with RCA Records with the help of Col. Tom Parker, who later managed Elvis Presley. RCA gave Whitman the show business name Slim (he’s a slender 6-foot-1).
In 1952, Whitman had his first hit record, “Love Song of the Waterfall,” which 25 years later became part of the soundtrack of the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Since then, he’s recorded more than 65 albums and sold about 50 million copies, including 4 million of “All My Best” that was marketed on TV.
He’s also become famous for such songs as “Indian Love Call,” “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” “Red River Valley,” “Danny Boy” and “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.”
“The material I did was lasting material,” he said. “A lot of people thought I wasn’t doing anything, but I was in the studio. The biggest factor is the material you choose. You hunt, you cut.”
He’s yodeled throughout his career and has a three-octave singing range. Yodeling, though, is something he still must practice.
“It’s like a prize fighter. He knows he has a fight coming up, so he gets in the gym and trains. So when I have a show coming up, I practice yodeling. I fish, but I practice too.”
In the British Isles, he’s known as a pioneer of country music for popularizing the style there.
These days, son Bryon, 33, joins him on many of his shows.
“My son has put spunk in the old man,” Whitman said. “He has the same type high voice. He can match my yodels. He rocks along or stands flat-footed like dad.
“My goal right now is helping my son. You’ll be hearing a lot about him. He’s proven he can match dad. Hopefully, one day I can answer the phone for him. From the boat.”
How would he like to be remembered?
“As a nice guy--with a white hat, you might say,” Whitman said. “I don’t think you’ve ever heard anything bad about me, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’d like my son to remember me as a good dad. I’d like the people to remember me as having a good voice and a clean suit.”