Slim Whitman, the man with the unique crystal clear soaring vocal style,
was born Ottis Dewey Whitman Jr., but his friends called him O.D.
His childhood was spent in Tampa, Florida, with his parents, two brothers, and
two sisters. His two greatest loves during the early years were baseball
and fishing. Singing was the furthest thing from his mind; although he did
listen to Montana Slim (Wilf Carter) and the yodeler Jimmie Rodgers on the radio
and when he wanted to he could match their yodels note for note.
Church has always been an important part of Slim's life. He is a member of
the Church of the Brethren. It was there, at the age of 15, that Slim met
and fell in love with Geraldine Crist, the new pastor's daughter. He
and Jerry were married and they settled on forty acres nestled in the woods south
of Jacksonville, Florida. They named their small haven "Woodpecker Paradise." Jerry
has been Slim's inspiration throughout the years. They would eventually have
two children, Sharron Carlene and Byron Keith. Sharron lives next door
to Slim with her family, and Byron is a gifted singer and song writer, who
became a big part of the Slim Whitman Show.
Slim worked in the Tampa shipyard as a shipfitter and boilermaker until
World War II. In 1943 the young Floridian was assigned to a troop transport,
the U.S.S. Chilton, where he saw action in the South Pacific. To stay in
shape and pass the time he took up boxing. On board he found an old guitar,
strung it backwards to suit his left-handed style, and taught himself to
play. It wasn't long until he joined a small group and began singing to his
fellow sailors in a weekly entertainment program called "Happy Hour." The first
song performed for the all-sailor audience, "When I'm Gone You'll Soon Forget," was greeted with a few boos and hisses. Understandably, this song was a poor choice to sing to a ship load of homesick boys missing their sweethearts. Slim changed to up-tempo numbers and became a hit with his shipmates. When he wasn't entertaining the battle-fatigued sailors by sparring with an opponent in the boxing ring, he could be found singing and yodeling. One evening at dusk off the island of Okinawa, a Kamikaze slammed into the mast pole, sending it crashing to the deck, where Slim had been standing just moments earlier. When asked what he did when the barrage began, Slim said, "I just tried to dig a hole in the deck." It was a close call, but someone was looking after the young sailor. A twist of fate saved Slim a second time when orders arrived transferring him to another ship. Captain Guisenhoff was not too pleased with this, as he recognized what a tremendous morale booster third class petty officer Whitman was for his battle weary men. Thankfully, the orders were changed. The ship Slim was scheduled to transfer to was later sunk in the battle of the Leyte Gulf taking all hands to the bottom of the Pacific.
After the war in 1946, Slim went back to work at the Tampa shipyard and
played baseball during his off hours on the company team. It wasn't long
until his athletic prowess was discovered by scouts for the Plant City Berries,
a Class C team in the Orange Belt League. Slim's 6'2" stance made him
a formidable and powerful batter with an average of .360. He excelled on the
pitcher's mound and led the team to a pennant in 1947 with a record of
eleven wins and one loss.
Slim hung up his glove in 1948 and began singing on various radio stations
including WDAE, WHBO, and WFLA in Florida. He formed his own band and sang
to anyone who would listen. They soon gained the attention of the owner
of a Tampa supermarket, who agreed to sponsor "Slim Whitman and his Variety
Rhythm Boys." It was at this time, prior to his introduction to
RCA records, he took the name Slim. It appears on his very first record a
78 RPM one- sided release titled “Way Down In Florida, The Only Place To Be.”
Slim paid $50 for 50 pressings of the record and he and his dad hand delivered
them to radio stations in the area. Slim doesn’t even have this rare release
and there is only one known record that survived the over all these years.
It was after this release that Colonel Tom Parker, then Eddy Arnold's manager
and later Elvis', saw Slim at WFLA radio, liked what he heard, and sent
an acetate to RCA records. This led to Slim's first recording contract
in 1948. Colonel Parker was too busy with Eddy to manage Slim, so he
turned the job over to his stepson Bob Ross, who incidentally is the
voice heard doing the narrative in one of Slim's first recordings
"Paint a Rose on the Garden Wall."
At one time early in his career he was called "The Smilin' Starduster," the man
whose soaring falsetto could surely dust the stars. This is where the name
of Slim's band, the Stardusters," originated. Slim recorded 10 songs for RCA.
The young back-up musicians used during this particular session would become
stars in their own right. Anita Kerr of the famous Anita Kerr Singers performed
on the piano and organ. Chester (Chet) Atkins and Jerry Byrd were on
violin and guitar. Henry D. Haynes and Kenneth C. Burns (Homer and Jethro) were
the musicians who played the guitar and mandolin. The RCA release was distributed
on a 10" album entitled "Slim Whitman Sings and Yodels." It would be released
later as a full sized album, "Birmingham Jail." The ten songs recorded
for RCA have been released numerous times on 45's, 78's, tapes and in album
and CD form around the world.
The first single from this session, "I'm Casting My Lasso Towards the Sky,"
was suggested by Jerry and would become Slim's theme song, the perfect vehicle to
spotlight his yodeling expertise. Slim has a range of 3 octaves and is a
master yodeler who was once said to be "the only man alive who could out sing
the steel guitar." Slim has the remarkable gift of being able
to slide into a beautiful falsetto break in the middle of phrases, words, and
even syllables. He has the uncanny ability to know just where this beautiful
technique will fit into a song. He doesn't use it in every song, but when
he does, it is something beautiful to hear. In addition to his incredible
range and vocal technique, he is also an excellent whistler. People have
been trying for four decades to peg Slim's style. Although he has been categorized
as a Country Western artist, he transcends all types of music. Slim is a
balladeer with a velvet smooth voice, whose choice of material is distinctive and
so, too, is its presentation. He knows what the public wants and knows how
to breathe emotion and feelings into his songs whether they are recordings
or live performances.
"I'm Castling My Lasso Towards the Sky" caught the attention of
Lew Chudd, president of Imperial Records in Los Angeles. Imperial would later
become United Artists, then Capitol/EMI records. Slim was soon signed to a
contract with Imperial, an affiliation that would span 27 years producing millions
of sales and numerous hit records.
Slim's first major chart buster was another song selected by Jerry an
operetta number written by Bob Nolan, leader of the Sons of the Pioneers. The
song was "Love Song of the Waterfall." Slim took a lot of criticism
from the band when he announced he was going to record this song. Never being
one to take the conventional way of doing things, he decided early in his career
to sing what he thought the people would enjoy hearing. He refused the
truck driving, drinking, cheating songs and opted instead for the romantic
ballads, love songs, and western songs that had proven their worth
through the test of time. Slim strongly believes in doing recordings
that he "wouldn't be ashamed to sing in church.
On August 20, 1949, Slim made his premiere national radio appearance on the
Mutual Network's, "Smokey Mountain Hayride." He was hailed
as "the new sensation of the folk music world." Within two weeks, he was
the star attraction in a new show called "Slim Whitman and the Lightcrust Doughboys.”
In May 1950 Slim Whitman became a member of the Louisiana Hayride.
Hank Williams, who was leaving the Hayride at the time, advised
Slim, "Just go out there and give 'em some yodelin'." The pay was eighteen
dollars a week and left a lot to be desired, so Slim took a job as a postman
in Shreveport, Louisiana, to feed his family, which by this time
included his daughter Sharron Carlene.
It was while with the Louisiana Hayride that Slim and his
steel guitar player, Hoot Rains, created what would become a major part of
the Slim Whitman sound, the "singing guitar." The soaring notes of the
steel guitar can be heard in many of Slim's early songs. It all started
by accident in the classic, "Love Song of the Waterfall."
One night while performing the song, Hoot overshot a note and sent it
soaring skyward. Slim liked what he heard and worked this unusual new
sound into his songs. They called this new technique "shooting arrows,"
and this new term would be used by steel guitarists around the world.
They perfected the new sound and introduced the "singing guitar" on the
Hayride to thunderous approval.
"Love Song of the Waterfall" was released in 1951 and shot up the
charts to the number two position. That song was soon followed by the
most popular Country Western record of the year and Slim's first million
seller, "Indian Love Call." With the smashing success of this
release, Slim asked for and was granted a leave of absence from the post
office. Next came "Keep It a Secret" and "China Doll" followed
by hit after hit.
Another song that Slim wanted to record came from the
same Sigmund Romberg musical that produced "Love Song of the Waterfall."
This was a song that nobody, but Slim thought would succeed. In 1954 Slim
recorded this second American million seller, "Rose Marie."
With the singing steel guitar and smooth falsetto breaks, it quickly climbed to the top of the charts. A promoter managed to have it played to the English people via a radio station in Luxembourg. It sold an additional million copies there in record time and topped the charts in the number one position for 11 consecutive weeks from July 29th through October 7th, 1955. This record-breaking feat was held by Slim for an incredible 36 years! Slim has recorded five different renditions of this great song over the years. It also became a million seller in Australia along with "Indian Love Call" and "China Doll".
On July 23, 1955, Slim Whitman joined the Grand Ole Opry, but the
massive excitement generated by "Rose Marie" and the hits that
followed could not be ignored, and he was off on what was to be the first
of many tours of the United Kingdom. Slim was the first American country
artist to play the prestigious London Palladium in 1956. Tickets were sold out
7 weeks in advance of his two week appearance. It was "China Doll" that
brought forth spontaneous standing ovations at every performance. Slim's
only motion picture appearance was made at the Palladium in a movie
titled "Disc Jockey Jamboree."
They filmed Slim performing "Unchain Your Heart" and included it in the
Slim's popularity in England earned him number one albums and singles time
and time again. His "Red River Valley" album established Slim as
Britain's number 1 country singer. The album secured the number one position
on the Pop album chart over rock groups Abba and Queen, which held
second and third. This was just one of many releases that would cross over to
the pop charts. The British love affair with Slim spans nearly 5 decades.
Slim was voted international male vocalist of the year in England in 1978, 1979,
and 1980. His concert tours were always sold out weeks in advance.
In 1965 Slim did an extensive tour of South Africa. While there he recorded
a few albums that have long since become rare collector's items. One contains
two gospel songs that Slim sings in the Afrikaans' language.
He has toured Germany and made many visits to Australia and New Zealand.
EMI records in Australia recently presented Slim with two double platinum records.
As Slim entered the 60's, Country Music in general had taken a back seat to
rock 'n' roll. Just when it appeared that it was starting to slow down the
Beatles hit the airwaves in a big way. The market was all wrapped up with
the Beatles and the Beach Boys and didn't seem to have time for a yodeling
country artist. So during the next two decades Slim concentrated on recording.
He did Irish songs, love songs, yodeling songs, gospel, Christmas, and country
songs. Slim continued to make the charts with gems
like "Cattle Call," "Serenade," "Tumbling Tumble Weeds," "More Than Yesterday,"
and "Twelfth of Never" just to mention a few. During the 60's and 70's,
thirty-six of Slim's best albums were released. In all he would record 42
albums while with Imperial/United Artists.
In 1979, Suffolk Marketing wisely decided to do a TV album featuring 20
of Slim's songs. Having seen the countless number of record pitches flooding
the airways, Slim was not too impressed; so when they asked him to
do a commercial, he did not exactly jump at the opportunity. Byron and
Jerry talked him into it, and the rest is TV marketing history. The company
pressed 5,000 records and ran a limited number of commercials in a test
market. "All My Best" sold 1,200,000 albums in the first few weeks,
an achievement never done before by any recording artist or group! It eventually
sold 4,000,000 copies making Slim Whitman the biggest selling record star
in TV music history.
In 1980 Slim signed with Cleveland International (Epic) Records. It was during
this period that he hit the charts again with a song that suited his style
to a tea. The song "When" climbed the charts to the number
14 position. He also did "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine",
"I Remember You", and a beautiful duet with Byron, "Four Walls."
During his four years with Epic he would do five albums.
Slim Whitman's music has been an influence on three of the biggest
rock 'n' roll artists of this century. Elvis Presley and Slim were good
friends touring together in the mid-fifties. Elvis made his stage debut on the
Slim Whitman Show in Memphis, Tennessee, and they toured together. At the
time Slim was making $500 a show and Elvis $50. One time Slim made the mistake
of loaning Elvis his coat. They all traveled together between small towns
going from show to show by car. It was during one of these trips that
Elvis traveled in his stage clothes and then decided his jacket was
too wrinkled. Somehow he talked Slim out of his jacket. It was at this point
in Elvis' career that he took a notion to throw something out to the
audience. Slim said, "That's the last time I loaned him any
of my clothes."
Paul Mcartney of the Beatles was impressed by Slim's left-handed guitar style
and vocal range. Michael Jackson was a fan and hoped to meet Slim in person
one day. He was especially fond of Slim's rendition of
"I Remember You."
Slim's music has touched many peoples lives deeply. Audie Murphy, the most
decorated soldier of World War II, was tormented with memories of the war
and had trouble sleeping. The only thing that would totally relax him
and help him to sleep was listening to albums from his Slim Whitman
collection. A personal appearance didn’t go by that someone didn’t tell
Slim that they were near the end of their rope when they heard his beautiful
voice on the TV commercial, ordered the record, and his music gave them the
will to pull through. This is why Slim spend so much time with his fans.
He could be found, often into the wee hours of the morning after his
shows signing autographs and having pictures taken with his fans.
He loves his fans and tries to meet as many as he can. He has even been
known to take his guitar into the parking lot to sing to people who couldn't
get into one of his performances.
Over the years Slim has received hundreds of awards and had numerous honors
bestowed upon him, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He has had a tulip and daffodil named after him in Holland. He had
a new species of Wasp named after him too. He has sold over 70,000,000 records
around the world, and in his music room can be seen a most impressive array
of wall-to-wall gold, platinum, and double-platinum records. He has recorded over
600 individual songs including the different versions of some,
which can be found on 155 albums, CD's and hundreds of 78's, 45's and
cassettes. His fan club, "The Slim Whitman International Appreciation Society"
began in 1970 and disbanded in 1996 and was one of the largest and oldest in
the world incorporating England, Holland, Australia, and the United States.
Slim Whitman always has something going on somewhere in the world.
His 101st CD was just recently released. The last three of Slim's Australian
EMI albums all made the charts. Slim and son Byron's duet album
"Magic Moments" hit the number 12 position.
Slim's music saved the world from Martian invaders in the Tim Burden sci-fi
spoof "Mars Attacks." This was the forth movie that spotlighted Slim's
music. The first being the 1957 black and white Rock 'n Roll classic "Disc
Jockey Jamboree," which features Slim singing at the London
Palladium. Next came the movie "Who'll Stop the Rain." The third one
was "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
It has been said that Slim Whitman's music is like a mountain stream, sparkling
in the sunlight, reliant through the changing seasons, always clear and
friendly — a sanctuary to escape to and quietly reflect on things in life
that really matter. Slim Whitman is truly an international living legend of
Credits & Sources
- Hillbilly-Music.com wishes to thank Loren Knapp for providing
the bulk of Slim Whitman's biography for the site. You can visit the Slim Whitman
Collectors International using the link provided.
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