Slim Whitman Bio
Slim Whitman Biography
Slim Whitman's beautiful crystal clear vocal style with the soaring falsetto is unequaled. Slim was born in Oak Park, Florida, a suburb of Tampa. He was named Ottis Dewey Whitman Jr. Ottis is pronounced with a short "O" as in hot and his friends simply called him O.D. He spent his youth in the company of his parents Ottis and Lucy, two brothers Robert and Armand, and two sisters Dorothy and Gloria.
He was a typical boy, who whiled away many of his days doing what he loved best -- playing baseball and fishing. Becoming an international country music singer was something no one could have imagined, especially Ottis Jr. He did enjoy hearing Montana Slim (Wilf Carter) and the yodeler Jimmie Rodgers on the old family radio. When he took the notion, he could be heard matching their yodels note for note. Grabbing his fishing pole, a can of worms, and heading down to the creek was more to his liking, and if the truth were known, still is.
Church has always been a meaningful part of Slim's life, and he is an active member of the Church of the Brethren. He was only 15 when word spread through the small community that a new preacher had arrived. This didn't mean much to the young fisherman until he saw Reverend A. D. Crist's daughter, Geraldine.
Slim borrowed ten dollars to buy a marriage license from his mother and he and Jerry were married on June 24, 1941. They moved into a small wood-framed house on 40 acres that his father-in-law purchased. It was there, nestled in the woods south of Jacksonville, Florida, where the young couple started their life together The woodpeckers would hammer away on their modest little home and everything else on the forty acres, so they named it "Woodpecker's Paradise." To this day Slim and Jerry live on "Woodpecker's Paradise," and the original little house still sits on their acreage.
Jerry has been Slim's guiding light throughout the years. She's the one he thinks about when he closes his eyes and sings those beautiful love ballads. Their daughter Sharron Carlene arrived followed by son Byron Keith. Sharron lives next door to Slim with her family, Byron is also a gifted singer and songwriter, who became a big part of the Slim Whitman Show.
Slim made a living close to home in the Tampa shipyard as a ship fitter and boilermaker until World War II. Slim joined the Navy and in 1943 Slim was assigned to the troop transport, U.S.S. Chilton, where he saw the war up close and personal in the South Pacific.
To stay in shape and pass the time he put on a pair of boxing gloves and climbed into the ring. On board the ship he also found an old guitar and strung it backwards to suit his left-handed style. After teaching himself to play, he joined a small group, and began singing to his fellow sailors in a weekly entertainment program called "Happy Hour." The first song he selected to sing to his shipmates "When I'm Gone You'll Soon Forget" wasn't greeted with much enthusiasm. You can understand why this particular song was probably a poor choice to sing to a shipload of homesick boys away from their wives and girlfriends. So, Slim quickly switched to up-tempo numbers that brought foot-tapping and big smiles to the faces of his shipmates. When he wasn't entertaining the battle-weary sailors in the boxing ring, he could be found singing and yodeling.
One event that will forever be etched in the yodeling sailor's mind took place at dusk off the island of Okinawa. A kamikaze slammed into the Chilton, causing the huge mast pole to come crashing to the deck, sending flames and plane wreckage everywhere. God was watching over the young sailor, who had been standing on that exact spot just moments earlier. When asked what he did when the barrage began, Slim just grinned and said, "I tried to dig a hole in the deck."
A twist of fate saved Slim once again when orders arrived transferring him to another ship Captain Guisenhoff was not happy with this, recognizing what a tremendous moral booster third class petty officer Whitman was for his battle weary men, at this point, Slim was also working as the captain’s orderly. He took immediate action to have the orders changed. We can all thank our lucky stars. The ship Slim was scheduled to transfer to was sent to the bottom of the Pacific, taking all hands, in the battle of the Leyte Gulf.
After the war in 1946, Slim returned to work at the Tampa shipyard and played baseball during his off-hours on the company team. It wasn't long until scouts for a class "C" team in the Orange Belt League called the Plant City Berries discovered him. Standing 6'2" made him an awesome and powerful batter--averaging .360. He excelled on the pitcher's mound and pitched the team to a pennant in 1947 with a record of eleven wins and one loss.
Slim stepped off the pitcher's mound for the last time 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. The band soon gained the attention of the owner of a Tampa supermarket, who agreed to sponsor "Slim Whitman and his Variety Rhythm Boys." It was during this period that Colonel Tom Parker, then Eddy Arnold's manager and later Elvis Presley’s, 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."
RCA didn't think the name Ottis was quite right, so they changed it to Slim one day while he was off fishing. The man who has been called "Slim" for all these years never has taken a fancy to it, but it stuck. 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 knows 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 accomplished whistler. People have been trying for years to categorize Slim's style. Although he has been called a Country Western artist, he covers 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 in the recording studio or live on stage.
"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 redneck 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.
It was during the time he was 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 sending it soaring skyward. Slim asked Hoot after the show, "what happened out there"? Hoot said, "I missed it." Slim liked what he heard and said, with a wry grin, "Well, miss it again!" They soon worked this unusual new sound into his songs. They called this new technique "shooting arrows," and steel guitarists around the world would use this new term. 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 29 through October 7, 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 seven weeks in advance of his two-week appearance. "China Doll" brought forth-spontaneous standing ovations at every performance. Slim's only movie appearance was at the London Palladium in a movie titled "Jamboree," where they filmed him performing "Unchain My Heart."
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 5 decades. Slim was voted international male vocalist of the year in England in 1978, 1979, and 1980. His concert tours 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 presented Slim with two of his 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 western songs. Slim continued to make the charts with gems like "Cattle Call," "Serenade," "Tumbling Tumble Weeds," "More Than Yesterday," "Twelfth of Never" "Tomorrow Never Comes," "Rainbows Are Back in Style" and "Happy Street" 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 5000 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 recording artist 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 perfectly. 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. They all traveled together between small towns going from show to show by car. It was during one of these trips that Slim made the mistake of loaning Elvis his coat. 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." Slim's left-handed guitar style and vocal range impressed Paul MCartney of the Beatles. Michael Jackson is a fan and hopes to meet Slim in person one day. He is especially fond of Slim's rendition of "I Remember You".
Slim's music has touched many people’s lives deeply. Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, was tormented with horrific memories of the war and sleeping didn't come easily. The only thing that would totally relax him and help him to sleep was listening to albums from his Slim Whitman collection. People from all walks of life have told Slim that they were going through a rough time in their lives when they heard his beautiful voice on that Suffolk Marketing TV commercial, ordered the record, and his music gave them the will to pull through.
This is why Slim would take so much time with his fans often into the late hours of the morning signing autographs and posing for pictures 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 those who couldn't get into one of his sold out 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 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 537 individual songs, which can be found on 167 albums, CD's and hundreds of 78's, 45's and cassette tapes. His fan club, "The Slim Whitman International Appreciation Society" began in 1970 and was one of the largest and oldest in the world incorporating England, Holland, Australia, and the United States.
Slim and Byron Whitman are accompanied by the Stardusters. Slim's duets with Bryon include beautiful harmony that takes your breath away when they slide into their smooth yodels. Slim Whitman always seems to have something going on somewhere in the world. His latest new release titled "The Legendary Slim Whitman - Traditional Country" features duets with his son Byron. The last three of Slim's Australian EMI albums all made the charts. Slim and Byron's duet album "Magic Moments" hit the number 12 position. During the last few years this talented duo also have released gospel music on the Christian radio stations.
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 Rock 'n Roll classic "Jamboree," where Slim sings "Unchain My Heart". Next came the movie "Who'll Stop the Rain" featuring the song "I'll Step Down." Then "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," where "Indian Love Call" can be heard. "Indian Love Call" is also in the recent re-make of Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Psycho. Andy Kaufman was a fan of Slim's, and you'll hear a small tribute to Slim as Andy's version of "Rose Marie" is played during one scene.
The following quote from a British Country Music magazine sums up Slim's music very well.
"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 Country Music."
My Best to you
Loren R. Knapp
About the author: Loren is a big fan and used to run a website called "The Slim Whitman Collectors International"