Sunday, July 30, 2017

Slim Whitman (1924 - 2013)

Ottis Dewey Whitman, Jr. was born in Tampa, Florida in 1924. He had an unhappy childhood and developed a speech impediment which caused him to stutter. Several members of his family were musical and he became interested in Jimmie Rodgers' recordings when he discovered he too could yodel. He did not enjoy school where he was bullied and left as soon as he could to work in a local meat packing factory. Ottis Whitman sang at his family's local church where he met and fell in love with the minister's daughter, Geraldine Crisp. Aged 17 they got married. A workplace accident cause Ottis to lose two fingers on his left hand but this did not stop him from manual labour and he moved to a shipyard. As a conscript during the Second World War, he learned to play the guitar left handed and held the conventional guitar upside down. His talents were soon appreciated by fellow shipmates and he was encouraged to hold impromptu concerts for their entertainment. Indeed Ottis’s singing became so popular that the captain blocked a transfer to another ship which was most fortunate, as the other ship was sunk with all hands lost. Once demobbed he returned to the shipyard and took up baseball, playing professionally for the Plant City Berries. By 1948 he had built quite reputation as a singer and had a back-up band called the Variety Rhythm Boys. Colonel Tom Parker heard Ottis on radio station WFLA and got him a contract with RCA. The record company got him to change his name to Slim as a tribute to singer Montana Slim Carter (Wilf Carter). His first release "I'm Casting My Lasso Towards the Sky" become his theme song but despite being a popular act on the country radio scene and regular on the Louisiana Hayride country show he made no impact on the major record buying demographic and was forced to work part time as a mailman.

During his early country days however Geraldine embroidered black shirts for Slim and his band, later causing him to claim he was the original "Man in Black," the sobriquet Johnny Cash has always used. Hoot Rains played steel guitar and when he miscued it gave the band an identifiable sound which Slim and the group liked and worked on it to make it their trademark. His breakthrough came with a cover version of Love Song of the Waterfall and the follow-up single, "Indian Love Call," made him a star.

Slim started to make inroads into the pop charts his double sided single Keep It a Secret and My Heart Is Broken in Three, but it was Rose-Marie in 1955 which gave him a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1956 he was the first country singer to play the London Palladium. Back in America, Slim Whitman appeared in the 1957 rock 'n' roll movie Disc Jockey Jamboree. This added considerably to his reputation in Europe and the UK where he became a teen idol. During one of his many tours a young Paul McCartney saw Slim play the guitar upside down in Liverpool and it was this which gave McCartney the inspiration to do the same.

His fan base in the late '50s and early '60s grew outside the US. Throughout the early '70s, he continued to have minor hits but by the time he was a guest on Wolfman Jack’s, The Midnight Special, he was beginning to lose his foot hold in the charts and in 1974, he stopped making new records. The release of his greatest hits brought a renewed interest in his works and Slim’s last chart entry was in 1980, with When.

Despite no longer recording he continued to tour Europe and Australia. Slim Whitman died of heart failure on June 19, 2013 surrounded by family at Orange Park Medical Center in Orange Park, Florida. He was 90.

Worth a listen
I'm Casting My Lasso Towards the Sky (1948)
Birmingham Jail (1949)
Love Song of the Waterfall (1951)
Indian Love Call (1952)
China Doll (1952)
Singing Hills (1954)
Keep It a Secret
My Heart Is Broken in Three
Rose-Marie (1954)
Tumbling Tumbleweeds (1955)
Unchain My Heart
I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen
More than yesterday (1965)
Rainbows Are Back in Style (1968)
Happy Street (1968)
Tomorrow Never Comes (1970).
When (1980)

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