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Ferlin Husky, versatile country music star with a comic flair, dies at 85

Ferlin Husky attends the 44th Annual Country Music Awards in Nashville in 2010.
Ferlin Husky attends the 44th Annual Country Music Awards in Nashville in 2010. (AP)
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By Terence McArdle
Friday, March 18, 2011; 12:39 PM

Ferlin Husky, 85, a singer whose versatility and matinee-idol looks propelled a seven-decade country music career and who, performing as his alter ego Simon Crum, showed a wickedly comic side with his impersonations of other country singers, died March 17 at his daughter's home in Westmoreland, Tenn. He had congestive heart failure.

When Mr. Husky was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame last year, he was heralded for his vocal and comic prowess - and "all around showmanship" - that left a legacy as "one of the best entertainers country music has ever produced."

Equally adept at tear-jerking ballads, spoken recitations, rockabilly and pop tunes, Mr. Husky had two dozen Top 20 hits on the Billboard country charts between 1953 and 1975.

Two songs - "Gone" (1957), in which the singer laments a lost love, and his 1960 gospel recording "Wings of a Dove" (1960) - became enduring hits and made Mr. Husky one of the biggest acts of the period.

Mr. Husky also drew a following for a character he created: the gum-chewing, outspoken hayseed Simon Crum. His appearances as Crum combined sight gags and goofball facial contortions with eerily precise impressions of peers such as Tennessee Ernie Ford and Kitty Wells.

The nasal twang of his Crum persona contrasted with the precise diction and vibrant timbre of Mr. Husky's more traditional approach to country music.

Performing since his teens, Mr. Husky had his first major success in 1953, when he recorded "A Dear John Letter" with singer Jean Shepard. The duet established Mr. Husky as a performer of spoken, sorrow-filled recitations.

Shepard sang the verses while Mr. Husky, as the soldier she jilted, read the letter aloud. The record's success brought both singers to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

A few years later, with the 1957 release of "Gone," Mr. Husky helped pioneer the crossover "Nashville sound" that applied a pop gloss of background voices and strings to country music's rougher edges.

After little success with a spare country recording of "Gone" in 1952, Mr. Husky took a risk with a new version five years later, featuring mezzo-soprano Millie Kirkham and the Jordanaires, the group whose "oohs" and "ahhs" graced the pop recordings of Elvis Presley.

"We had the Jordanaires on there as a vocal group, and Grady Martin on vibes, and a ton of people in the studio," Mr. Husky told the Nashville Tennessean in 2009. "The producer, Ken Nelson, got upset. He said, 'If one more person comes through those doors, the session is off.' And then here comes Miss Millie Kirkham to sing the soprano vocal part."

Because musicians and singers were paid at union scale, recording expenses mounted with each added sideman.

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