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.
"He said, 'You're going to cost me my job,' " Mr. Husky told the Tennessean. "In the middle of the song, I stopped the band and sung this 'Ohhhh' part, and Ken said, 'What in the world are you doing?' I said, 'I'm making a hit record.' And that's what we did."
"Gone" was a huge hit on the Billboard country and pop charts and appealed to teenagers as a slow-dance song. Its popularity led Mr. Husky to a stint as a summer replacement host in 1957 on Arthur Godfrey's CBS TV program. The singer played himself in DJ Alan Freed's 1957 film "Mister Rock and Roll" and had later acting jobs in movies with Zsa Zsa Gabor and Mamie Van Doren.
Ferlin Eugene Husky was born Dec. 3, 1925, in Cantwell, Mo., and grew up on a farm near Flat River, Mo. His mother named him Furland, but his name was misspelled on the birth certificate.
He learned the basics of guitar from an uncle. After dropping out of high school, he moved to St. Louis, where he worked as a truck driver and steel mill worker while performing in honky tonks at night.
During World War II, he served in the Merchant Marine and participated in the Normandy invasion.
The Crum character evolved from stories Mr. Husky told his friends on transport ships during World War II about a neighbor in Missouri named Simon Crump - though Mr. Husky embellished Crump's real-life mannerisms with each telling.
"Most of my shipmates were Yankee boys," he told Country Music People magazine. "They would say, 'C'mon, Country, tell us some more of those Simon stories.' "
After the war, Mr. Husky continued to develop the Crum persona while working as a radio announcer in Bakersfield, Calif.
In the late 1940s, singing cowboy Smiley Burnette, Gene Autry's sidekick, encouraged Mr. Husky to take a stage name, Terry Preston, under the mistaken belief that Ferlin Husky would never work on a marquee.
As Preston, Mr. Husky made his first recordings in 1948. He signed with Capitol Records in 1953 and soon returned to using his real name.
Mr. Husky's biggest success came with "Wings of a Dove." In an attempt to widen the gospel song's appeal, the producer deleted a verse that made direct references to Jesus, although the biblical imagery was still implicit in the lyrics.
Mr. Husky was married four times. Survivors include eight children and many grandchildren.
In addition to his recent induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Mr. Husky was among the first country singers to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
"Because of 'Gone,' I get walked on all the time," he said.