The television commercial is inescapable: Slim Whitman stands there, bushy eyebrows and sideburns framing an old-fashioned face. The lights gleam off a black suit covered with rhinestone studs while he sings snippets of songs in a high, clear tenor with rich vibrato. The songs are old-fashioned, too -- "Love Song of the Waterfall," "Indian Love Call," "Rose Marie," "I'm Casting My Lasso to the Sky." Since the ad promises it's "unavailable in any store," 2 million people (so far) have sent in $8.98 to Suffolk Marketing, which had a hard time convincing Whitman to let them do the album in the first place.
"I wasn't too excited about it," Whitman recalls with a laugh. "My son Byron convinced me, said 'You've got nothing to lose, you're not doing anything in the United States anyways.' " Which was a bit of an understatement, at that. Whitman, who performed last night at the Prince George's County Fair, had been immensely popular in the '50s when he synthesized two elements into his own unique style. First, his tenor frequently gave in to yodels, a tradition that had begun with Elton Britt, Montana Slim, Jimmy Rodgers and Hank Williams, and had all but died out with Whitman. More importantly, Whitman adopted country music songs from Broadway, Ireland and Spain; in fact, his repertoire was eclectic to an extreme -- religious songs, sentimental love ballads, cowboy songs. "I was bringing the big songs down to the people's size," Whitman explains.
"1972 was the last date I played in America . . . until this came along," he says of the ubiquitous television commercial that brought Otis Dewey Whitman back into the hearts of the American consumer with a collection of songs that had made him a huge star in England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa during the late '60s and '70s. America, apparently, had forgotten him after a career spanning the late '40s to early '60s. One of the first stars of country-western music had to find new countries for his music -- until this.
Whitman, Tampa-born in 1924, started singing in the Navy during World War II "to help the morale on my ship. I didn't dream of being an entertainer." He had at one time thought of playing pro baseball (following a .360 season with the Plant City Berries of the semi-pro Orange Belt League; he also had an 11-1 record there as a pitcher), but the war interrupted that career. Whitman, who had started appearing on regional radio and television, was led to RCA by Col. Tom Parker, who was still a decade away from signing Elvis and at the time managing another country romantic, Eddy Arnold. "When I started singing, the mail came in saying, 'Hey, you're great. You sound just like Eddy Arnold,' " says Whitman. "That's when I switched into my own thing. I had been doing everything the same as him, so I raised it up to a higher key and got into a little faster thing." Soon after, Whitman became a regular visitor to the Top Ten.
By the mid-'50s, though, rock 'n' roll was beginning to take over, pushing Whitman's pop approach out of the way with its youthful exuberance. He gave in a little, appearing in such films as "Disc Jockey Jamboree" with Fats Domino and Little Richard; when he made his first trip to England in 1956, he "thought about changing into something different which wasn't me, but before I went on stage, I changed it back, kept it the way I am." By that time, his "Rose Marie" had been the No. 1 single for 11 straight weeks, a record unmatched by the Beatles or Elvis Presley and immortalized in the Guinness Book of World Records. The visit kicked off with a two-week stay at the prestigious Paladium, which promptly saddled Whitman with a 40-piece orchestra. Complaining that it "would ruin the sound of what people bought," Whitman achieved a compromise: The orchestra came in on the end of each song. "They'd just sit there and smoke and when it got to the end, they'd look up and see how close I was, get their bows ready and . . ." Whitman recreates a string-laden finale.
By the time the '70s rolled around, England and its former colonies and allies were Whitman's only consistent venues. "I was working somewhere, I just didn't work here," he shrugs. "I could have worked, but I would have worked for less money than I was getting there. Why do that?" Whitman remains the biggest American country star in England and Australia, though he hasn't been out of this country in the two years since the TV package appeared. "I had to do a BBC live concert for my fans," he says. "They're wondering if I've forsaken them. I had no idea it would come back this strong.
"The 1952 fans come up and say 'Hey, we're just as happy as you are. We wondered where in the heck you were.' I'd say there was a million of these people who really started the album; they grabbed it because they couldn't find anything" in the stores. Ironically, the success of the television package led United Artists to re-release seven Whitman albums (out of 60, with worldwide sales of over 50 million); led to a contract with CBS (which sold 250,000 copies of Whitman's "Songs I Love to Sing" -- "not bad for over the counter"); led to a second Suffolk television package which has peaked at 500,000 copies (which must have irked CBS to no end); and will lead to a CBS Christmas album, which will be marketed by Suffolk on television.
One senses, through all this, that Whitman is as pleased as punch -- unspiked, of course. One thread that runs through his career has been the sincerity and family orientation of his music. He's claimed to have never recorded a song that couldn't be played in church: "I've always been with a good song.There's nothing I say, either, that can't be said in church." He's been married to one woman for almost 40 years, features his son Byron in the show and knows he can always retire to Woodpecker Paradise, the 40-acre estate he bought outside Jacksonville almost 30 years ago. Whitman's not bitter or angry at his wayward return. He can remember back to 1948 when RCA changed his name to Slim while he was on a fishing trip. "My wife didn't like it and several times I was going to change it. Even spelled it 'S-l-y-m' at one point, but they called me 'slime' so I said the heck with it. Then the hit records kept coming. The years go by and you can't change it."
Or remember, if you're an older fan who doesn't like to go to rock-oriented record stores. Which Suffolk obviously understood. "Even after I did the commercial, I wasn't that excited," Whitman insists. "I saw the playback, it was just a guy singing songs. When they told me they were going into a test market before they put it out, I said 'Well, I'm sunk, I'm the most dormant guy in America.' They normally press 5,000 for a test market, but all of a sudden they had to put out 30,000. I had no idea it would catch on like it did. But when I'd go to the malls shopping, more and more of the little fellows were pointing -- 'Hey, Mommy, Mommy, I just saw him on television.' That's the way I found out something was happening."