Monday, July 29, 2013

Me and my effin' buddy, Phil Lee, Mighty King of Love, talk of knives, lobstermen and Johnny Cash

A month or so ago, my tale of Phil Lee, the Mighty King of Love, and a guy who I consider a friend, ran in Oxford American's web stuff. And while they did a good job of working with me on the cuts, they did edit out about half my original version. If you like me or Phil Lee (or both of us), you may want to read the full version. Course if you like us both, you may need treatment.

“I’m old. I say things,” says Phil Lee.
He is and he does.

Rhythmically bouncing his black-over-black Converse All-Stars against the hardwood floor of his music room, the musician with “the metabolism of a hummingbird” sings along as Johnny Cash’s voice fills the home that once was inhabited by aliens.

“I’ve never heard him sound this good,” says Lee of the disc of outtakes he calls “Marty, Doc and Johnny.”  “They found this in some dumpster over on Music Row. I think it must have been from them just playing at Cowboy Jack’s.”
“One more ride,” Lee sings along to the recasting of a 1959 recording by Cash, only this one a free and easy version featuring Marty Stuart and Doc Watson made in the early 1970s. “Can you believe someone just threw this out?” 

He almost squeals at his own good fortune of owning this bootleg, but he doesn’t, of course.  This isn’t a guy who squeals. His delight is more obvious in his glistening eyes and the reverential Cash-like voice he uses when trying to keep up with the Man in Black as he sings about the clickety-clack of a seemingly endless railroad ride through life.

  “I long for the trip I don’t need no grip, I’m takin’ one more ride,” he sings along in the deep, serious “Cash voice,” a marked  -- and much lower – departure from his own husky yelp of a guy calling for his fourth beer at the bar.
It’s a song Lee can relate to in that, while he isn’t much of a train guy, the long and lonesome highways leading from nightclub to living room to seedy bar are where he’s spent much of a life, whose Nashville chapter is winding down.

“We bought this place out in Cayucos, Calif., right on the ocean. You can look out and see whales,” he says, adding that he and his wife, Maggie, will move sometime in the near future. “I keep hearing May from her.”
Fans of this one-man band of bawdy laughs, rock ’n’ roll, knife-throwing and choreography needn’t worry that his move will change his lifestyle.

 “I’ll just be coming at it in a different direction,” he says, noting that instead of working his way westbound  through the foothills and badlands to his bandstands, he’ll be reversing field and working eastbound.
Besides that, he vows to keep the tidy little home in Nashville’s Sylvan Heights neighborhood.  “This is the best place in the world to record,” he says of Music City. “If you are recording and say ‘I’d like to get something like the beginning of ‘Telstar’ (the old Tornados and Ventures hit) here, there’s a good chance that not only can you find someone who can play it, you probably can find the guy who played it in the first place.”  

And then there is this house with its E.T. (the cute little space guy, not the Texas Troubadour) history that few folks could appreciate as much as Lee.      

 “Guy we bought it from was sure aliens had been here,” he says, hopping to the window that looks out on a West Nashville railroad spur.
“He moved out of the house.  Had a hobo jungle. Had a Gypsy trailer and lived outside right there,” he says, pointing toward the back edge or the property. “You can still see where he had his fires.”

It doesn’t seem surreal that the self-described “teeny musician” in the red jeans – “I get all my clothes at Leprechauns ‘R’ Us,” he proclaims -- would buy a home where aliens dwelled. 
Lee is simply not the kind of fellow who would say the alien stuff is pure nonsense. It would suit him fine if it was true.  If one dropped in, he’d likely hand him one of the eight guitars in his music room and ask if he knows any Scotty Moore licks.       

The 5-foot-4, 119-pound musician is a gentle and open-minded guy, the kind who would ask iconic songstress Emmylou Harris to “sit on Grampee Lee’s knee.” He did just that during a show at Nashville landmark Bluebird CafĂ©, known for tame, four-headed musical teamwork before an audience prone to “shushing” those less-polite rather than for the raucous applause and profanity-laced hoorahs one would expect at a Lee show.
“You ever see the show ‘Nashville’ on TV?” he asks. “Whenever they are at The Bluebird (a stock location for the TV soaper), I’m on it.”  He points to a photograph for the cover of his “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You” album of a couple years ago. 

“People always sell more records when they are dead,” he says, by way of reasoning out his title choice for the album that was promoted in typical coast-to-coast, sleep-on-a-couch-if-you-gotta fashion during his unfabled “I Saw Him Before He Died” tour in 2010-11.
Fans now are getting at least one more chance to see this merry prankster before he dies as he tours with a trunk filled with the masterful new “The Fall & Further Decline of The Mighty King of Love” album. 

The Mighty King of Love” fits neatly alongside Lee’s albums in that if not autobiographical it’s perhaps nonsensical, a batch of through-the-glass-darkly-and-satirically tales by a guy looking backward at six-plus decades he knows he can’t recapture.  “Once you hit 60, you’re not THAT guy anymore,” he says, commenting on the natural progressions of his age and music.
 While his rootsier influences are on full display throughout, so is his long-time appreciation of Captain Beefheart, The Mothers of Invention and others who never found a boundary they weren’t willing to shred.

 “I don’t need to shock people,” says Lee, whose songs and stage banter do just that -- while also raising “did he really say that?” smiles and head shakes. “I’m not going at it like I’m a real-drinking, throat-slitting mother fucker.”
The eyes of the Mighty King of Love sparkle when he throws out a single word. “Spry,” he says, spending two syllables.

 “Does everybody call you spry now that you’re 61 like me? Nobody ever called me ‘spry’ before,” he says. “Now I’m spry.”

The King of Love? Yep, even at a spry 61 and in admitted decline, this nearly anonymous rock ’n’ roll superstar  does no doubt have fans, comely and lithe, girls enamored with the literate fellow with the appearance of a non-virginal Travelocity Gnome who, when required, uses profanity (and flying knives) to punctuate his songs and conversation.
 “People say to my wife, Maggie, don’t you worry about him out on the road with all the chicks? She says ‘No!’ Because she knows that if I had the choice between watching ‘Matlock’ reruns back in the hotel room and being with chicks, I’d choose ‘Matlock,’ making sure it isn’t an episode I’ve seen.”

He one-steps the conversation back to the “So Long” album cover and explains his role on “Nashville.” Take a little “Where’s Waldo” look the next time that sticky soaper visits The Bluebird.
 “When they are shooting at The Bluebird, that picture is always in the background,” says Lee, holding his right arm in the general direction of the wall where his copy of the “So Long” cover photo hangs.

Lee himself hasn’t been on that ABC show that depicts a slick city powered by music, bed-hopping and dirty politics, a metropolis vaguely similar to the city he’s going to leave in favor of a rugged stretch of California coast.
Surely it’s because he and his music are too pretty for prime time. “They pay me a lot of money to look like this,” he says, stroking his gray beard, matching hair hanging below his shoulders, a free-flowing fringe surrounding his bald dome.

While he teases his audience, particularly Baby Boomer old guys in pony-tails for forgetting that the ‘60s are long-gone, his own stage appearance is that of a grizzled prospector.
It takes plenty of maintenance to keep up this look, he says, crediting his bi-weekly visits to a barber shop to get a hot towel, straight-razor shave and delicate trim. 

“I don’t want to look like some bum in a suit,” he says, noting that he always performs in the nattiest apparel possible, suit and tie formality.
In shows this former short-term member of the Flying Burrito Brothers also wears a cowboy hat. Offstage his hats are perhaps more practical, like the Navy blue stocking cap he pulls on to run a jar of homemade hot salsa out to the car of a visiting journalist.  “This is what I paid my musicians on the last record,” he says, joking?

Truth is hats are a professional necessity.   “Cold doesn’t bother some bald guys. Me, I really feel it. I’m afraid of getting sick. Can’t work, don’t get paid.”
In the warmth of his house, the witty Leprechaun’s hair is free-flowing around his bald crown -- giving him a look that’s equal parts Dennis Hopper’s Billy the Kid and Robin Hood’s Friar Tuck -- as he mixes George and Lenny Steinbeck references with truck-driving tales and delicate guitar licks.

Walls are filled with mementoes like his late father, Jimmie Pearson’s, badge from his years as a head jailer in Durham, N.C., the town where Lee grew up as Phillip Pearson, a gentle man who sometimes disappears beneath the massive legend of the teeny guy named Phil Lee.  Well, actually Phillip Pearson’s just playing hide-and-seek.
Lee grabs a couple of snare brushes and begins nursing a soft rhythm from the single drum in the middle of the room filled with guitars, amps and skiffle washboards.  “How do you do, Ladies and gentlemen? It’s the Homer Briarhopper Show,” he says, parroting the announcer of the North Carolina TV show where he got his first professional gig … as a drummer.

“I didn’t say anything, I just did this,” he continues brushing the drumhead. “I’d do that every morning before I went into school,” he says, remembering 15-year-old Phillip’s role on a combination farm news and hillbilly variety show called “The Daybreak Show with Homer Briarhopper & The Daybreak Gang.”
“I did it two years. It was maybe the pinnacle of my musical career. I made $65 a week, $15 a night for gigs. We did mobile home openings and things like that.”   

  Almost five decades later, that drummer now is a guitarist of note and a songwriter and performer who has gained fans from small roadhouses to a quiet New Jersey estate where Bruce Springsteen is said to listen to Phil Lee’s innocently profane and always heartfelt blue-collar tales.
Guitar-slinging superstar Mark Knopfler, who lived in Nashville for awhile to worship at the altar of Chet, also is a fan.

  And then there is Lobster Pete, who travels the world with his lobster-trawling Long Island crewmates, to follow Phil.  “He’s 11 or 12 feet tall. He’ll come in with his crew…. they are all ‘Deadly Catch’  guys…. And he’ll yell ‘Phil Lee, fucking God.”
Even Lee was a bit worried when Lobster Pete’s procession showed up during a record-release gig -- with Dave Roe, Jen Gunderman, Ken Coomer, George Bradfute, Jan King, The Taryn Engle Singers and Richard Bennett  -- again at the Bluebird. “It was unbelievable,” marvels Lee, remembering the sight of these rough-and-rowdy crewmen entering the world’s most-polite concert venue.

“I thought ‘Oh, Jeez,’” he recalls, adding he didn’t quite know what would happen.
Lobster Pete and pals didn’t observe the “shushing” requests, but no one was hurt in the making of music that night.

“Everybody was relieved,” Lee says, with a laugh, explaining he first met the lobster hunters when he was participating – as he does annually – in an animal-rescue benefit in New York. “Lobster Pete shows up and says to the crowd ‘You’re not gettin’ out of here until you buy a fuckin’ CD or two.”
Unconventional? Perhaps, but Lobster Pete doubtless raised money for the animal-rescuers, which pleases Lee, who loves dogs, especially the two Mexican hairlesses – a full-sized one (Lucy) and a miniature (King Biscuit) -- curled together in an overstuffed chair just outside the music room during the interview.

He refers to the larger, Lucy, as “Satan’s lapdog,” allowing when he and the dog are out in the back yard, the sight of this giant hairless creature and its tiny and hairy master can be particularly startling for the stray neighborhood soccer mom going for a walk in the city park across the tracks.  Perhaps that sight even perpetuates the alien legend?
“Lobster Pete’s wife asked him ‘why are all of these pictures of Phil Lee on the wall and you’ve got none of me?’ He turns around and says to her: ‘He makes me happy.’”       

“I’ve got some fans like that, but not nearly enough of them,” says Lee, rocking in his desk chair.
 While Lobster Pete definitely would “kick the ass” of anyone anti-Phil, the singer himself is the gentlest of roving rock musicians and among the most sober, though far from the most somber.

“Thirty years ago, I quit drinking and taking drugs. I was like the Otis Campbell of Hollywood,” he says of those filmy, Southern California days and nights he washed away with some of the most famous drunks the film world could offer.
“I was hanging out with some classic drunks,” he says of his life in L.A. “I got up one day and had my breakfast of Snickers and a cold, tall Budweiser and said ‘I don’t need this.’ I just stopped. I didn’t have a physical craving. I was surprised.”

There were after-effects, though: “Getting beat up, shot at or arrested, well those things stopped after I quit drinking.”
He bends down and picks up a guitar, a Republic resonator, and he begins fluidly delivering those charming and chiming tones by way of punctuating his conversation.  “It’s a small one,” he says, of the guitar. “They got larger ones, course this one suits me fine.

 “You know a musician is a guy who puts $5,000 worth of equipment in a $100 car and plays a gig where he makes $50.”
 The unsteady “take” of a musician may be a fiscal nightmare for his accountant wife, Maggie.  But Lee makes enough to keep his career afloat, keeping him from returning to his earlier trade as a long-haul trucker.

“I can’t say I won’t ever drive a truck again, but I haven’t driven in a long time. Last time I did, I went to Jackson (Tennessee) to pick up load of hazardous material.
“Toxic body parts. Probably had (Jackson rockabilly king) Carl Perkins’ leg in there. Actually it was old livers and kidneys and stuff they didn’t need any more. Brought them back here to be burned in the old incinerator downtown where no one ever saw smoke. …  They probably dumped the body parts in the river.

“My whole deal with trucking was I didn’t ask a lot of questions.”          
There is a career he’d like to add to his next chapter, after he and Maggie move to the Golden State: acting. In fact he’s featured in an independent film that’s just now being screened. “It’s called ‘The One Who Loves You,’” he says. “I play an old geezer playing a guitar in a hotel room, so you could say it wasn’t acting.”  He also oversaw the movie’s soundtrack.

Other than his wife and dogs and his grandchildren – “Unlike most grandparents who say their grandchildren are the greatest, mine really are, and beautiful, too” – his love is music-making.
And while his wife tells him “I’m famous enough,” he’d still like to add a few more fans. He’d also like it if the “hot” Nashville genre of Americana music would welcome him into the fold.

“I guess I haven’t filled out my application or something, but Iggy Pop is as welcome in Americana music as I am, but I’m not John Prine and I’m not Buddy Fuckin’ Miller.”
It’s not bitterness, but humor in is voice. Fact is, he’d probably love to see Iggy and The Stooges on an Americana stage.

“I’m now in the ‘Let’s do cool things until you’re dead’ category.  ‘The (Ed) Sullivan Show’ is out,” he says, referring to the variety show – “must-see-TV” for young Baby Boomers -- that brought The Beatles into Middle American living rooms.
So while he’s watching whales from his California digs, he won’t be anything resembling retired. He’ll be writing songs, practicing his guitar, drinking a lot of coffee, maybe doing a little yoga and knife-throwing and biding his time.

“Who knows, there may be a pandemic killing just the young people and only old guys who play guitars are left. “

(Tim Ghianni, an award-winning journalist and author who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, writes frequently about that city’s musicians. His most recent book, “When Newspapers Mattered: The News Brothers & their Shades of Glory,” about his years in smoke-filled newsrooms and barrooms, is available at and  

Sunday, July 28, 2013

After midnight, we're gonna chug-a-lug and shout and thank JJ Cale for his music and style

I knew JJ Cale slightly. So when Reuters News Service asked me to take care of his obit, I was honored. Of course, it had to be cut down for the wire service, but they still ran a good bit of it. Here is the full, untrimmed and unedited story I filed July 27, 2013.

 Grammy award winning singer and songwriter JJ Cale, one of the most versatile musicians of his era who played everything from rock ‘n’ roll to blues and jazz, has died after suffering a heart attack, his official website said on Saturday.

Guitarists today talked not just of his success – the 74-year-old Cale won a Grammy award in 2008 for "The Road to Escondido," which he recorded with singer-songwriter Eric Clapton – but of his wide-ranging influence.

“I know that you should probably talk with Eric Clapton because he benefited greatly from imitating his success,” said Kenny Vaughan, Nashville-based guitarist for The Fabulous Superlatives, who was reached in Maine, where that band – fronted by Marty Stuart – is performing.

 Clapton himself has been quoted in the past on the influence Cale, who spent an early part of his career trying to make it in Nashville, but who became known more for his “Tulsa Sound” and his laid-back approach to songwriting and playing.

 “I consider myself a songwriter … I guess the business end is my songs and the fun part is playing the guitar,” Cale said in a video that showcases his performance with Clapton at the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival.

For his part, Clapton gives Cale his due. “A lot of people think I wrote ‘After Midnight’ and ‘Cocaine’ … I made them my own, but (Cale’s)  are the versions I really like. I could play like that till the cows come home,” Clapton says in the video, just before he and Cale take the stage at that event. That 2004 Crossroads festival was the first in a series of guitar fests that benefit Crossroads Centre, a drug treatment facility Clapton founded in Antigua.

“He was very unassuming,” said Vaughan. “His way of playing was extremely unique in that it was understated and always groove-oriented and very cool.”

Cale was born in Oklahoma City and moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s, where his career flourished.  The Nashville stop was a small chapter in his career.

But it was filled with good music, according to Mac Gayden, of iconic groups Barefoot Jerry and Area Code 615.

Gayden, also a renowned singer and session musician, met Cale at a recording session around 1970.  

 “J.J. was a perfect example of how a humble but extremely talented musician should live his life,” said Gayden. “I was in the  studio for no more than 10 minutes when we finished the first hit that JJ had on ‘Crazy Mama.’

“I was playing the slide guitar and it was the first song to have the slide ‘Wah’ sound. He trusted my instincts. His music will last for many years. “

Cale’s style still heavily influences guitarists in Music City.

“I respect his music,” says Brent Mason, a performer as well as one of the most in-demand- session guys in Nashville.

“I look at him for that easy, laid-back rock’n’roll style. He wasn’t a flashy guitar player. He was real soulful. He played with his fingers, not picks. I always like his sound.”

 “He didn’t seem to follow the pack or chase styles,” adds Vaughan. “He never seemed to be a guy that put a lot of effort into being trendy or commercially viable at any given moment. He certainly lasted a long time.”

Dave Pomeroy, renowned bassist and head of the musicians union in Nashville, said that Cale “was one of the first genre-defining artists with a Nashville connection. If you look at the mid-career period of Eric Clapton, you can see a direct connection with JJ Cale….

“I feel like he has had a huge influence on what everybody now would call Americana,” he says, referring to a rootsy blend of country and folk music that is practiced by many of Nashville’s younger music crowd.

But his personal style influenced more than guitar players. Nashville trumpet player George Tidwell posted a personal remembrance on his Facebook page: “Over a number of years I had the great musical and personal pleasure of recording, playing clubs and concerts and writing horn arrangements for him, and think of those times as some of my happiest musical experiences. John was so easy to work with, amazingly gifted yet completely modest and self-effacing.

Rock legend Neil Young once described Cale as the best electric guitar player he had ever seen other than the late Jimi Hendrix.

Cale's official website said he died on Friday night at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, California. There were no immediate plans for memorial services, the website said.

The obituary notes that “donations are not needed but he was a great lover of animals so, if you like, you can remember him with a donation to your favorite local animal shelter.”


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when Badger, Death, Flap and The Lone Ranger rode again (with shades on)

(Originally published Jan. 16, 1983 in The Leaf-Chronicle newspaper, Clarksville, Tenn.)
The News Brothers, Rob "Death" Dollar, Scott "Badger" Shelton and Tim "Flapjacks" Ghianni share truth and justice with their good friend, The Lone Ranger about 30 years ago. Photo was taken by my brother Eric "No Nickname" Ghianni.     
My heart was thumping mightily as I sat in the darkened auditorium, the strains of that oh, so familiar tune quickening my pulse.

Moments before, I had been cheering, stamping, applauding as the greatest of the good guys eliminated another evil threat in the old West.

The hero on the screen raced off on his white horse, his faithful Indian sidekick riding beside him on a pinto. The crescendoing trumpets blared as “The End” flashed on the screen.

The houselights came up in the auditorium of the Convention Center at Hopkinsville’s Western Kentucky Fairgrounds. Within minutes, the crowd was on its feet, as a familiar figure in white hat, blue cowboy suit, red bandana and sunglasses edged his way through the throng.

I looked at my friend, Rob Dollar, a staff writer for The Leaf-Chronicle, and asked.

“Who is that sunglassed man?”

“Why, don’t you know?” he said, a gleam in his eyes. “That’s The Lone Ranger.”

Clayton Moore, 68, wears sunglasses now instead of a mask. That’s because of legal hassles that came up when a movie, “The Legend of The Lone Ranger” was made a couple of years ago.

“They said I was too fat and too old to be The Lone Ranger,” said Moore. “I’ll get my mask back.”

Others have played the part, but to those of us who grew up in the early days of television, Clayton Moore is The Lone Ranger.

Rob and I weren’t the only adults at Saturday’s grand opening extravaganza sponsored by Chaney & Chaney Insurance Corp.

There were plenty of youngsters, who have witnessed the exploits of the masked man in reruns.

But there also were plenty of what Moore called “big guys” in the crowd, those of us in our late-20s and early-30s who grew up with The Lone Ranger. That group included me, Rob, my brother, Eric, and WJZM Radio News Director Scott Shelton.

We all had cheered as the masked man defeated Western villains on the old flickering RCA, back when the dog was still listening to the master’s voice on the RCA trademark.

And we all cheered anew as Moore carried us back to those thrilling days of yesteryear.

We were easily primed for our excitement. Prior to Moore’s appearance, we watched “The Lone Ranger,” the first of two feature films Moore and Jay Silverheels (Tonto) made. That film was made in 1955. They made 169 television episodes.

Moore opened a question-and-answer session by yelling “Hi-yo Silver, away!” in the authoritative tones which filled our living rooms 2 ½ decades ago.

The session was laced with The Lone Ranger’s straight-shooting philosophy. Some might say the mom and apple pie voicings are corny.

I disagree. As Moore said, “The Lone Ranger always speaks the truth!”

His voice cracked when he spoke of Silverheels’ death three years ago. “He’ll live throughout eternity. Scout, Tonto, Silver and I will keep riding forever.”

In a brief photo and interview session afterward, Moore broke more sad news to us: the white horse he posed with at the fairgrounds was a “loaner.” The real Silver died in 1972 at the age of 33.

Feeling uncomfortable calling him “Mr. Moore,” we addressed him as “Lone Ranger.” He didn’t mind. That’s who he is, after all.

Before he left, Moore autographed a black costume mask I pulled from my pocket. He may not be able to wear a mask, but to me he will always be the masked man. That mask will hang on my wall forever.

The sunglassed man climbed into a black luxury car and sped away.

“Hi-yo, Silver, away!” I yelled after him. He smiled and waved back.

As the snowflakes pelted us in the empty parking lot, Dollar turned to me and asked:

“Who was that masked man?”

“Why don’t you know,” I said. “That’s The Lone Ranger.”

There were no silver bullets. Tonto and Silver are dead.

But, The Lone Ranger rides again.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

Yodeling with Slim Whitman: A nice guy forgotten by Nashville but not by the world

Slim Whitman was a little surprised by the call on his 89th birthday.  The mustachioed “country-and-western crooner and yodeler” – as he had been depicted on the late-night infomercials back in the 1980s and 1990s – was largely forgotten. And that didn’t bother him much.

He was content with his life on his ranch not far from Jacksonville, Fla.

Slim had sold more than 120 million records worldwide, but he was not in the spotlight. He liked being around his home, which he and his wife, Alma Geraldine dubbed “Woodpecker Paradise.”  He lived there pretty much right up until he died Wednesday. The fact he didn’t play the Nashville show biz game is the main reason that he was all-but-forgotten.

I was among those of the Baby Boomer generation whose knowledge of Slim pretty much was limited to the commercials. Selling record collections on TV was unusual back in the 1980s and 1990s. And then there was the over-the-top Slim-like character Johnny Carson dreamed up to use as one of his ongoing oddball characters in his sketches. Yep, right along there with Carnack the Magnificent and the others, there was this yodeling mustachioed singer. 

Such tomfoolery hardly bothered Slim. Likely he figured any publicity was good publicity. After all, he pretty much pioneered the TV pitches for records.

Years later Waylon Jennings, at least, recognized the importance of such marketing.  “Radio doesn’t have any room for us,” he said, of his generation of artists. “Our people watch television.”

Waylon was, if nothing else, a realist (in addition to being a pretty nice guy who had the best-ever voice in the history of country music and who loved the CoolSprings Macaroni Grill.)

Waylon’s comments about radio versus TV advertising came when a label exec told the Old Dogs supergroup – Waymore, Bobby Bare, Jerry Reed and Mel Tillis, accompanied by every A-Teamer you could name – that they needed to rush a cut from their self-titled recording to radio.

I can just imagine Waylon’s lonesome, on’ry and mean stare in response. The record was promoted on TV.

In years since, of course, TV marketing has become major, especially for vintage artists and their CDs.

But this story is about Slim. The pioneer of such stuff and much more.  

Like the fact he opened up the other three-quarters of the planet to country music when he began playing shows in England in the 1950s. “He was Elvis” in the United Kingdom, according to long-time pal, George Hamilton IV, a friend of mine who was among the first to follow Slim to Europe.

It was George IV -- the International Ambassador of Country Music, and perhaps the nicest guy in the entertainment business – who first gave me the gift of getting to know Slim.

I was just getting started on a story I’d successfully pitched to the Nashville Ledger weekly newspaper in early 2012.  I knew George IV, a guy I like/liked a lot, was a huge star in England even though he was largely relegated to Opry cast status back here in the States. He remains proud of that Opry star status, I should note.

But I wanted to do a story about how George IV and others of his vintage still packed them in over in the U.K. and elsewhere. 

He gave me his story, of course.  Then he said “you really need to talk to Slim Whitman. He started it.”

It hadn’t even occurred to me that Slim would still be alive. In my mind he was still the Johnny Carson caricature.

“I’d love to talk with him,” I told my friend.  “You have his number?”

“Well, he doesn’t talk much these days, but let me call him and ask. If he says it’s OK, I’ll call you back and give you his number.”

Within an hour I was talking to the extremely gentle man with the trademark mustache and yodel.

 Here’s a part of the story I wrote for the Ledger:

While America has pretty much relegated Whitman to late-night infomercials – or for Baby Boomer readers: The model for a Johnny Carson sketch character – the lively 89-year-old says promoters still call, knowing he could still pack them in beneath Big Ben.

But his voice is out of shape, he says, and maladies of aging keep him from that kind of travel – so far.

“My legs give me trouble,” he says as he sits in his chair in the home nestled on the 40-acre estate he and his late wife, Alma Geraldine, dubbed “Woodpecker Paradise,” his home base during a globe-trotting career that was sparked and fueled by his enduring success in England.

“I started out in England in 1956 and my last tour over there was 2002, before my wife died (in 2009).”

   His path into England was lighted by “Rose Marie,” which London Records – which a few years later was issuing new recordings by Mick, Keith and The Stones -- decided to push as a pop hit after “Indian Love Call” whetted the appetites of the record-buying masses. It was the beginning of a half-century’s success.

 “We had hoards of records after that and then (London Records) started putting out albums. I’d have albums going No. 1 on the pop charts. That is what built me up in England,” Whitman says.

First booked to play on a variety bill that was to tour the country, including an extended stay at the London Palladium, he laughs about what he encountered upon his first steps on British soil after climbing off the plane in London in ’56.

“There were these great big posters (promoting Whitman), about 20 feet long when I got off the plane. They had the sign out saying ‘Welcome the World’s Greatest Cowboy,’ and I’d never been on a horse.”

He laughs and allows: “I still haven’t been on a horse.”  

The crowds were thrilled to see him, so much so that he went back in 1957, when his following there had grown “because I had been there before” to build an audience.

He still is in semi-wonderment about the gap between his success in the U.S. and what he encountered in England and the U.K.

“I’d been playing one-nighters in the United States and then going over there where I was playing only the big (halls and arenas). That was kind of backwards,” he says with a laugh, adding that “my people” in England are so loyal that even though he took a 13-year break from that country after 1957, he returned atop a country bill that jammed folks in.

Of his 120 million records sold, more than half are in England, Whitman says. Meanwhile, he’s relatively unknown or at least forgotten here because, he says, the industry “ignores me because I didn’t ever have a No. 1 record here in the U.S. ….Nashville didn’t think I’d done anything.”      

 Whitman says for some reason he’s always been billed as a “pop” act in England, and insists that his pal George Hamilton IV lighted the way for country artists.

Hamilton, though, testifies as to the importance of Whitman’s success. “He was the pioneer … He preceded all of us. Sadly, he has been totally overlooked by the CMA (Country Music Association) and the Hall of Fame.

“He has every right to be in the Hall of Fame: He was selling millions of records in the ‘50s,” he says, noting that Whitman defined the meaning of “international star” for country musicians in the U.K. and beyond….

That’s a good chunk of what I sent to the Ledger about Slim. It was just a small section of a larger story about the country success in the U.K. and elsewhere of George IV, Slim and others. Since this comes from my own unedited draft, I’m not sure if all of it made the paper. Probably, though.

But it wasn’t my last encounter with Slim. I called a few more times, just to talk. I do that for some reason with vintage artists. … until his phone was no longer in service. I’m sure that was because his health was failing.

I had a few notes from the main interview we’d done for the Ledger story that I kept in my files.  Truth is, I didn’t know if I’d ever use them, but I knew the fact I had interviewed this gentleman was significant … not because of me, but because of him and what he’d accomplished.

 “My son said you’ll live to be 100. I said if I live to be 100 you’ll have to do the yodeling,” he told me on the day of our birthday conversation, Jan. 24, 2012.

“Today I got a thing from Africa, a Happy Birthday. It’s all over the world,” he said of his stardom. “It wasn’t just England. We toured everywhere, Australia, New Zealand. I had a six-week tour of Africa. All that started with England,” where his accomplishments included an extended stay at the London Palladium and at times in the 1960s topping The Beatles on the U.K. charts.

In England, they wanted to hold Slim Whitman’s hand. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. 

“I feel good,” he said back in 2012, although he admitted “sitting by the television night and day with my legs straight down and you aren’t supposed to do it” contributed to health woes that kept him from making it back up to Nashville where he had recorded an album of cowboy songs with the wonderful Harold Bradley.

“Held me back from some things I needed to do,” said Slim. “I needed to go back to Nashville and finish another album.”

He said the cowboy songs album was done and ready if anyone wanted to release it.

“It was kind of a tribute album,” he said. “…Gene Autry  was a favorite of the wife and a favorite of mine. So I started out with Back in the Saddle Again. It was a little different Gene Autry because I did some twists he didn’t do.

“And we were going to go back and finish another record. I’ve known Harold (Bradley) ever since I was in the business.

“When I went to Nashville in 1949, he was my leader. And he was my leader this time. That shows how long we were friends. He’s been all over the world with me.”

That second batch of tunes never was finished, but when I called Harold the other day, he noted there were 10-12 fine songs ready for release from those sessions as well. Course no one released the cowboy songs.

 Then Harold drew a breath. “I don’t feel good today because of the death of my old friend,” said the normally upbeat Bradley, still the guitar king of the A-Team players.

During our very long birthday conversation, Slim and I talked about other things, the chart reign of Rose Marie and his other signature songs. A complete lack of bitterness at being ignored by Nashville.

He kept turning the interview back to his life … and his wife.

“If it hadn’t been for her, I’d have probably been a bum. I met her when she came down with her dad and she went to the same high school I did. …At first she wasn’t paying attention to anybody. She was a good-looking girl. She was only 13. All of the sudden we started looking at each other.

“They wouldn’t let us go out unless there was somebody with us. I said one day: ‘You think you’ll ever get married?’ She said ‘Let’s go for it.’   

“I loved to fish and girls was second. I borrowed 10 bucks from my mother to get the license. She said I never paid her back. “

After they were wed, Slim looked at his new bride. “I said ‘OK, now what are we gonna do?’ She said ‘I guess we’ll go fishing.’

“We were married in 1941. We were married 67 years.”

We talked more about top hits and folks he has known and influenced. Like The Beatles – “They were there in the Palladium when I played. McCartney plays left-handed guitar. Learned that from me.”

He also talked about the Americans who followed him to England and Europe: Bobby Bare, George IV,  Johnny Cash. All folks he relished in knowing.

And then there was the good friend who wanted to go to England but who was trapped by his manager and never made the trip.  They both had the same manager, Col. Tom Parker, early in their careers.  Slim moved on. Elvis never really did.

“I want to tell you a bitty thing about Elvis. Elvis had just started. And I was in Memphis and I had a show and I was a headliner and they brought Elvis over, and so I watched Elvis.

“I watched him and listened to him and when he was singing, the girls in the crowd didn’t do much. But when he wiggled they hollered. …”

Whitman laughs about the image of the young man with the swivel hips. “The wife met him. My daughter, too. We was on the same bus together.

“One night I was singing Indian Love Call and I heard somebody singing behind the curtain. It was Elvis, singing Indian Love Call while I was singing. I said ‘Don’t to that no more.’”

Elvis agreed that he wouldn’t do it. Besides that it was tough on the voice to sing along with Whitman, who admitted patterning his singing style after Eddy Arnold, but speeded up the tempo to claim it as his own.

As for Elvis, “We were friends till the end. I knew what was going on, but we were friends. We all got tears in our eyes when he died in 1977.”

Slim was getting a little weary, so I decided to let him go.

 “I didn’t drink, smoke, take drugs or anything,” he said, when I ask him the secrets to a long and happy career and life. “And I never used a word you couldn’t sing in church.

 “I’ve always been a nice guy.” 

I hated to hang up.