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.