MIAMI Country singer Slim Whitman, the yodeler who sold millions of records through TV ads in the 1980s and 1990s and helped Elvis Presley get established in the 1950s, died Wednesday at a Florida hospital of heart failure. He was 90.
Whitman's tenor falsetto and ebony mustache and sideburns became global trademarks and an inspiration for countless jokes thanks to the TV commercials that pitched his records. But he was a serious musical influence on early rock, beloved in Britain, and championed young Elvis when the Memphis singer was just getting started.
Presley opened a July 30, 1954, show at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis, which has become legendary. A poster for that show gave Elvis third billing behind Whitman and Billy Walker. It misspelled his name as "Ellis Presley."
Whitman was impressed.
"I have no idea what he sang," Whitman recalled in a 2011 interview with The Commercial Appeal. "I don't think the girls liked his singing too much, but they loved his wiggle."
In the CA interview, Whitman said he told his band members and others at the performance, "This guy is going to be the biggest."
Whitman's band didn't believe it. "They said, 'He's going to be a flash in the pan.' I remember telling them later, 'Quite a flash, wasn't it?'"
Whitman said he told his manager about Elvis, who soon was invited with his band to join Whitman as part of the "Louisiana Hayride." Whitman's manager at the time was Col. Tom Parker, who later became Elvis' manager.
Whitman's career spanned six decades, beginning in the late 1940s, but he achieved cult figure status in the 1980s with a famous marketing campaign on television. Comedians including Johnny Carson told jokes about Whitman's singing, and like Elvis, he inspired look- alikes.
But the public loved him.
"All of a sudden, here comes a guy in a black and white suit, with a mustache and a receding hairline, playing a guitar and singing 'Rose Marie,"' Whitman told The Associated Press in 1991. "They hadn't seen that."
"That TV ad is the reason I'm still here," he said. "It buys fuel for the boat."
Born Ottis Dewey Whitman Jr. in Tampa on Jan. 23, 1923, the tall, thin singer was renamed Slim by RCA Records in 1949 to replace his uninspiring birth name.
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