By RICH FOLEY
Readers may remember last month when I mentioned singer Slim Whitman, whose music saved Earth from alien invaders in the 1996 movie “Mars Attacks!” At the time I wrote the column, I wasn’t even sure if Whitman was still alive.
Now I have my answer, as he passed away last Wednesday at age 90. I’m sure it was mere coincidence that he died shortly after I wrote about him. If I had the power to cause such things, I would have been sure to mention Sarah Jessica Parker, who was also in the film.
Even though his music career lasted over 60 years, it was the “Mars Attacks!” audio-only appearance that led off his obituary in the New York Times. But Slim had many other claims to fame
He started performing part-time in the late 1940s and he had his initial two hits in 1952. The first, “Love Song of the Waterfall,” was used in the soundtrack of the hit movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” 25 years later. The second was “Indian Love Call,” the song that appeared in “Mars Attacks!” more than four decades later. Its popularity when first released enabled Slim to quit his day job as a mailman and pursue a music career exclusively.
In 1954, Whitman played a date in Memphis. His opening act was a young man making his professional debut, someone so little known that he was mistakenly billed as “Ellis” Presley. Whitman received $500 for his appearance, while Elvis got a measly fifty bucks. Later, Slim let Elvis borrow one of his white rhinestone jackets. Elvis eventually adopted a similar look for himself.
Whitman had a huge number one hit in England in 1955. “Rose Marie” stayed at the top of the United Kingdom charts for 11 straight weeks, a feat that England’s top rock acts couldn’t match. The record lasted for 36 years until Bryan Adams finally broke it when his hit, ”(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” topped the charts for 15 weeks in 1991.
Not only was Whitman more popular in Great Britain than in the United States, surprisingly he made an impression on some up-and-coming British musicians. According to Wikipedia, the late George Harrison claimed Whitman as an early influence, saying “The first person I ever saw playing a guitar was Slim Whitman.”
Slim probably had an even greater effect on Paul McCartney. Although right-handed himself, Whitman played the guitar left-handed because of an accident that cost him most of one of his fingers. The left-handed McCartney saw a poster of Whitman playing his guitar and realized he could play left-handed with the guitar strung the opposite way from how a right-handed player would do it. All things considered, you could say that worked out pretty well for McCartney.
With his career in the United States faltering in the late 1970s, Whitman released a greatest hits album, sold by mail or phone order and promoted heavily by television advertising. Some made fun of his falsetto and ability to yodel, but the album reportedly went on to sell four million copies.
With his new fame in his own country, Whitman went on to release several more successful “as seen on TV” albums and began recording new songs, some of which became minor hits in the United States, and, as usual, big hits in Great Britain. He even was invited to appear on “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson” for the first time, his biggest television appearance in the United States since appearing on, of all things, Wolfman Jack’s “The Midnight Special” in the early 1970s. I’ll bet that had to be interesting. I can almost hear Wolfman saying the words, “Slim Whitman,” then following up with his trademark howl.
Whitman continued to perform into his 80s and released his last new studio album in 2010 at age 87. Wikipedia credits him with record sales in excess of 120 million.
After all those accomplishments, some people might have a rather high opinion of themselves. But as Slim told an Associated Press reporter, he wanted to be thought of as a good father and nice guy.
“I’d like people to remember me,” he added, “as having a good voice and a clean suit.”
What incredible modesty, coming from the man who saved the Earth from a Martian invasion.