The yodeling country singer with the signature pencil-thin black mustache was born Ottis Dewey Whitman, and overcame a childhood stutter to become one of country’s most popular performers and recording artists of the 1950s.
As a boy he was captivated by the yodeling style of “the Father of Country Music,” Mississippi singer Jimmie Rodgers, and soon mastered the art of leapfrogging into his voice’s high falsetto range. While serving in the Navy during World War II, he learned to play guitar and entertained his shipmates.
Upon discharge, he began singing on radio programs in the South and joined the popular “Louisiana Hayride” program. Well before Col. Tom Parker signed on as Elvis Presley’s manager, the wheeling-dealing promoter got Whitman a record contract. In 1952, Whitman released his first single, “Love Song of the Waterfall,” which took him into the country Top 10. His next record, “Indian Love Call,” went to No. 2 and also crossed over as a pop hit.
Whitman’s success crossed the Atlantic and he became one of the few American country musicians of the time to develop a significant following in Europe. Whitman charted hits across four decades, and experienced a major career revival in the late ’70s and early ’80s through a string of TV commercials for collections of his hits. His newfound celebrity paved the way for a few more chart hits as late as 1981.
He has continued to perform into his 80s, and a few years ago humorously quelled rumors that he had died saying, “I can still sing. And if you’re dead, you can’t sing.”