For generations, Slim Whitman was more famous for being parodied than for his actual legacy. That was thanks largely to the ubiquitous TV commercials for his mail-order greatest-hits albums in the 1970s and '80s, against which comedy was the only defense. Yet his yodeling-prone voice was such a thing of beauty that the satire almost always felt affectionate, even when it was his falsetto that proved the death of an entire horde of invading aliens in a Tim Burton movie.
Watch Andy Kaufman gaze longingly at Whitman after introducing him on an episode of the late-night music program "Midnight Special" in 1981. Was the comedian and performance artist kidding, with his adoration? No more than with Kaufman's famous Elvis love.
But here is Whitman as you remember him best, if you're over 35 — as a staple of late-night UHF commercial blocks, and a self-promoting TV pitchman non pareil:
Little wonder that he became one of Johnny Carson's favorite targets, in sketches like this one, where — doing a fairly impressive impression of a yodel — the "Tonight Show" legend did a public service announcement about Slim Whitman Disease:
And then, of course, came the ultimate use of Whitman as a punchline, when a recording of his classic "Indian Love Song" became the thing found fatal to an alien race in Burton's 1996 comedy Mars Attacks!
But Whitman had a career that lasted decades before he became fodder for comedy. "Indian Love Song" reached No. 2 on the country chart in 1952 — his highest charting position, as he never did hit the top spot. His career as a country hitmaker after that was reasonably long-lasting but erratic. Whitman enjoyed his last top 10 hit in 1971, and he never had an album go any higher on the Billboard country chart than 1968's In Love the Whitman Way, which made it to No. 16.
Ironically, this quintessentially American singer became bigger in England than his homeland, at least for a while. In 1954, his recording of "Rose Marie," from the 1920s musical of the same name, hit a position in England that had eluded him in the States: No. 1. It stayed at the top of the British pop chart for 11 weeks. No one topped that record of longevity at the peak in England until Bryan Adams' "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" broke it in '91.
Whitman last cracked the country top 40 in America in 1980. Normally, that would be the point that the story turns sad in an obit, professionally speaking. But ironically, that's right about the time his career really took off, a complete lack of radio play notwithstanding.
The first of his TV-marketed greatest hits albums came out in 1979, with another soon to follow. These never made the Billboard charts, because — as the commercials cheerfully reminded you — they were "not sold in stores." But they made Whitman the wealthiest yodeler alive.
Fans like Kaufman helped make him a sort of cult hero to hipsters as well as grandmas. Here's Kaufman doing his version of one of Whitman's hits on David Letterman's show, in not very Whitman-esque garb:
Meanwhile, he continued to be a go-to guy for a punchline for comedians whose appreciation may have been a little less earnest than Kaufman's. SCTV loved to take him on — as in this sketch that features a brief bit of a Whitman soundalike singing "Stairway to Heaven":
Joe Flaherty played Whitman as taking on the role of Che in "Indira," a satire of Evita rearranged to tell the story of Indira Gandhi:
Rush Limbaugh once spoofed the backward-masking craze that was briefly a popular belief among fundamentalists by inserting "satanic messages" into a Slim Whitman recording. As he recounted it years later on his show, people actually believed it, and called in for instructions on how to destroy their Whitman records (or 8-tracks):
But satanic satire aside, the purity of that tone was pure heaven for anyone who wanted to set the laughs aside and listen to a gifted singer who instantly conjured a more gentlemanly era, without a hint of irony in his golden throat.