Slim Whitman, the high-pitched yodeling country singer who sold millions of records throughout his decades-long career, has died at age 90 of heart failure. Son-in-law Roy Beagle confirmed to the Associated Press that Whitman passed away at Florida's Orange Park Medical Center on Wednesday.
Whitman, born Ottis Dewey Whitman Jr. in Tampa in 1923, was a self-taught guitar player whose career began in the late 1940s. The country legend recorded more than 65 albums and released a number of hit singles, including "Rose Marie," "Secret Love," "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You," and "Indian Love Call," which was featured in the 1996 movie Mars Attacks! In the sci-fi comedy film, Whitman's trademark yodel saves the planet Earth by causing the heads of invading martians to explode.
Whitman was an influential figure on early rock'n'roll and achieved international fame. In England, he was recognized as a pioneer of country music, having popularized the genre overseas. "I have sold 120 million records," Whitman reportedly said in an interview last year (via Reuters). "Half of those could be in Europe."
After learning of his death, Whitman's longtime friend, country musician George Hamilton IV said, "He was the key, pivotal figure in spreading country music internationally, long before the rest of us... He was just a wonderful, gracious Southern gentleman and a dear friend."
In the U.S., he was known not just for his falsetto or three-octave singing range, but also for the television commercials that advertised his albums, particularly the one that pitched All My Best, a greatest hits compilation.
"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 AP in 1991. "They hadn't seen that."
Throughout the 1980s, the singer-songwriter was a target for one-liners on Johnny Carson's the Tonight Show, and the inspiration of several look-alike contests.
"That TV ad is the reason I'm still here," Whitman said to the AP. "It buys fuel for the boat... I almost didn't do them. I had seen those kinds of commercials and didn't like them. But it was one of the smartest things I ever did."
Whitman's most recent album, Twilight on the Trail, was released in 2010. He is survived by his daughter, Sharon Beagle, and his son, Byron Whitman, as well as two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.