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Friday, Jul 25, 2014
Steve Otto

otto


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I got the news about Slim Whitman on my phone from George Bolinger as we were coming home from the mountains last week. George and I had worked at the long-gone A&P grocery together while I was in high school. But at the same time he had a job as the late-night DJ on the old University of Tampa radio station WTUN (A ton of fun on Tampa Bay) and a deeply rooted love of country music.


He could and would sing the lyrics of any country song written. Yeah, he could drive you nuts, but he introduced me to a music genre that was among those making the transition to rock and roll. He says he never actually saw Whitman on stage, but he had his car serviced at the same Jacksonville station as the singer.

Anyhow, I was never sure what direction Whitman was headed, but I assumed he was a cowboy yodeler headed for extinction.

For much of America, Whitman became a caricature of country singers as well as a late-night pitchman for his unique yodeling cowboy albums. Most of us these days remember his voice coming out the speakers on the back of a pickup truck in the movie "Mars Attacks.'' OK, so maybe you missed that one with Jack Nicholson as president.

The important thing is that when the Martians heard Whitman's voice, they exploded.

We laughed and Slim, as they say, laughed all the way to the bank.

More than that - much more than that - Ottis Dewey Whitman, as he was christened, was a good guy, deeply religious (he even married the preacher's daughter) whose values still resonate and who is probably better known around the world than any other Tampa native.

He was 90 when he died last week and a part of that greatest generation. He was a big, rock-solid lefty who early on wanted to be a baseball player. He made it as a pitcher for the Hillsborough High Terriers. After the war he would even get a contract with the Plant City Berries of the Orange Belt League.

He worked as a ship fitter and boilermaker at the Tampa shipyards. When war came, he signed up with the Navy and was shipped off to the South Pacific. He even survived a kamikaze plane that exploded on the deck only feet from where he was standing.

After the war he was back at the shipyards and began singing on local radio stations WDAE and WFLA with a band he had formed.

It was about that time that a former field person for the Tampa Humane Society, Col. Tom Parker, who had made a name for himself as well as a promoter, heard Whitman. Parker was promoting Eddy Arnold and managed to arrange an audition for Whitman with RCA Records.

Parker was a story unto himself. He was not a colonel and in fact was an illegal immigrant from the Netherlands whose gift of gab would get him a place as a manager for Elvis Presley as well as Whitman.

The two were a part of Tampa lore. I hope that in a few years Whitman will be considered for one of those busts on the Riverwalk. Maybe there will even be a button on the bust you can push and listen to Slim singing "Rose Marie.''

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