MIAMI -- Country singer Slim Whitman, the high-pitched yodeller who sold millions of records through ever-present TV ads in the 1980s and 1990s and whose song saved the world in the film comedy Mars Attacks!, died Wednesday at a Florida hospital. He was 90.
Whitman died of heart failure at Orange Park Medical Center, his son-in-law Roy Beagle said.
Whitman's tenor falsetto and ebony moustache and sideburns became global trademarks -- and an inspiration for countless jokes -- thanks to the TV commercials that pitched his records.
But he was a serious musical influence on early rock, and in the British Isles he was known as a pioneer of country music for popularizing the style there. Whitman also encouraged a teen Elvis Presley when he was the headliner on the bill and the young singer was making his professional debut.
Whitman recorded more than 65 albums and sold millions of records, including four million of All My Best that was marketed on TV.
His career spanned six decades, beginning in the late 1940s, but he achieved cult figure status in the 1980s. His visage as an ordinary guy singing romantic ballads struck a responsive chord with the public.
"All of a sudden, here comes a guy in a black and white suit, with a moustache and a receding hairline, playing a guitar and singing Rose Marie," Whitman told The Associated Press in 1991. "They hadn't seen that."
For most of the 1980s, he was consistent fodder for Johnny Carson's monologues on late night NBC-TV, and the butt of Slim Whitman look-alike contests.
"That TV ad is the reason I'm still here," he said. "It buys fuel for the boat."
He yodelled throughout his career and had a three-octave singing range. Whitman said yodelling required rehearsal.
"It's like a prize fighter. He knows he has a fight coming up, so he gets in the gym and trains. So when I have a show coming up, I practise yodelling."
In 1952, Whitman had his first hit record, Love Song of the Waterfall. Another Whitman hit from that year, Indian Love Call, was used to humorous effect in the 1996 Mars Attacks! -- his yodel causes the Martians' heads to explode.
-- The Associated Press