During the war he worked in a shipyard and saw action in the navy. His singing was so popular that his captain blocked his transfer to another ship – fortunately for Whitman, as the other ship was sunk with all hands lost. After his discharge he was a pitcher for the Plant City Berries but he preferred singing, and recorded for RCA-Victor at the suggestion of Colonel Tom Parker in 1949. After moderate success with “I’m Casting My Lasso Towards The Sky” and “Birmingham Jail”, he moved to Shreveport, Louisiana so he could appear each week on the radio show Louisiana Hayride.
In 1952, Whitman’s steel player, Hoot Rains, overshot a note while they were recording “Love Song Of The Waterfall”, and this became a trademark. It became his first major hit but he continued as a postman. “I was a postman when ‘Love Song Of The Waterfall’ was selling half a million copies. I was a Top 10 artist and I was delivering mail. When I had ‘Indian Love Call’ in the charts I decided it was time to go.”
The 1920s operetta Rose Marie, which tells how a Canadian Mountie always gets his woman, was staged on Broadway in 1924, and two songs became standards, the title song and “Indian Love Call”. It was filmed with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in 1935, and when Whitman’s wife Jerry was playing the score on the piano he realised its potential. This was followed by country hits with “China Doll”, “North Wind” and “Secret Love”. Touring wasn’t always plain sailing, he told me. “Elvis was on tour with us in 1955. He’d gotten one or two records out and it was obvious that he was going to be very special. We realised what he was like and put him on last.”
In 1955 Whitman returned to Florida, which restricted his appearances on Grand Ole Opry as going to Nashville every week was too time-consuming. He returned to Rudolf Friml and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical for “Rose Marie” itself – “I took it from classical to country,” he said, “and threw in some yodels for good measure.” The record was a smash hit and established him in the UK. “I knew the record was getting big in England as I remember getting a telegram saying ‘ROSE MARIE HAS SOLD 80,000 AND IS NUMBER 10′. The next week it was ‘ROSE MARIE HAS SOLD 150,000 AND IS NUMBER 4′ and then it was ‘ROSE MARIE HAS SOLD 400,000 AND IS NUMBER 1′.”
The song topped the UK charts from 30 July to 8 October 1955 and was followed by chart success for “Indian Love Call”, “China Doll” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”. Whitman became the first country star to top a London Palladium bill and he toured the UK on a variety bill with the comedian Tommy Trinder and specialist acts. A young Paul McCartney saw him at the Liverpool Empire and realised he could play the guitar left-handed. Whitman couldn’t play any other way because he had lost part of a finger in an accident at a meat-packing plant.