To American TV watchers of a certain age, Slim Whitman, the Country and Western singer who died this week at 90, is remembered as the man who was bigger than Elvis and The Beatles — at least according to his groundbreaking 1980 infomercial. In fact, Whitman was very briefly a success in the United States, in the 1950s, but became a pop phenomenon in the rest of the English-speaking world. The British newspaper The Guardian, in its obituary, celebrated his “almost operatic yodeling, characteristics that several generations in Britain, Australia, and South Africa have assimilated into their fantasies of the old West in America.”
But when his infomercial suddenly appeared on American TV — showing his leathery face and old-fashioned guitar strumming, while declaring him the world’s biggest star — it was an instant camp classic, the kind of video that goes viral today. In that pre-Internet world, however, the shocking claim that this strange character was more popular than Elvis and The Beatles in Britain marked a deeper revelation: It introduced American viewers to a cultural universe overseas, with its own distinct tastes and attitudes, where the image of an American pop star was quite different than here. By 1980, folks in the United States may have been putting away their bell-bottoms and exploring punk, but many British were still fixated on “Hee-Haw.”
To young Cold War-era Americans, with their fierce sense of cultural hegemony, this amounted to a puzzling lesson: Yes, foreigners want to be like you, but their view of you is quite different from your own. Slim Whitman did more than entertain. He offered Americans a glimpse of the future.