Historical museum preserves legacy of country western icon Slim Whitman

By Nick Blank Staff Writer
Posted 8/21/19

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Slim Whitman exhibit at the Clay County Historical and Railroad Museum keeps growing, honoring the legacy of the musician who lived in Middleburg.

The exhibit contains …

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Historical museum preserves legacy of country western icon Slim Whitman

Posted

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Slim Whitman exhibit at the Clay County Historical and Railroad Museum keeps growing, honoring the legacy of the musician who lived in Middleburg.

The exhibit contains Whitman’s first and last guitar. Concert posters, records and letters are included in the collection. The 69 pieces of memorabilia were gathering dust, Whitman’s grandson Dewey Beagle said. He reached out to Randy Harris, Clay County Historical Society president, on Facebook.

Harris recalled Beagle making multiple trips to his car, box after box. The last item was Whitman’s first guitar.

“The whole table was filled up with stuff,” Harris said.

“It was like, what are we going to do with it?” Beagle said. “We could put it in our living room. Yeah, we would get to see it, but nobody else would.”

Harris was a fan of Whitman growing up and called him a local legend.

“I have people come in here sometimes just to see the Slim Whitman display. They saw him at local restaurants,” Harris said. “They’ll stare at some of the artifacts and it really gets to them because he was that much of an icon.”

Whitman is famous for playing the guitar backward after he lost a finger at a meatpacking plant in Tampa. While he was in the U.S. Navy on the USS Chilton, Whitman wrote to his wife that he spent $5 on a guitar. In a later letter, he considered throwing the guitar in the ocean.

“Colonel” Thomas Parker, Elvis Presley’s future manager, heard Whitman on the radio in 1947 and later got him a deal with RCA. The exhibit has a poster from the show, “Louisiana Hayride,” where Presley is billed third behind Whitman and Floyd Cramer.

Whitman’s career was long and successful. Between 1949 and 1980, Whitman had 16 top-20 singles on the U.S. Country chart. His rendition of “Rose Marie” held the record for longest running No. 1 song on the UK Singles chart from 1955-1991. Whitman’s single “Indian Love Call” featured prominently in Steven Spielberg’s “When Mars Attacks,” elevating Whitman’s standing further.

“He hit those notes,” Harris said.

“He would call it, ‘slipping out of trouble,’ when he would go from the tone to the falsetto tone,” Beagle said.

Whitman’s last recordings were in 2002. The singer had two children, two grandchildren and three great grandchildren. He died in 2013 and is buried at Middleburg United Methodist Church.

Beagle, who graduated from Orange Park High in the late 1970s, said Whitman was a typical grandfather.

“He didn’t teach me how to sing,” Beagle said. “He taught me how to do a handshake, I remember. He said, ‘Don’t grip it like a wet dish rag. Grip it like you mean it.’”

When Beagle was about eight, he saw Whitman play live. The venue was Knotts Berry Farm. The backdrop was a covered wagon.

“They announce Slim Whitman and this guy walks out in a white rhinestone suit and guitar. I’m like, ‘Who the heck is this? Beagle said. “It was the first time I saw him perform besides at church.”

Whitman toured and took his young grandson with him. Beagle would go on tour as a teenager for school credit. Beagle joked how he was too young to recognize singers such as Jerry Reed or Dolly Parton at recording studios.

Whitman was known as “Pawpaw,” rather than a world-famous singer. Whitman didn’t drink or do drugs. A poster at the front of exhibit shows Whitman playing with Hank Williams. For that concert, Williams had to be held up while he played. Beagle remembers Whitman telling the story, urging Williams to seek help. Williams died four months later.

“This is what (Slim Whitman) did to make a living. That’s how he looked at it,” Beagle said. “When the suit and guitar came off, overalls and jeans went on and that’s who he was.”

Beagle said he cycles through favorite songs by his grandfather depending on his mood. It’s currently “What’s the World A Comin’ To,” a short ditty from 1967 where Whitman, or his songwriter, laments the end of school prayer five years earlier and predicts the dropping of “One Nation Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and the breaking point when people get offended when others say, “God bless you.”

“It’s become so relevant,” Beagle said.

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