By Patricia Reaney and Tim Ghianni
NEW YORK/NASHVILLE (Reuters) - Legendary country singer and songwriter Slim Whitman, known for his smooth falsetto and high-pitched yodeling talent, died in Florida on Wednesday at the age of 90, his son-in-law said.
Roy Beagle, who is married to Whitman's daughter Sharon, said the singer-songwriter who was born Ottis Dewey Whitman Jr. was admitted to hospital on Tuesday.
"He died last night at the Orange Park hospital at about 12:45 this morning of heart failure," Beagle told Reuters. "We had a 90th birthday party for him in January and he looked good, but he had been in failing health since then."
Whitman, who was self-taught on the guitar and had a string of hits including "Rose Marie," "Indian Love Call" and "Secret Love," recorded dozens of albums and sold millions of records during his career, which began in the late 1940s.
Whitman was working in a shipyard in Florida when he was discovered by Colonel Tom Parker, who later became Elvis Presley's manager. He signed his first recording contract with RCA records in 1948.
The singer and Elvis toured together in the 1950s.
Whitman released "Love Song of the Waterfall" in the early 1950s, which more than two decades later was on the soundtrack of the film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind".
It was followed by "Indian Love Call," his first million seller. A few years later, in 1955, he joined the Grand Ole Opry.
His other hits include "Danny Boy," "Red River Valley" and "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You."
Although Whitman was once known as "America's Favorite Folksinger," he was more popular in Europe than in the United States, particularly in Britain where he did many tours.
"I have sold 120 million records," Whitman said in an interview last year. "Half of those could be in Europe."
On his birthday last year the singer said he received a greeting from Africa.
"We toured everywhere, Australia, New Zealand. I had a six-week tour of Africa," he added. "All that started with England."
His long-time friend, Grand Ole Opry star George Hamilton IV, credits Whitman for the rise of country music internationally.
"He was the key, pivotal figure in spreading country music internationally, long before the rest of us," Hamilton said in an interview after learning of Whitman's death.
"He was just a wonderful, gracious Southern gentleman and a dear friend. We toured together several times over there and our paths continued crossing at the Wembley Festival," he said, referring to the International Festival of Country Music at Wembley Arena.
Hamilton said he regretted that Whitman had not been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Whitman gained new fans in the late 1970s and 1980s when a TV album featuring 20 of his songs was released and for his late-night commercials featuring his yodeling vocals. The commercials inspired the late talk show host Johnny Carson to style one of his "Tonight Show" sketch characters after Whitman.
In 1996 Whitman was featured in the soundtrack for the science fiction film "Mars Attacks," and more than a decade later in 2010 released his last album, "Twilight on the Trail."
Despite his international fame, Beagle said Whitman was the happiest living a low-key life in Florida.
"He really enjoyed the farm and fishing more than anything else," he said.
In addition to his daughter, Sharon, Whitman is survived by his son, Byron, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston; and Jackie Frank)