Ferlin Husky, a pioneering country music entertainer in the 1950s and early ’60s known for hits like “Wings of a Dove” and “Gone,” died Thursday. He was 85.
The 2010 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee died at his home, said Country Music Hall of Fame spokeswoman Tina Wright. He had a history of heart problems and related ailments.
With his resonant voice and good looks, Husky was one of the most versatile entertainers to emerge from country music. He was a singer, songwriter, guitarist, actor, and even a comedian whose impersonations ranged from Bing Crosby to Johnny Cash.
He was one of the first country musicians to bring the genre to television and helped spread its popularity in booming post-WWII California, an important step in country’s quest for a national audience.
Husky, who was one of the first country artists to have his name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, sold more than 20 million records, mostly in the ’50s and early ’60s, according to his website. He won many country music awards long before such gala shows were televised and meant so much to careers.
He was born in 1925 near Flat River, Mo. After five years in the Merchant Marines during WWII, he began his singing career in honky-tonks and nightclubs around St. Louis and later in the Bakersfield, Calif., area.
“I’d walk into a bar and if they didn’t have any music there, I’d ask the bartender if I could play. Then I’d pass the hat around,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1957.
He recalled he could count on netting 50 or 75 cents. He recorded some songs early in his career under the name Terry Preston and, for some early records, he spelled his last name Huskey.
Signed to Capitol records in the early 1950s, he had his first big success when he teamed with 2011 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Jean Shepard on “Dear John Letter,” which ranked No. 4 on Billboard’s list of top country songs of 1953. He was also the headline act for a tour that included a young Elvis Presley.
“He was so eager to learn how to entertain an audience, he’d watch everything I did,” Husky said.
In 1957, he had a No. 1 hit on the country chart with “Gone,” a re-recording of a song he had done several years earlier. It also broke the top five on the pop charts.
“Wings of a Dove,” a gospel song, became another No. 1 country hit in 1960 and was one of his signature songs. His other hits included “A Fallen Star,” “My Reason for Living,” “The Waltz You Saved for Me” and “Timber I’m Falling.”
While still recording under his real name, Husky created a character named Simon Crum as his comic alter ego, hitting the charts with such songs as “Cuzz You’re So Sweet” and “Country Music Is Here to Stay.”
He also was a regular on TV and appeared in a string of movies with co-stars like Zsa Zsa Gabor (“Country Music Holiday” in 1958) and Jayne Mansfield (“Las Vegas Hillbillies” in 1966). He once said that his selection for a short run as Arthur Godfrey’s summer replacement at CBS in the late 1950s was a particular high point for him.
“It was a great achievement because there were so many actors and artists, but I got picked even though I didn’t have a high school education,” he told the Associated Press in 1981. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade.
He cut back on his entertaining in 1970 and performed part time, mostly concert dates. He was performing once a month in the mid-2000s. But his imprint on country music remained.
“In the mid-’50s, Ferlin would create the template for the famed Nashville Sound, a sound that gave rock ‘n’ roll a run for its money and forever put Music City on the map,” Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said at Husky’s induction in May 2010. “The multitalented and musically versatile Ferlin Husky was always ahead of his time.”