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, hall spokeswoman Tina Wright said. 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-World War II California, an important step in country's quest for a national audience.
He said in a 2010 interview with The Associated Press that he was buoyed by his Hall of Fame induction because he worried he'd been forgotten as his health failed over the years.
"The main thing I'm proud of, this is for my family and for the many people who want to see me go in there before I die," he said. "It's a great honor."
Friends seemed more indignant about Husky's long wait than he did. Tracy Pitcox, president of Heart of Texas Records, remembers telling Husky he deserved to be in the hall of fame a few years before his induction.
"He said, 'It would be nice, but it isn't going to impress Jesus,'" Pitcox remembered Thursday. "I just thought, 'Wow, what a nice thing to say.'"
Husky was one of the first country artists to have his name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and sold more than 20 million records, mostly in the '50s and early '60s, according to his web site. He won many of his 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 Marine during World War II, 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 netting 50 or 75 cents each time.
He recorded some songs early in his career under the name Terry Preston, and in some early records he spelled his last name Huskey.
He was signed to Capitol records in the early 1950s and 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.
Shepard said Thursday that was the start of a friendship that lasted nearly 60 years. She talked with Husky about a week ago before his health took a turn for the worse.
"We've got to go through the motions now," Shepard said Thursday. "I just dread that 'cause it seems like my heart's going to bust."
She described Husky as a fun-loving friend who was always quick with a joke or a prank. He also was one of the most talented artists she worked with in a long career that brought her in touch with all the legends.
"Ferlin was a great entertainer. He was a great entertainer," Shepard said. "I can't say nothing bad about him. If every man and woman who worked together in the music business or whatever had the relationship that me and Ferlin had, it would be a wonderful thing. It was a loving, loving friendship."
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 of Presley.
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."
Video: "Wings of a Dove," Ferlin Husky
"I didn't say it was country, but it was a country boy doing it," he said in 2010.
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 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."