11 Mellow Artists Who Sold Millions Through Commercials

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They’ve sold millions of records! They are responsible for heart-touching music that no human should be without! There aren’t enough superlatives to describe these recording artists who were apparently huge in Europe but didn’t sell that many records in the U.S.—until the insomniac crowd started buying up their greatest hits collections from the relentless TV commercials that peppered the Late, Late Show. How many of these mellow million-sellers do you own?

1. Slim Whitman

Let’s face it … in a business where looks count for just about everything, Slim Whitman would’ve been Central Casting’s first choice when an oily, slick used-car salesman was needed, not a country yodeler. But although Ottis Dewey Whitman—as he was born in Florida—may have been an unfamiliar face to his fellow Americans until his All My Best collection hit late-night television in the 1980s, his legend has loomed large in the UK for several decades. Heck, no less of a music icon than George Harrison listed Whitman as an early influence—he’d seen a photograph of Slim in all his rhinestone-studded glory with his guitar slung around his neck in the 1950s and decided that playing the guitar was “cool.” Michael Jackson also often cited Slim as one of his Top 10 favorite vocalists. Whitman’s 1955 recording of “Rose Marie” stayed at number one on the British charts for an amazing 11 weeks, a record that held for 37 years until Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do for You)” snagged the top spot for 16 weeks.

2. Nana Mouskouri

Nana Mouskouri was born and raised in Greece, where she studied opera as a child. But her true love was American jazz—Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday were two of her favorite singers. In between placing 8th at the 1963 Eurovision Song Contest, touring with Harry Belafonte, and giving fashion tips to Lisa Loeb, Nana (short for “Iōánna”) managed to sell some 350 million albums in Europe and Asia. She was relatively unknown in the U.S. until a romantic treasury of heart-touching favorites that was Not Available In Stores! was advertised every five minutes during the wee hours of the morning.

3. Ace Cannon

“Don’t forget to invite Ace Cannon to your next party!” was the tag line for this collection of saxophonic ditties. Unfortunately, we can't find the original commercial, but Ace had the same “life of the party” expression on his face that he displays on this album cover. Cannon recorded his first single in 1961 (using the Bill Black Combo as his backing group) and built up a solid fan base via continuous touring. The fun never stops when Ace is on deck—slap one of his songs on the turntable and keep your guests from shuffling off early!

4. Zamfir

If you’ve got a hankering for some pan flute music, don’t waste time with  amateurs—turn to the master, Zamfir. Gheorghe Zamfir specializes in a monster-sized 30-pipe version of the traditional Romanian pan flute. Even though he has sold 30 million albums, the master has his critics. Some pan flute purists actually dismiss Zamfir’s two-record treasury of easy listening classics as “kitsch.” The horror.

5. Boxcar Willie

He earned 14 gold albums and made people from Hee Haw to the Grand Ole Opry happy. That impressive resumé could only belong to Boxcar Willie. Box, as he was known, wasn’t really a hobo, nor was his name Willie. Born Lecil Martin, he served as an Air Force pilot during the Korean War and then tried his hand at songwriting when he returned home. One of his first songs was called “Boxcar Willie,” about a man he saw in a train car at a railroad crossing, and the song title eventually became a stage name. Box actually appeared on The Gong Show before TV advertising made him a household name.

6. Cristy Lane

Cristy Lane is the voice behind the Number One Inspirational Album in the World (according to the commercial), which of course has sold millions of copies. Lane, born Eleanor Johnston (she took her stage name from a local disc jockey), has had her own faith tested in the past. Her husband, Lee Stoller, served as her manager, record producer, tour bus driver, and promoter. But in 1979, he was convicted of bribing a public official and sentenced to three years in prison. The couple actually managed to keep his incarceration hush-hush for a while (even from Stoller’s parents) lest a criminal charge upset her Christian fan base. Cristy is still performing today and releasing various versions of greatest hits packages.

7. Jim Nabors

He was loved by countless millions as beloved TV character Gomer Pyle, but little did viewers suspect that he was soon to also be cherished as America’s Romantic Recording Star. Don’t let Gomer’s hayseed accent fool you; Jim Nabors can truly belt out a tune. Carol Burnett considered him her “good luck charm” and had him as a guest on every season premiere episode of her variety show. He also officially launched the Indianapolis 500 race for over 30 years with his version of “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

8. Roger Whittaker

The Kenyan native has sold 24 million albums worldwide, even though 1975’s “The Last Farewell” was the only single he ever managed to land on the Billboard Hot 100. Besides being a balladeer, guitarist and songwriter, Whittaker is also an accomplished whistler. That’s right, his catalog includes three albums of him whistling to a musical accompaniment.

9. Red Sovine

Unless you drove an 18-wheeler, chances are you never heard of Red Sovine until Cindy Lou Music started hawking his music on television. Red specialized in truck drivin’ songs, and sad ones at that: lonely handicapped kids talking to drivers on the CB, widows who’d lost their husbands in highway wrecks, and loyal dogs who kept their trucking masters company on the road. Real cry-in-your-beer type stuff that touched a chord with the millions of lonely late night viewers who ended up buying his Best Of collection.

10. Floyd Cramer

Even though world-famous pianist Floyd Cramer had over 50 RCA records of his music released, the folks at Suffolk Marketing managed to dig up a collection of Floyd songs Never Before Released! Cramer had been a very popular session pianist in Nashville for many years before he started releasing albums under his own name. Even though this particular collection is Not Available In Stores! you might want to check out some vintage shops for some of his hard-to-find releases, such as 1967’s Floyd Cramer Plays the Monkees.

11. Frank Fontaine

Frank’s schtick was a bug-eyed character with a goofy speaking voice (think Pete Puma from the Warner Brothers’ cartoons) who then surprised the audience by bursting into song with a smooth baritone. He was a regular on The Jackie Gleason Show as Crazy Guggenheim in the 1960s, and 20 years later Suffolk Marketing reminded viewers of the melodic voice behind the wacky persona.

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June 13, 2013 - 8:00pm
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