His saga songs like "The Battle of New Orleans," which combine history and country music, catalyzed a musical fad and won him a Grammy Award for Best Country Album.
After high school he intended to join the seminary, but dropped out and moved to Alaska in 1949. He moved back to California and worked at Hollywood's Selznick Studio in the mailroom.
He won several talent contests in Louisiana, but did not see success until 1959, with his ballad "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)."
He was born in Los Angeles, California, the son of sharecropping parents who split their time between California and Texas.
He sang the title song for 1960 John Wayne comedy western, North to Alaska.