Country Music Legend Mel Tillis Passes

Country Music Legend Mel Tillis Passes

Legendary singer/songwriter Mel Tillis passed away at the age of 85 Sunday, Nov. 19 in Ocala, Fla.

“As a humorist, singer, songwriter, and performer, Mel set a high standard for all entertainers,” said Sarah Trahern, CMA Chief Executive Officer. “His presence in movies and TV alongside the top actors of the time elevated the profile of Country Music in the ’70s and made Mel a pop culture icon. He will be missed by his family, the industry, and countless fans around the world.”

Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis on Aug. 8, 1932 in Tampa, Fla., Tillis suffered from malaria at age three, which is believed to have caused his trademark stutter. His first public performance was at age 16 in a local talent show. After high school, Tillis joined the United States Air Force and served in Okinawa, where he joined a musical group called The Westerners that performed at military clubs.

Tillis exited military service in 1955 and moved to Dover, Fla., where he worked as a fireman on the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. This enabled him to use his railroad pass to travel to Nashville. A year later he moved to Music City to follow his dreams of being a songwriter. Webb Pierce recorded his song “I’m Tired,” which earned Tillis a songwriter contract with Pierce’s Cedarwood Music Publishing Company. Pierce went on to have success with several more Tillis compositions, including “I Ain’t Never,” “No Love Have I,” “Honky Tonk Song,” “Tupelo County Jail,” and “Sawmill.” During this time other artists also recorded his songs, including Bobby Bare (“Detroit City”), Patsy Cline (“Strange” and “So Wrong”), Stonewall Jackson (“Mary Don’t You Weep”), Brenda Lee (“Emotions”), and Ray Price (“One More Time,” “Burning Memories” and “Heart Over Mind”).

Tillis enjoyed writing songs for others, but he also wanted to be a performer in his own right. His first single, a cover of “It Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song,” was released in 1957. Tillis charted a Top 40 single in 1958 with his song “The Violet and a Rose” (which later became a hit separately for both Little Jimmy Dickens and Wanda Jackson) and again in 1959 with “Finally.” He also succeeded with “Sawmill” and “Georgia Town Blues,” two duets with Bill Phillips. Heart Over Mind, his first album, was released on Columbia Records in 1962. Tillis teamed with Pierce for the duet “How Come Your Dog Don’t Bite Nobody But Me” in 1963. While on Columbia, Tillis also released singles such as “The Brooklyn Bridge,” “Loco Weed,” and “Walk On, Boy,” before moving to Kapp Records.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, Tillis achieved greater success as both a performer and as a songwriter. After reaching the Top 15 in 1965 with “Wine,” he had success with “Stateside” in 1966 (he named his band The Statesiders after this song), “Life Turned Her That Way” in 1967, and his first Top 10 hit “Who’s Julie?” in 1968. Kenny Rogers and

the First Edition had a Top 10 pop hit with the Tillis-penned “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” in 1969. Other artists who recorded hits with Tillis compositions include Waylon Jennings (“Mental Revenge”) and Charley Pride (“The Snakes Crawl at Night”).

Moving from the ’60s into the ’70s, Tillis became a major force on the Country charts. He hit the Top 10 twice in 1969 with “These Lonely Hands of Mine” and “She’ll Be Hanging Around Somewhere.” The next year he reached the Top 5 twice with “Heart Over Mind” and “Heaven Everyday” while also scoring big on the charts that year with “Commercial Affection” and “Arms of a Fool.”

Mel Tillis thanks the crowd after winning the Entertainer of the Year at "The 10th Annual CMA Awards" on Oct. 10, 1976, at the Grand Ole Opry House, live telecast on the CBS Television Network.

He began a series of duets with Sherry Bryce in 1971, including “Take My Hand” and “Living and Learning,” and in 1972 topped the charts for the first time with “I Ain’t Never.” Tillis recorded a series of Top 5 smashes including “Neon Rose,” “Midnight, Me and the Blues,” “Stomp Them Grapes,” “Memory Maker,” and “Woman in the Back of My Mind.” Most of these songs were recorded while Tillis was signed to MGM Records.

In 1976 Tillis was named the CMA Entertainer of the Year. That same year he was also inducted into the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame and he signed with MCA Records. During this time period he scored many No. 1 hits including “Good Woman Blues,” “Heart Healer,” “I Believe in You,” and “Coca Cola Cowboy.”  Tillis moved to Elektra Records in 1979, achieving hits including “Blind in Love,” “Lying Time Again,” “Your Body is an Outlaw,” “Steppin’ Out,” “A Million Old Goodbyes,” and his No. 1 hit, “Southern Rains” in 1981. That same year he released Mel and Nancy, a duet album with Nancy Sinatra featuring the hit “Texas Cowboy Night.” Switching back to MCA Records, Tillis recorded several more hit singles including “In the Middle of the Night” in 1983, and his Top 10 hit, “New Patches” in 1984. Tillis would later record for RCA Records, Mercury Records, and Curb Records. In his career, Tillis scored 36 Top 10 singles, six of which peaked at No. 1.

After making his acting debut in a 1973 episode of the television series “Love, American Style,” Tillis acted in several television and movie productions over the next decade. He made guest appearances on the television series “Nashville 99” (1977), “The Dukes of Hazzard” (1979), “The Tim Conway Show” (1980) and “The Love Boat” (1983). He co-hosted a short-lived ABC television series with Susan Anton in 1978 entitled “Mel and Susan Together,” and acted in several made-for-television movies, including “Skinflint: A Country Christmas Carol” (1979), “The Stockers” (1981) and “Bandit: Bandit Goes Country” (1994).

Tillis also graced the silver screen, beginning with “W.W. and Dixie Dancekings” in 1975 alongside Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed. He went on to appear in several other movies including “The Villain” (1977) with Kirk Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger; “Every Which Way But Loose” (1979) with Clint Eastwood; “Smokey and the Bandit II” (1980) with Reynolds, Reed, Sally Field, and Jackie Gleason; “Cannonball Run” (1980) and “Cannonball Run II” (1984), both alongside Reynolds and an all-star cast; and “Uphill All The Way” (1986) with Roy Clark and Glen Campbell.

In the 1980s, Tillis remained an in-demand songwriter, writing a No. 1 hit for Ricky Skaggs (“Honey (Open That Door)”) among others. He opened a theater in Branson, Mo., where he performed more than 4,000 shows, entertaining sold-out audiences regularly until 2002 when he sold his theater and returned home to Florida.

He wrote his autobiography Stutterin’ Boy in the late ’80s and released his first gospel album, Beyond the Sunset, in 1993. He teamed with Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, and Jerry Reed in 1998 as The Old Dogs. The quartet recorded a two-CD set of songs written by Shel Silverstein and was nominated for CMA Vocal Event of the Year a year later.

In 1999, BMI named Tillis the “Songwriter of the Decade” for two decades. He was named the Golden Voice Entertainer of the Year in 2001, the same year he received the Golden R.O.P.E. Songwriter Award. In 2002, Tillis’s daughter, Country Music artist Pam Tillis, released the album It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, a tribute album to her father. The project featured father and daughter performing together on the last track, “Come On and Sing.” Fulfilling his longtime dream, Tillis joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in 2007.

That same year, Tillis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the Career Achieved National Prominence Between World War II and 1975 category.  The announcement was an early birthday gift.

“It’s a feeling of accomplishment,” Tillis said at the time. “It’s a nice birthday present. I’ll be 75 years old tomorrow. It’s like icing on the cake.”

Tillis also went on to receive the Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2012.

Tillis is survived by six children (Pam Tillis, Connie Tillis, Cindy Shorey, Sonny Tillis, Carrie April Tillis and Hannah Puryear), six grandchildren, a great grandson, a sister (Linda Crosby) and brother (Richard Tillis), the mother of five of his children (Doris Tillis) and his longtime partner (Kathy DeMonaco).