Tillotson was born April 20, 1939, in Jacksonville, FL, the son of Jack Tillotson, a country music disc jockey, and Doris Tillotson. When Tillotson was nine, he moved 40 miles to the smaller Florida town of Palatka. He got his first exposure as a singer on his father's radio station while he was still a child. His primary interest was country music, although he was inspired when he saw Elvis Presley perform in Jacksonville on May 13, 1955, just after he had turned 14. Meanwhile, his radio work led to a stint on a local TV show and even his own program. But he maintained his studies, and he was attending the University of Florida as a journalism and composition major in 1957 when he entered a national talent contest sponsored by Pet Milk. He was chosen as one of six finalists, resulting in a trip to Nashville, TN, for the final judging. He did not win the contest, but while in Nashville he came to the attention of a song publisher who was impressed by songs he had written and got a tape of them to Archie Bleyer, owner of the independent Cadence Records label, home to the Everly Brothers and Andy Williams. Bleyer signed Tillotson to a three-year contract and, in September 1958, issued his first single, combining two of the singer's own compositions, the ballad "Dreamy Eyes" and the up-tempo "Well I'm Your Man," both of which bore similarities to the sound of Buddy Holly. "Well I'm Your Man" charted first, peaking at number 87 in the Hot 100 in October, but "Dreamy Eyes" followed, topping out at number 63 in January 1959. (The simultaneously released "I'm Never Gonna Kiss You," a duet with Genevieve, a singer on the Jack Parr TV show, did not chart.)
The relative failure of "Dreamy Eyes" sent Tillotson back to college, where he received his B.A. in 1959; that August 1959 Cadence released his next single, "True True Happiness," a song in the currently popular teen pop style, complete with recitations of romantic devotion; it petered out at number 54 in September. "Why Do I Love You So," which followed in December, suggested that Tillotson had been listening closely to Ricky Nelson's 1958 hit "Poor Little Fool"; it reached number 42 in February 1960. Next, Bleyer tried having Tillotson cover a couple of old R&B hits, combining the Penguins' "Earth Angel" and Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love." Disc jockeys couldn't seem to decide which side of the single to play, and both peaked in the bottom half of the Hot 100 in May.
Tillotson broke through to success with his sixth single, the bouncy pop/rock tune "Poetry in Motion," released in September 1960. He and Bleyer had finally found an appropriate forum for his clear tenor voice, recording with a Nashville studio full of country music session stars like saxophonist Boots Randolph and pianist Floyd Cramer. "Poetry in Motion" peaked at number two in November 1960; in the U.K., it hit number one in January 1961. Instead of immediately turning to extensive personal appearances, however, on Bleyer's advice Tillotson focused primarily on his recording career, though he appeared on television and began to be featured in teen magazines. "Jimmy's Girl," his next single, responded to this teen idol image, but it stopped at number 25 in February 1961. Singing another of his own compositions, Tillotson produced "Without You," a dramatic, string-filled production in the manner of Roy Orbison; it reached number seven in September 1961. Cadence then re-released Tillotson's first single, "Dreamy Eyes," and it got to number 35 in January 1962.
That month, Tillotson recorded his most successful self-written song, "It Keeps Right on a-Hurtin'," inspired by the terminal illness of his father. The song was given an overtly country arrangement, although Tillotson, as usual, sang it with his unaccented enunciation, without a hint of a country twang. Nevertheless, it became his first country chart hit, peaking at number four, while getting to number three in the pop chart (and even making number six in the R&B chart). And it earned him his first Grammy nomination, for Best Country & Western Recording. It also went on to become a much-covered country-pop standard, recorded by Elvis Presley and by Billy Joe Royal, whose version was a Top 20 country hit in 1988, as well as, by Tillotson's count, over 100 others, among them Bobby Darin, Sonny James, Hank Locklin, Dean Martin, Boots Randolph, Conway Twitty, Slim Whitman, and the Wilburn Brothers. By the time it was peaking in the charts in the spring of 1962, Tillotson was serving a six-month stint of active duty in the Army, having enlisted in the National Guard to satisfy his military obligation. But he was given weekend furloughs to allow him to continue to record, and he used them to cut his first LP of new recordings (following the 1961 hits collection Johnny Tillotson's Best), also called It Keeps Right on a-Hurtin'. Released in June 1962, the disc, a Top Ten hit, found Tillotson covering a series of country standards, and Cadence proceeded to dole many of them out as singles over the rest of the year: a cover of Hank Locklin's "Send Me the Pillow You Dream On" made the pop and country Top 20 and the Top Ten of the easy listening chart, and a cover of Hank Williams' "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)" (backed by another Williams standard, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry") made the pop Top 40 and the easy listening Top Ten.
When Tillotson returned to recording in early 1963, his new self-written single, "Out of My Mind," was another country-style ballad, although it did not reach the country charts and peaked at number 24 on the Hot 100 in April. "You Can Never Stop Me Loving You," which followed July, was more of a pop song, and it returned Tillotson to the Top 20. (Its B-side, "Judy, Judy, Judy," which Tillotson co-wrote with Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, was featured in the singer's film debut, the B-picture Just for Fun, which opened in June.)
Although he had renewed his contract with Cadence for an additional three years in April 1961, Tillotson was released from his obligation as the label wound down in 1963; it went out of business in 1964. (Eventually, Andy Williams purchased the Cadence masters, which he reissued through Barnaby Records and later made available through Celebrity Licensing, resulting in several Tillotson compilations on Ace Records in the U.K. and Varèse Sarabande in the U.S. in the 1990s.) After one more Cadence single, a cover of Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away" culled from the year-old It Keeps Right on a-Hurtin' album that became a minor chart entry, Tillotson formed his own production company and leased his recordings to MGM Records, starting with his version of the recent country number one by Ernest Ashworth, "Talk Back Trembling Lips," released in October 1963. "Talk Back Trembling Lips" peaked at number seven in January 1964, two weeks before the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" entered the Hot 100, signaling the start of the British Invasion that would marginalize a generation of American pop artists, including Tillotson.
Tillotson, who had filmed Just for Fun in the U.K. and seen Beatlemania up close before most Americans, tried to keep up. His next single, "Worried Guy," had a semblance of the Merseybeat sound, which was enough to get it into the Top 40 in March 1964 as his Talk Back Trembling Lips album was peaking in the Top 50. "I Rise, I Fall" also managed a Top 40 ranking in June; "Worry" did almost as well in September; and "She Understands Me" peaked at number 31 in December, presaging the chart entry of a She Understands Me LP in early 1965. The dreamy ballad "Angel," his next single, was the theme song from the Walt Disney film Those Calloways, which opened that spring; it peaked at number 51. Returning to a country-pop sound, Tillotson next released "Then I'll Count Again," which barely made the charts. He fared better with a cover of the 1959 Ray Price country hit "Heartaches by the Number," which gave him his last Top 40 hit in October 1965 and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary (R&R) Vocal Performance, Male. "Our World," an attempt at pop philosophizing reflecting the turmoil of the '60s, gave his final pop chart entry, peaking at number 70 in December. (The single's B-side, "[Wait "Til You See] My Gidget," was the theme song to the new TV series Gidget starring Sally Field, and Tillotson was heard singing it during the show's credits each week.)
Tillotson took another shot at film work in the 1966 comedy The Fat Spy, opposite Phyllis Diller and Jayne Mansfield. His singles of 1966 and the first part of 1967 missed the pop charts, but by the fall of 1967 MGM had some success promoting him to the country market, which responded modestly to "You're the Reason" and "I Can Spot a Cheater." But by mid-1968, the singer's days as a successful recording artist were past. He stayed with MGM through 1968, then signed to Jimmy Bowen's Amos Records label, which had him cover Little Anthony & the Imperials' "Tears on My Pillow" in 1969. The same year, he scored a country hit as a songwriter, when Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn took their duet on "Who's Gonna Take the Garbage Out" into the country Top 20. Tillotson had stints at Buddah Records (1971-1972), Columbia (1973-1975), and United Artists (1976-1977), the last producing a country chart entry with "Toy Hearts." Another country chart entry came in 1984 with "Lay Back (In the Arms of Someone)" on Reward Records. In 1990, Tillotson released a single, "Bim Bam Boom," on Atlantic.
Meanwhile, he was singing his hits all over the world, year after year. (His international profile was raised by his practice of making foreign-language recordings of many of his songs.) By the late '60s, he had turned to nightclub work, appearing in such prestigious rooms as the Copacabana in New York. He was not averse to rodeos and state fairs, either, however, and eventually he worked his way up to the showrooms at in major hotels in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and Reno, along with regular tours of Europe and the Far East. In 1996, he estimated that he was performing 230 days a year. He continued to tour into the 21st century, launching a website, www.johnnytillotson.com, on which he kept fans current on upcoming appearances and sold new CDs such as Love Songs and Standards, the archival collection The Early Years, and The Golden Hits. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi