Mel Tillis, Longtime Country Singer and Songwriter, Dies at 85
Mel Tillis, a Florida native who defined the word e”ntertainer” in the field of country music, died Sunday (Nov. 19) after a long illness in a Florida hospital. He was 85.
One of the most colorful personalities the music business has ever seen, the Country Music Hall of Fame member enjoyed success as a writer, actor, and performer, as well as a comedian during his storied career.
Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis on Aug. 8, 1932 in Tampa, he would grow up in Pahokee. As a child, Tillis became enamored with music, eventually learning the guitar and drums. At age 16, he won a local talent contest. He would briefly attend the University of Florida after high school, but would soon drop out, enlisting in the United States Air Force, staying in the service until 1955. Resuming civilian life, the singer would go to work for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, using a pass to ride to Music City to try his hand at a singing career.
In a 2012 interview with Billboard, Tillis recalled that trip. “I came to Acuff-Rose. I sang for Wesley Rose. He said ‘You’re a pretty good singer. Do you write songs?’ I told him that I had never written a song. He told me that’s what I needed to do,” Tillis recalled, and the future star did just that.
“I went back to Florida, and tried writing song. I wrote a song called ‘I’m Tired,’ and Ray Price was in Tampa. I got a buddy of mine to take me to meet him. He liked it, and brought it to Nashville. Webb Pierce heard it somehow. He asked Ray if he could have it, and Ray told him he was going to cut it.”
Pierce decided to take matters into his own hands, recalled Tillis. “So, Webb remembered the first verse, and went to Cedarwood and asked one of his staff writers to write two new verses. Webb records it. I’m at home one night listening to Eddie Hill on WSM, and he played it. I had just got in bed. I remember getting out of bed, and running and telling my mother ‘Pack your bags. We’re gonna be rich!” Then, I heard the other two verses, and said ‘I think that’s my song.”
That composition was Tillis’s first success as a tunesmith, hitting No. 3 in 1957. Pierce would go on to have success with other Tillis works, such as “Tupelo County Jail” and “I Ain’t Never.” In 1958, as a result of his songwriting success, Tillis was offered a recording deal with Columbia, where he hit No. 24 with “The Violet and the Rose.”
Tillis never gave up on his songwriting though, scoring cuts by Patsy Cline and Bobby Bare, with the latter’s 1963 recording of “Detroit City” remaining one of country music’s all-time classics. Kenny Rogers and the First Edition had a major hit during the height of the Vietnam War in the summer of 1969 with his “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” a song that he recollected didn’t take long to write, though the inspiration was over 20 years old by the time the band recorded it.
“I was in a traffic jam in Nashville. I was headed home from the publishing company, and I had the radio on. Johnny Cash was singing ‘Don’t Take Your Guns To Town.’ And, the idea just came to me. By the time I had gotten home, I had the song written. I played it for my wife, who said it was the worst song I had ever written. But, it turned out pretty well. I was thinking of a guy I knew back during World War II who was stationed in Germany. He came home, and had some reoccurring problems. He accused his wife -- and Ruby wasn’t her name of slipping around on him, but wasn’t. It was the last song on the session that Kenny Rogers and the First Edition were doing. They had about 15 minutes to go, and Jimmy Bowen said, ‘Does anybody have any songs you want to try out?’ Kenny had heard the Roger Miller recording, and they cut it in one take -- with three minutes to go.”
As a recording artist himself, his own success with a three-minute song was a little slower in coming. He first hit the Billboard top 10 in 1969 with “Who’s Julie,” but by the 1970s, the singer would soon find his niche.
Performances such as “Midnight, Me, and The Blues,” “Neon Rose,” and “Commercial Affection” would establish Tillis as one of the top honky-tonk singers of the day, and his live show would become one of the most in-demand in country music. His stuttering -- something that Minnie Pearl (whom he had played fiddle for early on in his career) encouraged him to embrace -- became an integral part of his stage show, which influenced his win as the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year in 1976.
The late ‘70s, as Tillis was in his mid-to-late 40s, proved to be his most visible period. He became a sought-after guest on programs such as The Tonight Show, as well as a commercial spokesperson for national chains such as Whataburger! His hits during this era turned out to be some of his biggest -- “Coca Cola Cowboy,” “Send Me Down To Tucson,” and “I Believe In You,” among them. He also appeared in such films as W.W. and The Dixie Dancekings and Every Which Way But Loose.
In the 1980s, his chart success faded some -- his last number one was 1981’s “Southern Rains” -- yet he continued to record and tour through the end of the decade. In the 1990s, Tillis, as did a lot of veteran Country performers of his era, established a presence in Branson with his own theater. He would stay there through the mid-2000s, before returning to the road. In 2007, he was inducted by his daughter Pam (also a successful recording artist) into the Grand Ole Opry, and also into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He said both events were huge honors of the highest magnitude.
“If I had behaved myself, I might have become an Opry member a little bit sooner,” he quipped of his wild younger days. “Pam introduced me on stage as a member, and it was a good feeling to be among your friends like Bill Anderson and Little Jimmy Dickens.”
As far as the Hall induction, he said “It made me feel important. I knew that I was in good company to be in there with all those acts like Grandpa Jones, Eddy Arnold, and Roy Acuff. It made me so thankful. It has been a long road.”
However, he had one last chart triumph in him. In 2010, he released his first-ever comedy album -- You Ain’t Gonna Believe This on Show Dog -- Universal, which earned him a No. 3 peak on the Comedy Albums chart -- at the age of 78. He said the disc was a collection of routines he had performed in Branson.
“I had a theatre for 13 years, and taped all of my shows. I had a bunch of stories that I had heard over the years, and after I left Branson, I started to listen to them. I thought it might be a good idea to put some of them out, so I got them together. I was really proud of the success that we had with it.”