Country Music Legend Mel Tillis Passes

The entertainment world is mourning the passing of Mel Tillis today.

Following a lengthy struggle to regain his health, the Grand Ole Opry favorite and Country Music Hall of Fame member passed away early this morning (Sunday, Nov. 19) at the Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Florida. Tillis battled intestinal issues since early 2016 and never fully recovered. The suspected cause of death is respiratory failure. Tillis was 85.

Mel Tillis has left a legacy as a singer, comedian, TV and movie personality, stage entertainer, music publisher, bandleader and superlative songwriter. If he had done nothing but write “Detroit City” and “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” his place in music history would be assured.

But his catalog includes more than 500 other titles and dozens of major hits, including such standards as “Mental Revenge,” “I Ain’t Never,” “Heart Over Mind,” “Burning Memories,” “All the Time” and “Emotions.” He is a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He has 18 songs with BMI awards.

As a recording artist, Tillis placed 77 titles on the country charts between 1958 and 1990. He had 35 top-10 hits.

He was a humorous screen presence in such films as W.W. & The Dixie Dancekings (1977), The Villain (1979), Smokey & The Bandit II (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981), Beer for My Horses (2008), Cannonball Run II (1984) and Murder in Music City (1979). Using his trademark stutter for comedic effect, he was a favorite on TV talk shows.

Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis in 1932, he was a native of central Florida, brought up in Pahokee, Dover, Plant City and other communities near Tampa. He contracted malaria at age 3 and often thought that might have been the cause of his stutter. He learned to play guitar in high school and was soon performing in theaters and talent contests. He discovered that his stammer vanished whenever he sang.

Tillis enlisted in the Air Force in 1951. This is when he began writing songs. While serving in Japan as a military cook, he joined a country band called The Westerners.

Following his discharge in 1955, he returned to Florida. He worked as a house painter, a fireman on the railroad, and a strawberry picker. He also continued to write. He first brought his songs to Nashville in 1956. Songwriter Mae Boren Axton (“Heartbreak Hotel”) got him an audition at Cedarwood Publishing.

The following year, Cedarwood co-owner Webb Pierce had a big hit with the Mel Tillis tune “I’m Tired,” so Tillis moved to Nashville. During the next five years, Pierce would also score hits with the songwriter’s works “Honky Tonk Song,” “Holiday for Love,” “Tupelo County Jail,” “A Thousand Miles Ago,” “I Ain’t Never,” “No Love Have I,” “Take Time,” “Crazy Wild Desire,” “Cow Town,” “Sooner Or Later” and “How Come Your Dog Don’t Bite Nobody But Me,” frequently putting his name on the songs as Tillis’s “co-writer.”

Based on his success as a songwriter, Mel Tillis was signed to Columbia Records as a recording artist in 1958. None of his singles for the label were successful. Deeply in debt because his royalties were tied up in litigation, he briefly returned to Florida and worked as a truck driver.

But success as a writer continued. He created the rockabilly classics “Bop-a-Lena” and “Rock the Bop” in 1958 for Ronnie Self and Brenda Lee, respectively. His late-1950s songwriting hits included “Why, Why, Why” and “”Ten Thousand Drums” for Carl Smith, “The Violet and a Rose” for Jimmy Dickens, “Mary Don’t You Weep” for Stonewall Jackson, “Little Dutch Girl” for George Morgan and “All the Time” for Kitty Wells.

Still wishing for singing success, he went on the road with the touring shows of comedians The Duke of Paducah and Minnie Pearl. The latter encouraged him to talk on stage and use his stuttering to comedic affect.

President Obama bestows the National Medal of the Arts on Mel Tillis. Photo: UPI/Kevin Dietsch

Tillis had dreamed of being a recording star since he was a youngster. He persevered in this direction by signing with Decca in 1962, then Kapp Records in 1966. Despite a few sporadic hits, sustained recording success continued to elude him throughout the 1960s. Although only a modest sized hit, his 1966 single “Stateside” provided the name for his band. One bright spot during this period was a 1967 album he made with the legendary Bob Wills.

Another step up was becoming a regular on TV’s The Porter Wagoner Show in 1967. As Wagoner’s opening act on the road, Tillis was forced by the star to form his own band. This evolved into The Statesiders, one of country music’s greatest concert groups. One graduate of that band is Music Row producer/songwriter Buddy Cannon. Other alumni include fiddler Rob Hajacos, steel guitarist Paul Franklin and bass player Ernie Rowell.

Back at home, Nashville songwriter Wayne Walker took Tillis under his wing and mentored him. As a result, Tillis’s songs improved in structure and sophistication.

Ray Price scored with his “One More Time” and “Heart Over Mind,” plus the Tillis/Walker song “Burning Memories.” In 1961, Tillis hit a songwriting home run with Brenda Lee’s pop smash “Emotions” and also had pop success with The Everly Brothers singing his “Stick With Me Baby.” Patsy Cline recorded the Tillis tunes “Strange” and “So Wrong,” which proved to be evergreens.

Then came the 1963 Bobby Bare pop-crossover mega-hit “Detroit City,” which Tillis co-wrote with Danny Dill. Faron Young (“Unmitigated Gall,” 1966)), Waylon Jennings (“Mental Revenge,” 1967) and Kenny Rogers & The First Edition (“Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” 1969) kept Mel Tillis’s songwriting at the forefront.

Superstar Charley Pride launched his recording career in 1966 with the Tillis tune “Snakes Crawl at Night.” In 1967, Jack Greene revived “All the Time,” and Tom Jones had an international hit with his remake of “Detroit City,” which foreshadowed the many other times Tillis songs would renew as hits.

Others who had success with Tillis songs during the 1950s and 1960s included Wanda Jackson, Johnnie & Jack, Margie Bowes, Billy Grammer, Johnny Darrell, Lefty Frizzell, Linda Ronstadt, The Stonemans, Burl Ives, Dean Martin, Jean Shepard and Ernest Tubb.

Mel Tillis became a semi-regular on the network TV series The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour. Around this same time, Tillis finally broke through into the country top-10 in 1969-71.

He had signed with MGM Records, where his hero, Hank Williams, had recorded. His own version of “Heart Over Mind” plus “Commercial Affection” both became self-penned hits. Ironically, the other hits he sang at the time were written by others – “These Lonely Hands of Mine,” “Heaven Everyday,” “The Arms of a Fool,” “Brand New Mister Me” and his duets with Sherry Bryce “Take My Hand” and “Living and Learning.”

Charley Pride Joins Mel Tillis Onstage at Honky Tonk Central in Nashville, TN. Photo: Douh Allard

This turned out to be a typical pattern during the next decade. Mel Tillis had 25 top-10 hits during the 1970s. He had his first No. 1 hit with a remake of “I Ain’t Never” in 1972. Apart from that, 1973’s “Sawmill,” 1974’s “Memory Maker” and his 1977 revival of “Burning Memories,” all of his biggest chart hits of that decade proved that he was as great an interpreter of others’ material as he was a writer.

His mellow baritone croon was equally effective on ballads, toe tappers and novelty songs. The Mel Tillis ‘70s hit streak included “Neon Rose” (1973), “Midnight, Me and the Blues” (1974), “Stomp Them Grapes” (1974) and “Woman in the Back of My Mind” (1975).

He signed a lucrative contract with MCA Records, and the hits continued — “Good Woman Blues” (1976), “Heart Healer” (1977), “I Got the Hoss” (1977), “What Did I Promise Her Last Night” (1978), “I Believe in You” (1978), “Ain’t No California” (1978), “Send Me Down to Tuscon” (1979) and “Coca Cola Cowboy” (1979).

Those last two were from the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood’s 1979 movie Every Which Way But Loose, in which Tillis had a small role. Burt Reynolds had given him a small part in 1977’s W.W. & The Dixie Dancekings, then featured him more prominently in 1980’s Smokey & The Bandit II and 1981’s The Cannonball Run, both big box-office hits. Tillis eventually worked in more than a dozen feature films and/or TV movies.

The novelty of a stuttering comic who was so surprisingly mellifluous as a vocalist soon made him a TV favorite, too, just as Minnie Pearl had predicted. He was booked on such mainstream television programs as The Tonight Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Love Boat, The Dukes of Hazzard, Tony Orlando & Dawn and Love, American Style, plus the talk shows of Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, David Letterman and Mike Douglas.

He also became a favorite on the game shows Hollywood Squares and The Match Game. In 1978, he briefly had his own summer show on ABC-TV, Mel and Susan Together, co-hosting with Susan Anton. Now, he and The Statesiders were booked into the big hotel-casinos of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. In 1976, the CMA voted him its Entertainer of the Year. Also during the decade, he won Comedian of the Year awards from Music City News in 1971 and six consecutive times in 1973-78. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976.

While continuing to write for Cedarwood, Tilis formed his own song publishing companies, Sawgrass (BMI), Sabal (ASCAP) and Guava (SESAC) to promote the songs of others. He acquired Cedarwood’s catalog in 1983, for a reported $3 million. He also bought radio stations in Amarillo, TX and Mobile, AL

With the assistance of writer Walter Wager, he published his autobiography, Stutterin’ Boy, in 1984. He and Roy Clark formed a movie production company and co-starred in their own 1986 feature, Uphill All the Way. This was not a success. Tillis sold his publishing companies to Universal in 1989. He also made a significant profit when he later sold his radio stations.

On disc, Mel Tillis moved to Elektra Records and had 1980s hits with “Blind in Love,” “Lying Time Again,” “Your Body Is an Outlaw,” “A Million Old Goodbyes,” “Southern Rains,” “One Night Fever,” “In the Middle of the Night,” “New Patches” and a remake of the Bob Wills favorite “Stay a Little Longer.” He sang duets with Nancy Sinatra and Glen Campbell.

As a songwriter, he enjoyed a renaissance with Ricky Skaggs’s 1984 hit “Honey Open That Door.” Skaggs also revived “I’m Tired” in 1987. Gail Davies and Holly Dunn brought back “No Love Have I” in 1978 and 1992, respectively. Juice Newton re-recorded “Emotions” in 1987.George Strait revived “Thoughts of a Fool” in 1992. “Detroit City” and “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town” have been recorded by more than 30 artists, apiece.

Pictured (L-R): Roy Clark, Mel Tillis, Ray Stevens

During the 1980s, daughter Pam and son Mel Jr., known as Sonny Tillis, both became singer-songwriters on Music Row. Between 1984 and 1999, Pam Tillis scored more than 15 top-10 country hits as a recording artist. She inducted her father into the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in 2007, the same year he was made a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

In 1998, Mel Tillis formed The Old Dogs with fellow country veterans Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed and Bobby Bare. They recorded critically acclaimed and CMA nominated music for Atlantic Records.

Tillis opened his own, $23 million, theater in the tourist mecca of Branson, MO in 1994. It was the largest venue in the town. He performed there on a daily basis until 2002. He was scheduled to return to Branson this year, but health issues intervened.

Mel Tillis songs have endured into modern times, thanks to such artists as Mandy Barnett (2001’s “Strange” and “So Wrong”), Jon Langford & The Pine Valley Cosmonauts (2002’s “Snakes Crawl at Night”), Justin Trevino (2001’s “All Right, I’ll Sign the Papers”), Jamey Johnson (2010’s “Mental Revenge”), Jason & The Scorchers (2002’s “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town”), Guy Clark (2002’s “Honky Tonk Song”), Dolly Parton (2008’s “The Violet and a Rose”), Dale Watson (2007’s “I Ain’t Never”), Buddy & Julie Miller (2009’s “What You Gonna Do Leroy”) and Hank Williams Jr. (2016’s “Mental Revenge”).

The 2007 Robert Plant and Alison Krauss duet CD Raising Sand won the Album of the Year honor at the Grammy Awards. It included their revival of Tillis’s “Stick With Me Baby.” In 2012, President Obama presented Mel TIllis with the National Medal of Arts to honor him for his contributions to country music. Tillis joined the Florida Artist Hall of Fame in 2009 and won the ACM’s Pioneer Award in 2010.

In 2014, he recovered from heart surgery. He was schedule to entertain on the Country Music Cruise with Kenny Rogers and The Oak Ridge Boys in January 2016. But early that month, Mel Tillis had colon surgery. Initial reports had him in critical condition.

Mel Tillis is survived by his six children Pam, Connie, Carrie, Cindy, Mel Jr., and Hannah. His brothers are Allen Lee and Richard, and his sisters are Linda, Imogene and Mary Ellen.

The Tillis family asks for your prayers and will soon release more information regarding funeral services in Florida and Nashville.


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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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