Though his off-stage persona hinged on a broadly comic presence that often poked good-natured fun at his trademark vocal stutter, Mel Tillis possessed serious talents as both a singer and songwriter in the country vein, racking up six No. 1 singles and a slew of Top 10 hits over the course of a five-decade career. He found initial success in the late 1950s, penning songs for country stars like Webb Pierce and Ray Price before launching his own recording career. But it would be another decade before he would strike gold with his own music, beginning in 1972 with the chart-topping "I Ain't Never." More hits, including "Neon Rose" and "Heart Healer," helped to make Tillis one of the most popular country performers of the 1970s, a status that parlayed into a modest acting career in features and television. Though his singing career waned in the late 1980s, Tillis retained his golden touch as a songwriter and concert attraction well into the new millennium. His induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and receipt of the National Medal of the Arts underscored his status as one of country music's most accomplished talents.
Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis in Dover, FL on Aug. 8, 1932, Mel Tillis reportedly developed his famous stutter as a result of a bout with malaria at the age of three. He soon became a quick study on guitar and drums, and by his teenaged years, was claiming top prizes at talent shows. After graduating from high school, Tillis joined the Air Force, where he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. There, he fronted a country group called the Westerners, which played local clubs. Following his discharge in 1955, Tillis attended the University of Florida before heading to Nashville, TN to try his hand as a songwriter and performer. He found little success in either field and soon returned to Florida shortly before Webb Pierce garnered a Top 5 hit with his song "I'm Tired," which earned him a contract with Pierce's Cedarwood Publishing in 1957. Tillis landed his first Top 40 single the following year with "The Violet and a Rose," which later became a hit for Wanda Jackson.
Tillis continued to have greater success as a songwriter than as a performer during the 1960s. Among the artists who yielded hit material with Tillis' songs were Bobby Bare, who won a Grammy for his Top 20 rendition of "Detroit City," which was also recorded by Dean Martin and Tom Jones. Tillis himself would record his first LP, Heart Over Mind, in 1962, before finally generating a Top 20 hit with "Wine" in 1965. For the next four years, Tillis enjoyed a string of hits, including two Top 10 singles with "These Lonely Hands of Mine" and "She'll Be Hanging around Somewhere," and a pair of Top 5 singles, including "Heaven Everyday," in 1970. His status as one of Nashville's top songwriters also continued during this period, with such acts as Waylon Jennings and Kenny Rogers taking Tillis' songs to the upper reaches of the country charts. His first No. 1 single came in 1972 with "I Ain't Never," which had been a hit previously for Webb Pierce. A slew of Top 5 singles soon followed, including "Neon Rose" and "Midnight, Me and the Blues." By 1976, he had scored two more No. 1 hits with "Good Woman Blues" and "Heart Healer," which preceded his win for Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music awards.
Tillis also began contributing bit parts to features like "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" (1976), "Smokey and the Bandit II" (1980) and "The Cannonball Run" (1981), most of which played heavily on his stutter for laughs. He continued to net Top 10 hits during the early 1980s, though the chart successes grew fewer and far between. His last No. 1 came in 1981 with "Southern Rains," after which he would release two more Top 10 hits before his career as a singer largely wound down. By this point, he had become extremely wealthy through a series of shrewd investments in music publishing companies and radio stations. His talent for writing a hit song never lost its luster, as evidenced by No. 1 hits for Ricky Skaggs and Randy Travis with "Honey (Open That Door") and "Diggin' Up Bones," respectively. Tillis also remained a popular concert draw, playing dates around the country as well as at his own theater in the country entertainment hub of Branson, MO.
By this point, his daughter, Pam Tillis, had followed in his footsteps to forge her own successful country music career. In 1998, Tillis joined fellow veteran country performers Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed and Bobby Bare to form the Old Dogs, which recorded a double album of Shel Silverstein songs for Atlantic Records that same year. Tillis' long and storied career received its proper tributes in 2007 with his induction into the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame. Three years later, the 78-year-old released his first comedy album, You Ain't Gonna Believe This (2010) before joining Al Pacino, Will Barnet and Andre Watts as the 2011 recipients of the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.
By Paul Gaita