Mel Tillis is an enduring favorite on the country music scene, a singer and comedian who has turned a speech impediment into an entertainment asset. Tillis has been performing since the late 1950s and has recorded music in a wide variety of country styles. For many years he wrote all of his own material and provided songs for a number of other singers as well. In addition, he has his own live television show, featuring a popular mix of music and comedy. In her book Behind Closed Doors: Talking with the Legends of Country Music, Alanna Nash labeled Tillis “one of country music’s most versatile and underrated talents … a genuine article, someone who cares about the music and its evolution.”
Tillis was born in the tiny Florida hamlet of Pahokee in 1932, one in a family of four children. When he was only three he contracted malaria, and the disease—along with emotional difficulties brought on by his father’s neglect—left him with a stutter that often rendered him unable to voice even the simplest words. The Tillises were very poor, and when Mel was seven his father deserted the family for five years to work on a dredge boat in the Caribbean.
Growing up in a small town, Tillis was rarely mocked for his stutter. Instead, his classmates and teachers accepted him and encouraged him to explore his talents. In high school he played drums in the band and was a star player on the football team. He also discovered that he did not stammer when he was singing. At 16 he made his performance debut in a talent show in Pahokee, and he decided that he wanted to be a musician. Even before he graduated from high school he was writing songs, and after a stint in the Air Force—where he experienced discrimination because of his stutter—he travelled to Nashville to try his luck in the music industry.
Tillis felt the same prejudice from executives in Nashville as he had in the Air Force. Most of them scoffed at the idea of a shy, stuttering Florida boy who wanted to be a country star. Tillis did have talent, however, and he was soon able to sell his songs to other artists. In 1956 his composition, “I’m Tired,” became a hit for Webb Pierce and enabled Tillis to secure salaried employment with Cedarwood Publishing Company, which would later come under Tillis’s ownership.
After penning a few more hits for other performers, Tillis finally earned a recording contract of his own from Columbia Records in 1958. His first release, “The Violet and the Rose,” became a Top 30 country hit. During the 1960s Tillis rose to stardom gradually, releasing such popular songs as “Wine,” “Who’s Julie?,” and “These Lonely Hands of Mine.” He also continued to write for other entertainers, giving Bobby Bare a huge hit with
Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis, August 8, 1932, in Pahokee, FL; son of a baker; divorced from first wife in late 1970s; second wife’s name, Doris; children: Melvin, Jr., Pam, Connie, Cindy.
Country singer, songwriter, and band leader, 1956—. Worked variously as a strawberry picker, railroad fireman, milkman, and delivery man, c. 1954-56; employed as songwriter by Cedarwood Publishing Co., Nashville, TN, 1956-58; signed with Columbia Records, 1958; released first single, “The Violet and the Rose,” 1958. Writer of more than 450 songs, including “Detroit City” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Author, with Walter Wager, of Stutterin’ Boy, Rawson Associates, 1985. Owner of three music publishing firms. Guest appearances on numerous television shows, including the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, the Johnny Carson Show, Hee Haw, and the Mike Douglas Show.
Selected awards: Entertainer of the Year Award, Country Music Association, 1976.
Addresses: Record company —CEMA Distribution, 21700 Oxnard St., No. 700, Woodland Hills, CA 91367.
“Detroit City” and penning the Kenny Rogers classic “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”
The 1960s and 1970s proved to be challenging decades for the country music industry. The popularity of rock and roll eroded country’s fan support, and a number of country artists struggled to survive the competition. One performer who flourished through this trying time was Mel Tillis. Between 1968 and 1978 he released more than 30 Number One country singles, including “The Arms of a Fool,” “Commercial Affection,” “Heaven Everyday,” “In the Middle of the Night,” and “Southern Rain.” His guest appearances on Hee Haw and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour confirmed that he could clown as well as sing, and soon he was touring the country with an enormous band and an elaborate stage show. At one point his touring band contained 17 pieces, including four fiddles.
The highlight of Tillis’s career came in 1976, when he was named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association. The award came at a time when producers were pushing for a mainstream, country-pop sound that would appeal to middle-of-the-road audiences. Tillis bought into the country-pop concept for a brief period, at one point cutting a duet album with Nancy Sinatra.
In his autobiography, though, Tillis expressed some reservations about recording crossover songs. As excerpted in the New York Times Book Review, the singer stated: “I’d like to ask why—without it sounding like sour grapes, which it’s not, since my career is pretty well set, thank the Lord—the Country Music Association, of which I’m a long-standing member, is hell bent on inviting the whole pop and rock performing world into the country music business?” In the early 1980s the singer returned to his roots in uptown honky-tonk with several well-received MCA recordings. Tillis has never been married to one style, however. He is equally at home with Texas swing numbers, pure country ballads, and honky-tonk. In Stereo Review, Nash labeled him “one of country music’s real vocal masters.”
Tillis’s comedic talents have helped him draw an audience outside the borders of country music. He has appeared in films and onstage in Las Vegas, as well as on the Grand Ole Opry, and he is in great demand as a live performer. Since his hectic schedule of appearances leaves him little time to write music, the singer is inclined to record other writers’ material.
Commenting on his speech impediment, Tillis told Alanna Nash that he became a performer because he stuttered. “Most of the people in the country business came from, well, not tragic backgrounds,” he said. “Some of ’em did, like Hank Williams, you know. But I think that if there’s a large family, you may feel like … you didn’t get as much attention as the other kids did, and maybe that’s right. I think the stutter made me work harder to become an entertainer. I would have done anything.”
Walk on By, Columbia, 1961.
The Violet and the Rose, Columbia, 1962.
Wine, Ric, 1967.
Heart Over Mind, Columbia, 1970.
After All This Time, MCA, 1983.
The Best of Mel Tillis, MCA.
Big ’n’ Country, MCA.
California Road, RCA, 1985.
Greatest Hits of Mel Tillis, MCA.
I Believe in You, MCA.
I Believe in You/Heart Healer, MCA.
M-M-Mel Live, MCA.
M-M-Mel Live/Are You Sincere, MCA.
The Very Best of Mel Tillis, MCA.
California Road, RCA, 1985.
Brand New Mister Me, Polydor, 1988.
American Originals, Columbia, 1990.
Greatest Hits, Curb/CEMA, 1991.
Brown, Charles T., Music U.S.A.: America’s Country and Western Tradition, Prentice-Hall, 1986.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
Nash, Alanna, Behind Closed Doors: Talking With the Legends of Country Music, Knopf, 1988.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1969.
Country Music, May/June 1990.
High Fidelity, February 1981.
New York Times Book Review, May 19, 1985.
People, March 16, 1981; December 14, 1981; June 28, 1982; September 19, 1983; November 14, 1983; September 21, 1987; May 27, 1991.
Stereo Review, September 1982; July 1983.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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