8 December 1914, Ryan, Oklahoma, USA, d. 22 August 2003, Bacliff, nr. Houston, Texas, USA. Tillman was the youngest of 11 children of a sharecropping family who moved to Post, Texas, when he was a few months old. He first learned to play mandolin and banjo but later changed to guitar, performing with Adolph Hofners band, even singing a few songs, although later admitting he wished to be a songwriter since he could not sing. He moved to Mack Clarks dance band in Houston, leaving to join the Blue Ridge Playboys of Leon Selph, when Clarks band professed his song It Makes No Difference Now was too hillbilly (the song later became a hit for both Gene Autry and Bing Crosby and established Tillman as a songwriter, in spite of the fact that he once sold it to Jimmie Davis for $200 but managed to obtain joint ownership in 1966, when the copyright came up for renewal). The Blue Ridge Playboys, who included Moon Mullican, Bob Dunn and Cliff Bruner, became noted as specialists of honky tonk music.
During World War II Tillman served in the Army Air Corps but returned to songwriting and playing with his band around the honky tonks of the Houston area on his discharge. He first recorded for Decca Records in 1939 but had his own solo chart successes in the 40s. He had a number 1 US country hit with They Took The Stars Out Of Heaven in 1944 and followed with other Top 10 hits, including G.I. Blues, Drivin Nails In My Coffin, I Love You So Much It Hurts, I Gotta Have My Baby Back, Slippin Around and the follow-up, Ill Never Slip Around Again (the last two songs have led to suggestions that Tillman was one of the first artists to write and record songs about cheating and infidelity). His songs proved even more successful when recorded by other artists. In 1949, Slippin Around was a million-selling number 1 US country and pop hit for Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely and a country number 1 and pop number 17 for Ernest Tubb. The song has charted for others since, including Texas Jim Robertson (1950), Marion Worth and George Morgan (1964), Roy Drusky and Priscilla Mitchell (1965) and Mack Abernathy (1988) (the Whiting and Wakely combination also registered Top 10 country and pop chart success with the follow-up song later the same year).
In the early 50s, Tillman gave up his band and inclined towards semi-retirement by being more selective on when and where he would perform. The last track he recorded with the band, I Dont Care Anymore, possibly summed up his feelings. He gained his last chart entry in 1960 with It Just Tears Me Up, but he made further recordings on minor labels, including an album of his songs with various friends such as Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, both of whom were influenced by his style.
Tillman was one of the first to champion the use of the electric guitar in country music and also one of the first country artists to travel by aeroplane to get to his bookings. At times his growling raucous vocals, certainly an acquired taste, made Ernest Tubb seem gentle and completely in tune, but his songwriting alone gained him admission to the Nashville Songwriters Association International Hall Of Fame in 1970 and saw him inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1984.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.