Mel Tillis Biography

Lonnie Melvin Tillis, 8 August 1932, Tampa, Florida, USA. The family relocated to Dover, 18 miles east of Tampa, when Tillis was only eight months old. He contracted malaria when aged only three, and was left with a permanent stutter. During his school days, various treatments failed to cure this speech problem and though originally embarrassed by it, he managed in later years to turn it into a trademark. He learned to play guitar (and later the fiddle) during his early teens and at high school was a football player and also played drums in a band. In the early 50s, devoid of any real career ideas, he enlisted in the Air Force. He was discharged in 1955 when for a short time he attended the University of Florida. Bored, he dropped out and worked at various tasks including strawberry picking and truck-driving. In 1956, he wrote a song called ‘I’m Tired’, which was recorded by and became a big hit for Webb Pierce. This enabled Tillis, as he said later, ‘to get the hell out of the strawberry patch in a hurry’.

Tillis found that his stutter never appeared when he sang and gradually his confidence grew and he moved to Nashville. During 1956/7 he began to perform and made his first recording, only to be told he needed original material, which prompted him to concentrate more on writing. He signed with Columbia Records and had his first US country chart success with his co-written song ‘The Violet And The Rose’ in 1958. In the next few years several of his songs proved hits for other artists including Pierce (‘Tupelo County Jail’ and ‘I Ain’t Never’), Johnny And Jack (‘Lonely Island Pearl’), Ray Price (‘Heart Over Mind’) and Carl Smith (‘Ten Thousand Drums’). His status received a further boost in 1963 when Bobby Bare had major country and pop hits with ‘Detroit City’, which he had co-written with Danny Dill. Three years later ‘The Snakes Crawl At Night’ launched the recording career of Charley Pride. In the mid-60s Tillis moved to Kapp Records, and in 1967 achieved his biggest hit up to that time with the Harlan Howard song ‘Life Turned Her That Way’, which made both pop and country charts (the song later became a standard and a US country number 1 in 1988 for Ricky Van Shelton). In 1967 Johnny Darrell had a number 9 US country hit with ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’, a song that two years later became a million-selling US pop hit for Kenny Rogers And The First Edition (it also reached number 2 in the UK pop charts the same year).

By the late 60s Tillis had established a reputation as both a writer and a performer and with his band the Statesiders, named after his 1966 hit ‘Stateside’, he toured extensively. The same pattern continued throughout the 70s, when he averaged 250 concerts annually and was also much in demand for appearances on network television shows. He achieved his first country Top 10 hit in 1969 with ‘These Lonely Hands Of Mine’. During the 70s, recording for MGM Records and MCA, he had 33 country hits, of which 24 were Top 10 records, including five number 1s with ‘I Ain’t Never’, ‘Good Woman Blues’, ‘Heart Healer’, ‘I Believe In You’ and ‘Coca Cola Cowboy’ (the last, like his number 2 hit ‘Send Me Down To Tucson’, featured in the Clint Eastwood movieEvery Which Way But Loose). In 1970, he recorded an album with Bob Wills and during the 70s he also made several hit recordings with Sherry Bryce, including ‘Take My Hand’, which achieved crossover success. He recorded for Elektra Records in the early 80s, charting seven successive Top 10 hits, including a further number 1 with ‘Southern Rains’. In 1983, Tillis returned to MCA and the next year made number 10 with his recording of Tommy Collins’ ‘New Patches’. He later recorded for RCA Records and Mercury Records. Duet recordings in the 80s were with Glen Campbell and Nancy Sinatra. In the 80s, his daughter Pam Tillis began to forge a flourishing career as a songwriter, graduating to a successful recording career in 1991 with her debut Put Yourself In My Place. In 1998, Tillis, along with other veteran artists Bare, Waylon Jennings, and Jerry Reed formed the Old Dogs for a single recording session. The result produced a self-titled album released on Atlantic Records.

Mel Tillis has appeared in several movies includingW.W. And The Dixie Dancekings andSmokey And The Bandit II, and, in 1986, he co-starred with Roy Clark in a comedy Western calledUphill All The Way, which they both produced. He became a very successful businessman and at one time owned several publishing companies including Sawgrass and Cedarwood. His recordings have generally balanced out between honky tonk and the accepted Nashville Sound. Around 1980, he went to play what he thought was a car convention in Tulsa; the ‘limousine’ in question turned out to be an exotic breed of cattle. He developed an interest by buying a 2, 200 pound bull which he named ‘Stutterin’ Boy’. It was only one of 50 such bulls in the USA and he had a party to introduce it to the media! Tillis has been buying adjacent smallholdings outside Nashville and he himself owns a 400-acre farm. He said, ‘A lot of people invest their money in tax shelters, but I feel I am doing something to benefit the country... this bull is going to breed more and better cattle, and that’s no b-b-b-bull.’

During his career, Tillis has won many awards, including being named as CMA Entertainer Of The Year in 1976 and, as one of country music’s most prolific songwriters, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters’ International Hall Of Fame the same year. The stutter still exists when he speaks but he always jokes and uses it to his advantage, regularly opening his show with comments such as ‘I’m here to d-d-dispel those rumours going round that M-M-Mel T-Tillis has quit st-st-st-stuttering. That’s not true I’m still st-st-stuttering and making a pretty good living at it t-t-too’.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.