On August 8th, 1932, Lonnie Melvin “Mel” Tillis was born in Plant City, Florida. Raised in Pahokee, Florida, Tillis was three years old when he contracted malaria, which afflicted him with a lifelong stutter. Now 84, Tillis continues to recover from surgery he underwent earlier this year, but over eight decades, it’s clear his speech impediment did little to hamper the singer-songwriter-actor’s outstanding career.
Tillis went from serving in the Air Force to writing some of the biggest country hits of the Fifties and Sixties including Webb Pierce’s “I’m Tired,” “Detroit City” for Bobby Bare and the Kenny Rogers and the First Edition pop hit, “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Also a recording artist in his own right, Tillis was a popular guest on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour in late Sixties, singing – minus the stutter – and also demonstrating his comedic skill even as the impediment was played for laughs.
On January 11th, 1972, Campbell hosted a special country-music edition of his eclectic series, with Tillis, Johnny Cash, Minnie Pearl, Buck Owens and Jerry Reed among his guests. In addition to the musical performances, there are Hee Haw-inspired comedy bits along with some “pickin’ and grinnin’,” and Campbell plays straight man to Tillis in a brief segment that spotlights a song Tillis didn’t write.
While serving in Korea during the Korean War, country singer Leroy Van Dyke had the unenviable task of entertaining troops on the same bill with Fifties sex symbol Marilyn Monroe. At the same time, he was working on songs that would become hits for him once he returned to the States. One of those tunes, which could be considered an early example of rap, was a half-spoken and half-sung, rapid-fire tribute to Van Dyke’s cousin, Roy Sims, who made his living as an auctioneer. Initially released in 1956, “Auctioneer” was a Top Twenty pop hit and Top Ten country hit for Van Dyke and would resurface a decade later through several TV appearances from Van Dyke and the tune would become the inspiration for the 1967 film, What Am I Bid?
In the above clip from the Campbell special, Tillis stammers through his explanation of a new job he’s found that is “perfect” for him. “I know I can’t… say it if I talk it but I can… I can… say it if I sing it,” Tillis explains. The affable entertainer then stands at a podium with auction gavel in hand and sings a verse of the tune while also “selling” Campbell for $50 to the “lady in the funky hat” – Minnie Pearl, who then drags Campbell offstage.
Tillis would split his time between Nashville and Hollywood throughout the next few decades, appearing in such films as Smokey and the Bandit II and Cannonball Run. He also released his autobiography, Stutterin’ Boy, and performed at his own theater in Branson, Missouri, often joined by daughter, fellow country star Pam Tillis. In 1976, he was named CMA Entertainer of ther Year and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame since 1976. Tillis joined the Grand Ole Opry in 2007 and that same year was elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame.