Mel Tillis, as famed for his recording career and songwriting as he was for his lifelong stutter, died early Sunday morning at Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Florida, following a lengthy illness. A representative confirmed the singer’s death, citing respiratory failure as the suspected cause. He was 85. As a songwriter, he was known for hits that included the Bobby Bare single “Detroit City,” Webb Pierce’s “I’m Tired” and the 1969 crossover tune for Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” As a recording artist and performer, the affable Tillis was the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year in 1976, a mainstream country-music superstar at a time when the genre was dominated by pop-leaning country and the burgeoning outlaw movement.
Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis in Tampa, Florida, in 1932, and raised in nearby Pahokee, Tillis’s speech impediment, resulting from a bout of malaria, was discovered at age three. As something of a class clown in school, Tillis said later that when he was entertaining classmates with his comedic skills he found he stuttered less. Still, his stutter lost Tillis an early job with the railroad because he was too slow to call out the signal-light colors to the engineer. Tillis dropped out of the University of Florida and served four years in the Air Force beginning in 1951. While he had hoped to become a pilot, once again his stutter proved a hindrance, so he became a baker instead. The same year, he played his first paying gig on the roof garden of the Mayflower Hotel in Jacksonville. While in the military, he formed a band called the Westerners and played local clubs while stationed in Okinawa, Japan, during the Korean War. In the mid-Fifties, he also worked as a truck driver, railroad fireman and strawberry picker, and relocated to Detroit before moving to Nashville.
In 1956, country superstar Webb Pierce recorded “I’m Tired,” which Tillis penned with Ray Price and Buck Peddy. The song’s success (it reached Number Three) would lead Tillis to sign with Pierce’s music-publishing company, Cedarwood. In 1958, he joined the Columbia Records roster and released his debut single, “A Violet and a Rose.” Joining Kapp Records, he had his biggest solo hits to date in 1965 with “Wine” and “Stateside,” with the latter tune inspiring the name of his longtime band the Statesiders. The first single credited to Tillis and the group, “These Lonely Hands of Mine,” became the singer’s second Top Ten hit. Although a string of successful singles, and a move to MGM Records, followed it would be 1972 before Tillis notched his first Number One as an artist. The rowdy “I Ain’t Never,” penned with Webb Pierce, was a Number Two hit for Pierce in 1959, and the first of six chart-topping singles for Tillis. Other Number Ones included “Good Woman Blues,” “Heart Healer,” “I Believe in You,” “Coca Cola Cowboy,” and “Southern Rains.”
Tillis had the former two tunes out while he was the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1976. That same year, he also joined the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Other songs he has had recorded include “So Wrong,” by Patsy Cline, “Life Turned Her That Way,” by Ricky Van Shelton, “The Snakes Crawl at Night,” an early cut by Charley Pride, and Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” the tale of a paralyzed veteran wounded in a “crazy Asian war” that, given the late Sixties release date was naturally assumed to be the Vietnam conflict. A Top Ten country hit for Johnny Darrell in 1968, Rogers recorded his smoldering version a year later, reaching Number Six on the pop chart and Number One in Canada and in the U.K.’s New Musical Express. In a 1987 Rolling Stone interview, U2 frontman Bono said he learned the tune from his brother, noting, “I’m still fascinated by that song.”
In 1984, Ricky Skaggs topped the charts with “Honey (Open That Door),” a Tillis cut by Webb Pierce a decade earlier. Both Bobby Bare and Billy Grammer had major hits with “Detroit City,” the latter reaching the Top Twenty in 1963 with a version titled “I Wanna Go Home.” George Strait recorded Tillis’ “Thoughts of a Fool,” on the 1992 Pure Country soundtrack.
In addition to songwriting and recording, Tillis made several appearances in films and television, acting on the big screen in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, Smokey and the Bandit II and Cannonball Run with Burt Reynolds, Uphill All the Way with Roy Clark and Glen Campbell in 1986, and on TV’s Dukes of Hazzard and The Love Boat, among others. His autobiography, Stutterin’ Boy, was published in 1984. In the late Eighties, Tillis made regular appearances at a theater in Branson, Missouri, owned by Roy Clark. He then bought a home and leased a venue in the booming tourist town, playing six shows a week before opening his own 2,000-seat Mel Tillis Theatre in 1992.
Although he remained good-natured about his speech impediment throughout his lifetime, at the height of his popularity in the mid-Seventies, when Tillis was being considered as a pitchman for a popular dog food, he told People magazine that scripts for the TV spots were rejected by two of the “big three” networks because they thought viewers would object to the country star’s stuttering. “They’re denyin’ handicapped people the right to work,” Tillis said at the time, noting that at least one of the networks had reversed their decision to air the ads.
Tillis was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007, just two months after becoming an official member of the Grand Ole Opry. In February, 2012, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given by the U.S. government to artists and arts patrons.
Tillis was the father of six children, including country hitmaker – and fellow Grand Ole Opry member – Pam Tillis, Mel “Sonny” Tillis, Jr., who co-wrote the Number One Jamie O’Neal single, “When I Think About Angels,” and daughters Carrie April Tillis, Cindy Shorey, Connie Tillis and Hannah Puryear. He is also survived by six grandchildren, a great grandson, a sister and a brother, the mother of five of his children, Doris Tillis and his longtime partner, Kathy DeMonaco. Funeral arrangements in Florida and Nashville are pending.