Mel Tillis, the country music singer who had 36 top ten singles including six number ones, has died at the Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, FL from what is suspected to be resperatory failure. He was 85.
Tillis was born on August 8, 1932 in Tampa, FL and developed his trademark stutter after a childhood bout with malaria. He took up music, first on drums and then guitar, winning a talent show at the age of 16.
Mel first played publicly while in the U.S. Air Force where he formed a band called the Westerners but he didn’t take it any further until well after his public service while working for the Atlantic Coast Line railroad. While on a trip to Nashville, he auditioned for Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose Music who encouraged his continued songwriting.
In 1957, Tillis finally had a hit song when Webb Pierce took his “Holiday For Love” to number 3. Pierce continued working with Mel, including the number 1 “Honky Tonk Song”, with other artists like Carl Smith, Kitty Wells and Johnnie and Jack recording hits from the Tillis catalog.
Tillis signed with Columbia Records in 1958 to a recording contract and had his first minor hits with “The Violet and the Rose” (1958 / #24 Country) and ” Finally” (1958 / #28 Country) but it would take him another decade before finally scoring his first top ten hit with “Who’s Julie” (1968 / #10).
The breakthrough led to a tremendous 70’s for the singer as he had over two dozen top ten hits including number 1’s with “I Ain’t Never” (1972), “Good Woman Blues” (1976), “Heart Healer” (1976), “I Believe In You” (1978) and “Coca-Cola Cowboy” (1979).
It was also during this time that Mel became a regular fixture on variety and talk shows, capitalizing on his stutter for comedy routines. He also showed off his business skills, investing in a number of publishing companies, radio stations and other entities, building up a major bankroll. Among the films in which he appeared were W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, Smokey and the Bandit II and The Cannonball Run.
Tillis had his last top ten hit in 1983 with “New Patches” but he continued as a very successful songwriter including writing the number 1 country single “Honey (Open the Door)” for Ricky Skaggs.
Other major hits that Tillis wrote include “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” (Kenny Rogers & the First Edition), “Detroit City” (Bobby Bare) and “Emotions” (Brenda Lee).
Among his honors is induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1976), the Grand Ole Opry (2007) and the Country Music Hall of Fame (2007). He was the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year in 1976 and was a six time honoree of their Comedian of the Year award. In 1999, BMI named him songwriter of the decade and, in 2012, he received the National Medal of the Arts.
Tillis is survived by his partner, Kathy DeMonaco, six children including singer Pam Tillis and songwriter Mel, Jr., six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.