Mel Tillis Dies at Age 85

Country Music Hall of Fame Member Became a Mainstream Film and TV Star

Country Music Hall of Fame member Mel Tillis died on Sunday (Nov. 19) at the Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Florida. He was 85. The suspected cause of death is respiratory failure, according to his publicist, Don Murry Grubbs.

Despite his many distinctions as a performer, songwriter, actor and music publisher, Tillis was most identified with his stuttering, a speech impediment from childhood that he transformed into a comic bonanza.

Lonnie Melvin Tillis was born Aug. 8, 1932, in Tampa. By his account, he began stuttering when he was 3 years old, following a bout with malaria. His early attraction to music led him to learn to play guitar and violin while still a teenager. He also played drums in his high school band. While serving in the Air Force from 1951 to 1955, he played in a country band called the Westerners.

In 1956, Tillis made his first pilgrimage to Nashville, hoping to secure a recording contract. When that effort failed, he returned briefly to Florida and turned his attention to songwriting. Here success came quicker. Webb Pierce scored a No. 3 single in 1957 with “I’m Tired,” a song Tillis co-wrote with Buck Peddy and Ray Price.

Around this same time, Tillis signed as songwriter to the Cedarwood Music publishing company, of which Pierce was part owner. In 1983, Tillis bought Cedarwood. He sold it in 1987, along with other publishing interests, to PolyGram.

Tillis success as a songwriter and his obvious talent as a vocalist soon won him a recording contract with Columbia Records. His first chart record for that label came in 1958 with “The Violet and a Rose,” a song he co-wrote. It peaked at No. 24.

As a recording artist, Tillis would chart a total of 77 singles over the next 31 years, 19 of which he wrote or co-wrote, 35 of which went Top 10 and six of which topped the chart.

Tillis named his band the Statesiders after his self-penned 1966 single, “Stateside.” Famed for the size, sharp looks and quality of his band, Tillis was a reliably superb stage performer and in 1976 was named the Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year.

That same year, Tillis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. His achievements as a songwriter fully matched those he made as a performer. “Honky Tonk Song,” which he wrote in 1952 before he broke into country music professionally, became a 1957 No. 1 single for Webb Pierce.

Many of his songs rose to the status of standards, among them “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” “Detroit City,” “Heart Over Mind,” “I Ain’t Never,” “Honey (Open That Door)” and “Mental Revenge.”

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss recorded his “Stick With Me Baby” for their Grammy-winning 2007 album, Raising Sand, and Little Richard covered “I Ain’t Never” for a 2008 charity CD spearheaded by radio personality Don Imus.

In the early 1960s, Tillis began appearing on television, initially on The Mike Douglas Show and as a regular on the syndicated Porter Wagoner Show. His stuttering was so pervasive and obvious when he wasn’t singing, he made it a part of his act and the focus of many interviews.

He made his TV acting debut in 1973 on Love, American Style and went on to appear on Nashville 99, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Tim Conway Show, Love Boat, The Tonight Show, The Dean Martin Show and Hollywood Squares. In 1978 he co-hosted a short-lived show on ABC-TV with the actress Susan Anton called Mel and Susan Together.

Tillis first foray into movies was the Burt Reynolds-starring W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings in 1975. He followed these with The Villain, Every Which Way but Loose, Smokey and the Bandit II, Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run II and Uphill All the Way. “Coca Cola Cowboy,” a single from the Every Which Way But Loose soundtrack, topped the country chart in 1979.

In 1984, Tillis, co-writing with novelist Walter Wager, released his autobiography, Stutterin’ Boy. He teamed with Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare and Jerry Reed in 1998 to record the age-protesting album Old Dogs

The year 2007 was especially eventful for Tillis. First, he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry by his daughter, singer Pam Tillis, who had been an Opry member since 2000. A few months later, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

He released a comedy album, You Ain’t Gonna Believe This, in 2010. President Barack Obama honored Tillis with the National Medal of Arts award in 2012.

Tillis underwent heart surgery in March 2014 and was later hospitalized in Nashville after being diagnosed with diverticulitis. He underwent colon surgery in Nashville in January 2016 and returned to his home in Ocala, Florida, for medical care and physical therapy.

He is survived by six children, three of whom followed him into show business — singer and recording artist Pam Tillis, songwriter Mel “Sonny” Tillis Jr. and actress Carrie April Tillis.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.