Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis, 8 August 1932, Tampa, Florida
Country vocalist / songwriter / actor.
Joel Whitburn's publication "The Billboard Book of Top 40 Country Hits, 1944-1996" contains a Top 25 of country artists with the most charted singles. Mel Tillis ranks at # 19, with 68 Top 40 hits during that period, but he is the only one from the list of 25 who never had a pop hit. Tillis is famous for his chronic stutter - the result of a childhood bout with malaria - a liability he used to enhance his affable, down-home stage persona. He even titled his 1984 autobiography "Stutterin' Boy".
Tillis briefly attended the University of Florida, served in the air force in Japan and worked on the railroad before coming to Nashville in 1956. Early in 1957 he had his first success as a songwriter, when Webb Pierce took his song "I'm Tired" to # 3 on the country charts. His reward was a songwriting contract with Pierce's publishing company, Cedarwood Music. Pierce's next single was another Tillis composition, "Honky Tonk Song", which Mel himself had cut during his first recording session in January 1957, for Columbia. The Webb Pierce version topped the country charts for one week. Pierce and Tillis would write many songs together, including "I Ain't Never", Pierce's biggest pop hit (# 24, also # 2 country, 1959) and the frenetic rocker "Bop-A-Lena" by Ronnie Self. They also recorded together as vocalists, scoring a # 25 country hit in 1963 with "How Come Your Dog Don't Bite Nobody But Me".
Like many other country singers, Tillis also tried his hand at rock n roll, in particular with "Jukebox Man" (1957) and "Teenage Wedding" (1958, covered by Faron Young and Jimmy Lee Fautheree aka Johnny Angel). But his uptempo material didn't sell and his first chart entries came with slower songs, first of all "The Violet And A Rose" (# 24, late 1958, covered by Wanda Jackson and others). Until the 1970s he was more successful as a songwriter than as a singer. Webb Pierce had several more Top 10 hits with Tillis songs ("Tupelo County Jail", "A Thousand Miles Ago", "No Love Have I"), Bobby Bare had a Top 20 pop hit with "Detroit City" (co-written with Danny Dill, 1963) and Kenny Rogers had an even bigger pop hit with "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" (# 6, 1969). Other singers scoring hits with Tillis's compositions include Ray Price, Little Jimmy Dickens, Stonewall Jackson, Waylon Jennings and Brenda Lee ("Emotions"). Tillis usually worked with a co-writer, in particular Wayne Walker.
In 1962 Mel released his first LP, "Heart Over Mind", still for Columbia. Later that year he moved to Decca and in 1966 to Kapp. It was on that label that he scored his first Top 10 hit, "Who's Julie" (# 10, 1969). The big time had finally come for Tillis and in the 1970s and early 1980s he had one Top 10 hit after another. His own version of "I Ain't Never" gave him his first number one (1972), followed by five more chart toppers : "Good Woman Blues" (1976), "Heart Healer" (1976), "I Believe In You" (1978), "Coca Cola Cowboy" (1979) and "Southern Rains" (1980).
Most of these hits appeared on MGM (1970-1976) and MCA (1976-79). He won the CMA's Entertainer of the Year Award in 1976 and that same year was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame. In 1979 he signed with Elektra Records, returned to MCA in 1983 and recorded for RCA and Mercury in the second half of the 1980s. His last chart entry was "You'll Come Back (You Always Do)" on Mercury (# 31, 1988). Stylistically his records run the gamut from honky-tonk to light country pop.
Through the years, Tillis has also occasionally ventured into feature films, mostly of the lightweight comedy/action variety. His movie credits include "W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings" (1975, with Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed), "Every Which Way But Loose" (1978, with Clint Eastwood), "Smokey and the Bandit II" (1980, also with Burt Reynolds), " and "Uphill All the Way" (1986, with Roy Clark).
Even with the advent of New Country Mel Tillis proved he was still a viable contributor, writing # 1 hits for Ricky Skaggs ("Honey Open That Door", 1984) and Randy Travis ("Diggin' Up Bones", 1986). Though his recording career began to wane by the mid-1980s, Tillis, a shrewd businessman, had by then segued into various business ventures, including management of his extensive music publishing concerns and his theater in Branson, Missouri, where he frequently performs. He is the father of country singer Pam Tillis, who rose to prominence in the 1990s. In 2007 Mel Tillis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry. In 2010 he released a comedy album, "You Ain't Gonna Believe This". On February 13, 2012, President Obama awarded Tillis the National Medal of Arts for his contributions to country music. Recently he completed his first novel, "Acting Sheriff".
Official website : http://www.meltillis.com/
Book : "Stutterin' Boy : The Autobiography Of Mel Tillis" is out of print, both in hardcover (New York : Rawson, 1984) and in paperback (New York : Dell, 1986).
Discography / sessionography :
Acknowledgements : Bob Allen, Shaun Mather, Wikipedia.
Dik, May 2013
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