Mel Tillis, one of country music’s most versatile artists, died this morning (Nov. 19) of respiratory failure at age 85. Mel battled intestinal issues since early 2016 and never fully recovered.
Mel won the CMA Entertainer of the Year award in 1976 and was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
Lonnie Melvin “Mel” Tillis was born Aug. 8, 1932, in Plant City, Fla., but raised in the community of Pahokee, Fla. As a youngster, he survived a childhood bout with malaria, which left him with a chronic stutter. Before moving to Nashville in 1957, Mel worked on the railroad and joined the Air Force. During his time in the military, he was assigned as a baker, a trade he learned at a young age. “People asked me if I served my country,” Mel remarked in an interview with Country Weekly. “I always tell them that I sure did. I served cakes, pies and donuts,” he laughed. While stationed in Japan, Mel became the lead singer for a band called The Westerners.
Though blessed with a strong and resonant singing voice, Mel found his first musical success as a songwriter. Webb Pierce recorded a tune that Mel wrote, “I’m Tired,” and took it to the No. 3 spot on the country charts in 1957. “Detroit City,” which Mel co-wrote, became a crossover hit for Bobby Bare in 1963 and remained one of Mel’s most popular compositions.
Mel touched a topical nerve with “Ruby, Don’t Take your Love to Town,” centering on a paralyzed war veteran who lies in bed helplessly as his wife gets ready to hit the town. Mel often noted that he based the song on a real-life couple in Florida. Released during the height of the Vietnam War (though never explicitly referred to), the song addressed the plight of returning veterans, an issue frequently swept under the rug. “Ruby” peaked in the Top 10 on the pop charts for Kenny Rogers and the First Edition in 1969, though barely reached the Top 40 on the country charts.
Mel made early recordings in the 1970’s under Mel Tillis and The Statesiders, finally hitting the top in 1972 with “I Ain’t Never.” His powerful one-two punch of songwriting and vocals propelled him to the CMA award for Entertainer of the Year in 1976. That same year, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.
He enjoyed his most consistent chart success after signing with MCA, where he was now billed only under his name. A series of No. 1 hits in the late 1970’s included “Good Woman Blues,” “Heart Healer” and “Coca Cola Cowboy,” the latter from the movie Every Which Way but Loose starring Clint Eastwood.
The film world also helped Mel become one of country’s first multi-media stars. He appeared in such movies as The Cannonball Run, W.W. & the Dixie Dancekings, Smokey & the Bandit II and others.
By the mid-1980s, Mel found only occasional chart success. But he kept active in the business with his music publishing ventures and a theater in Branson, Mo., where he performed until 2002. In 1984, he released the book Stutterin’ Boy: The Autobiography of Mel Tillis. Mel’s daughter Pam became a country star in her own right, scoring several chart hits and winning the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award in 1994.
In 2007, Mel was awarded for his contributions to the genre with his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The Country Music Hall of Famer leaves behind six children (Pam Tillis, Connie Tillis, Cindy Shorey, Sonny Tillis, Carrie April Tillis, and Hannah Puryear), six grandchildren, a great grandson, a sister (Linda Crosby) and brother (Richard Tillis), the mother of five of his children (Doris Tillis), his longtime partner (Kathy DeMonaco), and many lifelong friends and fans around the world.
The Tillis family asks for your prayers and will soon release more information regarding funeral services in Florida and Nashville.
Photo Courtesy Mel Tillis Enterprises