The Country Music Hall of Famer known for a signature speech impediment and a perfect singing voice has passed away.
Mel Tillis, beloved for #1 country hits such as “Southern Rains,” “Good Woman Blues,” “Heart Healer,” and more died Sunday morning (11-19) at the Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Florida. Tillis had been battling intestinal issues since early 2016 which resulted in his hospitalization, and he never fully recovered. Respiratory failure is what is suspected in his death according to the singer’s publicist. Mel Tillis was 85-years-old.
Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis in Tampa, Florida on August 8, 1932, Mel first learned to play drums and guitar at the age of 16. After a brief stint at the University of Florida, he dropped out to join the United States Air Force, where he formed his first major band called The Westerners who would play local clubs in Okinawa where Mel was stationed. After leaving the Air Force in 1955, Tillis worked for the railroad, and would regularly visit Nashville via his travel privileges to try his hand at songwriting, eventually signing a songwriting deal with Acuff-Rose.
Throughout his 60+ year career, he recorded more than 60 albums, had 35 Top Ten singles, and produced six #1 hits (“I Ain’t Never,” “Coca-Cola Cowboy,” “Southern Rains,” “Good Woman Blues,” “Heart Healer,” and “I Believe In You”). This resulted in him being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007, along with the Grand Ole Opry that same year by daughter Pam Tillis, also a storied country performer in her own right. In February of 2012, President Obama awarded Tillis the National Medal of Arts.
Along with a performer, Mel Tillis was a well-respected songwriter, penning over 1,000 songs, 600 of which have been recorded by major country artists. In fact to many within the country music business, they knew Mel as a songwriter first. Mel wrote his first hit, “I’m Tired” recorded by Webb Pierce in 1957—a good 8 years before Mel would chart a song her performed himself. Waylon Jennings’ “Mental Revenge,” Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” Kenny Rogers’ “Ruby, Don’t You Take Your Love To Town”, George Strait’s “Thoughts Of A Fool”, and Ricky Skaggs’ “Honey, Open That Door” are just some of Mel’s songwriting accolades. BMI named Mel Tillis Songwriter of the Decade for two decades, speaking to the incredible depth and longevity of his songwriting catalog.
Along with his music accomplishments, Mel Tillis was well-known for his appearances in movies in the late 70’s into the early 80’s such as The Villain, Smokey and the Bandit II, and The Cannonball Run. During the time, movies and TV shows would often exploit Mel’s speech impediment for humor. During the period, he also purchased numerous radio stations. Amarillo, TX station KYTX changed its call letters to KMML to play off the Tillis stutter. Another station WMML in Mobile, Alabama did the same thing. But eventually this opened up a national debate about people with stuttering issues. Mel Tillis also appeared in commercials for the Texas burger chain Whataburger, first with his signature stutter, but later speaking clearly to help inspire people with the issue to attempt to overcome it.
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.
The Tillis family asks for your prayers and will be releasing more information regarding funeral services in Florida and Nashville soon.