How Whataburger Helped Mel Tillis Overcome His Stutter, And Start a National Conversation
Country legend and Hall of Famer Mel Tillis passed away on Sunday morning (11-19) at the age of 85, leaving behind an incredible legacy of songs and albums, from music he wrote such as Waylon Jennings’ “Mental Revenge” and Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” to the songs he recorded and performed himself such as one of his signature hits, “Coca-Cola Cowboy.”
Mel was known for many accomplishments in music, but he’s also known to a generation as being one of the most famous people with the speech impediment known as stuttering. An involuntary motor skill condition, it affects the enunciation of vowels and semi-vowels in over 70 million people, or roughly 1% of the population. It often impedes the individuals who suffer from the ailment in not just their speech, but in other profound ways due to the social awkwardness the stammering often creates in both the speaker and the listener. Mel Tillis was no different.
Throughout his young life, Mel was teased for his stuttering, and later it also affected his ability to get a job. After serving in the Air Force, Mel returned to his home in Florida to look for work, and ran into difficulty due to his disability. One owner of a business where Mel applied said he had overcome similar issues when he was young, and though he did not give Mel a job, he did give him advice written piece of paper to read every night. It was the prayer often used in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Oh Lord, Grant me the Courage to change the things I can change, the Serenity to accept those I cannot change, and the Wisdom to know the difference.
“For the first time in a long time, I slept well that night,” said Mel. “I woke the next morning with a different outlook on life. I told myself that if I couldn’t quit stuttering, then the world was going to have to take me like I was. What you see is what you get.”
Having to deal with stuttering is one of the reasons Mel Tillis gravitated towards singing for a career, where his impediment was not present. Because talking is handled by the left portion of the brain, and singing is handled by the right portion of the brain, often stutterers and others afflicted with speech issues are able to sing clearly. We’ve seen similar miraculous results with Randy Travis, who despite still being unable to form complete sentences after suffering a stroke, is able to sing at a much greater competency.
Still, Mel’s stuttering is what made him decide to become a songwriter in country music first, before trying his hand as a performer. One of his early songwriting successes was the song “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” recorded by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. The song is about a veteran returning from the “crazy Asian war” who can no longer satisfy his lover due to an emasculating disability. Though never directly stated by Mel, many have drawn the parallel between the song and Mel’s own issues as a veteran himself.
But Mel persevered and eventually did begin to perform on stage, but first in a side role where he wouldn’t have to directly address the crowd. Even though Mel could sing clearly, at some point you must speak to the audience, and often high stress situations like public speaking can exacerbate the stuttering (though for some, it miraculously cures it). One of Mel’s first performing gigs was singing backup for Grand Ole Opry legend Minnie Pearl in 1957.
Pearl encouraged Mel Tillis to talk on stage, but Mel refused, saying he was worried he would be made fun of. Minnie, who had made a career out of people making fun of her said “Let ’em laugh. Goodness gracious, laughs are hard to get and I’m sure that they’re laughing with you and not against you, Melvin.” Tillis eventually concluded, “Well, if they’re gonna laugh at me, then I’ll give them something to laugh about.”
Soon, the stuttering of Mel Tillis would become one of his signatures as his own performing career gained steam. He would tell stories that made light of his stammering and included specific words to stimulate it, sending audiences into stitches, and often humanizing him to fans. It certainly played a part in Tillis being named Entertainer of the Year by the CMA in 1976. By making fun of himself, Mel took away the fear of his stuttering, and began to use it to his advantage. Not only did it become a seminal part of his stage show and something listeners looked forward to on radio, it made Mel a favorite guest on television shows, and got him cast in cameos and supporting roles in blockbuster movies in the early 80’s, including Smoky and the Bandit II, and Cannonball Run. Mel’s stuttering was not a hindrance anymore, it’s what people wanted.
This was also the case for the regionally-located, but nationally-famous fast food chain called Whataburger down in Texas. With Mel Tillis songs on the radio, and his face and famous stutter gracing movie screens, they decided to sign him as their spokesperson in the early 80’s. At first, Mel’s stutter is what the commercial writers scripted their spots around (the 2nd half of this video).
“Hey, you know there’s a big big difference between a Whataburger and all the other, b-b-b-burgers. Whataburger c-c-c-c….” Mel stammers.
“Cooks!” says the counter attendant.
But at this time, a conversation was starting in the United States about the callousness of making fun of individuals with disabilities. In 1986, the National Council on Disability recommended the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or (ADA), and drafted the first version of a bill to present to Congress. In the meantime, Whataburger decided to take the initiative with their famous stammering spokesperson to make a point and inspire people, instead of being behind the curve.
In subsequent Whataburger commercials throughout the 80’s, Mel Tills was seen fighting through and overcoming his stuttering issues instead of making fun of them. In a later commercial, Mel is seen stopping himself before stuttering, and speaking out the words. It wasn’t the stuttering which made the commercial compelling, it was the viewers watching Mel Tillis persevering over his famous stuttering issues, with no background music or other embellishments so your focus is strictly on Mel (and Whataburger).
Then in a later Whataburger add attributed to 1984-1985, Mel Tillis is not stuttering at all.
In 1988, the Americans with Disabilities Act was formally introduced in the United States House and Senate. The bill was later signed into law on July 26, 1990 by then President George H. W. Bush. Though it was one small part, and isolated to the commercials of a Texas burger chain, Mel Tills helped raise awareness not just for stuttering, but for everyone suffering from disabilities and the stigma they come with, just like he did with “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”
There is a reason why Whataburger is so beloved in Texas, and why Mel Tillis is so beloved in country music, and it’s not just because of the burgers and songs. It’s because they both showed incredible character.
November 19, 2017 @ 1:44 pm
November 19, 2017 @ 2:04 pm
Whataburger and Mel Tillis: two of my absolute favorite things.
It was really cool to find out he did this.
November 19, 2017 @ 2:25 pm
Off topic comment, but I assume you’ll be posting an article about Neal McCoy’s latest single, “Take a Knee My Ass”? It’s already proving to be his comeback single; it’s been out for less than a week but he’s in the country top ten on iTunes already. Regardless of your opinion on the whole kneeling NFL fiasco (which I wish would just die out already, and I’m saying that as someone who is politically conservative), I think it’s actually fairly impressive that an old-school artist can still make big waves this way.
November 19, 2017 @ 3:06 pm
I vote for an article on Neal McCoy. His latest single, his daily Facebook Pledge of Allegiance videos and his newly painted his tour bus with the American flag & the Pledge, would make for great article. “No Doubt About It” and “That’s Life” are my go to albums. “This Time I Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me”, (first recorded by Conway Twitty), speaks to me differently every time I play it. “The City Put the Country Back in Me” is the real deal and has been on my Hard Core Country playlist since I met Spotify.
November 19, 2017 @ 10:55 pm
I’m voting for no more articles except if it’s a review of Jeremy Pinnell’s latest record. It is insane how trigg has skipped over both is release this year and his last album.
November 20, 2017 @ 12:00 am
So I’m supposed to just ignore the death of a country music legend to review a record you already know about, and frankly, are dramatically overrating, Jtrpdx? How about we get Mel Tillis in the ground before you start demanding what I do? I think it’s pretty disrespectful to Mel and myself to hijack this thread to complain about what I’m NOT posting. I blew up my Sunday plans to write what I thought was a really compelling and important story about Mel’s stuttering problem that might be inspiring to other people with disabilities and the rest of us, and do my part to help honor Mel’s legacy. Maybe I’ll write about Jeremy Pinnell, maybe I won’t. And maybe you’ll agree with my opinions, and maybe you won’t. But please don’t question my dedication to this cause. I’ve never asked a dime from you or anyone else. So don’t go demanding anything from me.
November 20, 2017 @ 8:50 am
Thank you for both Mel Tillis articles. Honestly, I only knew him as Pam’s Opry memeber dad. I had no idea he wrote “Detroit City” or “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.”
November 19, 2017 @ 2:58 pm
Great article. Had no idea of Mel’s connection to Whataburger.
And Trig, I can’t for the life of me find it now, but I read somewhere years ago that “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” was a true story based on a couple that lived near Mel Tillis. Like I said, I can’t find it now, which could mean it was never true to begin with, but thought I’d put it out there.
November 19, 2017 @ 11:49 pm
Warthog you are right, I am from Belle Glade, Florida, 5 miles from Pahokee where Mel is from. He wrote the song about his neighbor in Pahokee who was a British woman who was married to a man who was paralyzed in WWII. She was his war bride, she was a nurse during the war. She would go down to the local bar at night and he got the idea for the song from her routine. He changed the orginal song, (Crazy Asian War) for the time period, Vietnam era. He was great man who loved Pahokee and he was always humble and kind everytime I saw him.
November 19, 2017 @ 3:47 pm
First thing I thought about when I heard. I’m a Texan and not much of a country music fan, but Mel was an icon here. I adored the commercials and I still think about him when getting my number 12.
November 19, 2017 @ 4:27 pm
Going to miss you Mel. Rest in peace and know you are loved. You legacy will live on.
November 19, 2017 @ 4:50 pm
You bring the horse, I’ll bring the saddle, together were gonna ride ride ride…..that one always brings a grin to my face………..gotta love the guy..Mmmmm..mmmm…Melllllllll Tillis!
November 19, 2017 @ 5:47 pm
nice article, also u should review take a knee my ass
November 19, 2017 @ 6:11 pm
Glen Campbell had a great version of Ruby also, great song and great songwriter. My son had his first Whataburger in Lubbock this past August and said it was the best he’s had. Thanks Mel!
EW in DFW
November 19, 2017 @ 6:50 pm
Cake does a great cover of Ruby.
Mel Tillis was a funny guy.
November 19, 2017 @ 7:00 pm
Cake is good.
November 20, 2017 @ 6:14 am
So you CAN have your Cake and Tillis, too~
November 20, 2017 @ 6:48 am
He was real person, douche. With a real family.
November 20, 2017 @ 7:28 am
But I suppose you’d end up typing something like that if you flipped from online porn back to an article about Mel Tillis who just passed away… Mel didn’t have the internet back in his day or when he was the spokesperson for Whataburger. What a world you’re living in now days.
November 20, 2017 @ 8:40 am
Tunesmiff, if you’re truly interest in zombie love, I can direct you to another website. Love and death marriage, are also a part of life. But those ideas are for a much higher class of people than yourself. Don’t even consider it, it could turn a
brain to mush.
November 19, 2017 @ 7:35 pm
I had know idea Mel Tillis wrote “Mental Revenge” for Waylon Jennings. It’s been covered by Jamey Johnson, Gram Parsons, the Hacienda Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, and Barbara Mandrell. They’ll be checking in to see what’s going on.
November 20, 2017 @ 7:12 am
I like Lucky Tubb’s version, as well.
November 19, 2017 @ 11:23 pm
I didn’t know lot about his life. Great respect for this man!
November 20, 2017 @ 1:54 am
Nice write-up, but just one thing: Mel Tillis did NOT write “Coca-Cola Cowboy.”
I knew that because I once heard an interview with Mel where he said that when he heard “Coca-Cola Cowboy,”, he didn’t think it made sense–and he didn’t want to record it. His producer pushed him into recording it. The punch line was that Mel said that when it went to #1, he learned to like it real fast.
“Coca-Cola Cowboy” was (co-)written by Steve Dorff, whose other songs include “Every Which Way But Loose,” for Eddie Rabbit, “Through the Years,” for Kenny Rogers and “Cross My Heart” for George Strait, as well as some movie and TV work.
November 20, 2017 @ 5:13 am
She said, “You’re just a Coca Cola cowboy”
You got an Eastwood smile and Robert Redford hair
But you walked across my heart like it was Texas
And you taught me how to say I just don’t care…
Artist: Mel Tillis
Album: Every Which Way but Loose
Songwriter(s): Steve Dorff; Sandy Pinkard; Sam Atchley; Bud Dain
November 20, 2017 @ 6:21 am
Fascinating! I’ve never been into Whataburger in my travels in Texas but next time I’m over I’m gonna make sure I visit one!
November 20, 2017 @ 8:16 am
You should. It is an essential part of the Texas experience.
November 20, 2017 @ 8:06 am
This is a really fascinating article. Thank you for the write-up, Trig. It was very respectful and a wonderful way to honor Tillis. There isn’t a Whataburger in my area, but next time I am travelling through and see one, I will drop by. One of my children has a speech impediment and is horrifically self conscious of it. I may show him these commercials to help give him encouragement and hope.
November 20, 2017 @ 7:36 pm
That’s pretty cool
As someone who grew up with , and still has speech problems , it’s inspiring to see this presentation and with a comparisons of the two adds , his progression
Thanks for sharing , i love learning about stories like this
November 21, 2017 @ 9:55 pm
Hope you don’t mind an edit: You mean enunciation, not annunciation,