All Photos: Alan Mercer Lighting: Eric V.
Country music legend, Mel Tillis, started performing in the early ‘50’s with a group called The Westerners while serving as a baker in the United States Air Force, stationed in Okinawa. In 1956, Webb Pierce recorded a song written by Mel entitled “I’m Tired”, and it launched Mel’s musical career.
Mel’s stutter developed during his childhood, a result of a bout with malaria. As a child, Mel learned the drums as well as guitar and at age 16, won a local talent show. He attended the University of Florida but dropped out and joined the Air Force. While stationed in Okinawa, he formed a band called The Westerners, which played at local nightclubs.
After leaving the military in 1955, Mel returned to Florida where he worked a number of odd jobs, eventually finding employment with the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in Tampa, Florida. He used his railroad pass to visit Nashville and eventually met and auditioned for Wesley Rose of famed Nashville publishing house Acuff-Rose Music. Rose encouraged Tillis to return to Florida and continue honing his songwriting skills. Mel eventually moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and began writing songs full-time. Tillis wrote "I'm Tired," a No. 3 country hit for Webb Pierce in 1957. Other Tillis hits include "Honky Tonk Song" and "Tupelo County Jail." Ray Price and Brenda Lee also charted hits with Tillis's material around this time. In the late 1950s, after becoming a hit-making songwriter, he signed his own contract with Columbia Records. In 1958, he had his first Top 40 hit, "The Violet and a Rose," followed by the Top 25 hit "Sawmill."
In 1976, Mel Tillis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame, and that same year, he was named Country Music Association’s (CMA) Entertainer of the Year. Also, for six years in the 70’s, Mel Tillis won Comedian of the Year.
On September 21, 1999, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) named Mel Tillis the Songwriter of the Decade for two decades. Mel was the recipient of the Golden Voice Entertainer Award for 2001. He also won the 2001 Golden R.O.P.E. Songwriter Award. The Grand Ole Opry inducted Mel Tillis as its newest member on June 9, 2007. In October of 2007, Mel Tillis became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Mel Tillis' home state of Florida honored him on March 25, 2009, inducting him into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame. In 2012 Mel received the National Medal of Arts from the President of the U.S.
Mel has written well over 1,000 songs, and approximately 600 have been recorded by major artists. In June 2001, Mel received a Special Citation of Achievement from BMI for 3 Million broadcast performances of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town”. Songs which have reached this coveted status are in a very select group of world-wide favorites.
Mel has recorded more than 60 albums. He has had thirty-six Top Ten singles, with nine of them going to Number One - “Good Woman Blues,” “Coca Cola Cowboy,” and “Southern Rain” to mention a few.
Mel Tillis has been in the music/entertainment business now for 50 plus years. He and his band, the Statesiders, have worked concerts all over the 50 states, Canada, England, and other countries. He has appeared on such television shows as 20/20, The Tonight Show, The 700 Club, Prime Time Country, 60 Minutes, Crook & Chase, David Letterman, and he has served as host for Music City News Awards and Music City Tonight.
Mel has appeared in numerous feature films including “Every Which Way But Loose” with Clint Eastwood, “W.W. & The Dixie Dancekings,” “Cannonball Run I and II,” “Smokey and the Bandit II with Burt Reynolds, and the lead role with Roy Clark in “Uphill All The Way.” He has starred in several television movies as well including “Murder in Music City” and “A Country Christmas Carol.”
Mel Tillis has six children: songwriter Mel "Sonny" Tillis, Jr., singer-songwriter Pam Tillis, Carrie April Tillis, Connie Tillis, Cindy Tillis, and Hannah Tillis. Mel has one brother, Richard, and two sisters, Linda and Imogene. He also has six grandchildren.
AM: Mel, my friend Larry Ferguson set us up. He was Dottie Rambo’s manager. I know you recorded a song with Dottie. Did you ever hear it?
MT: I sure did. It wasn’t in my key but it came off alright. I couldn’t believe we recorded that song and then she was killed in the bus accident. What a tragedy.
AM: Very sad indeed. I hadn’t heard that song until recently myself but I sure do know all your other music!
MT: I’ve been around for a while. I’m in the 58th year of my career.
AM: You’ve been a superstar all my life. It must just be the most natural thing for you now.
MT: Yeah, it’s pretty natural now but in the beginning it was pretty scary.
AM: What made it so scary?
MT: I was in unknown waters and I didn’t know what was going to happen. Music and humor have been a part of my life, all my life! It seems like everything I did led to music, humor and singing. Back then I stuttered so bad and I still do a little bit.
AM: Did you understand that you were different from others when you spoke?
MT: My daddy stuttered a bit and my brother did too and I stuttered a lot. I thought that was just the way we talked. I didn’t know the difference.
AM: When did you realize you stuttered?
MT: When I started in elementary school in Florida, I came home the first day and asked my mama if I stuttered. She said, “Yes, you do son.” Then I said, “Mama they laughed at me.” She told me if they were going to laugh at me then give them something to laugh about. When I went back to school the next day, I consider that my first day in show business. I learned how to make them laugh and they’ve been laughing ever since. It’s not on a count of that stutter. I don’t play off that. If it’s there, it’s there.
AM: It certainly never held you back.
MT: I went to Hollywood and did all those variety shows. I did them all. They would write the stutter in the cue cards. I told them not to do that because I may not stutter on that word. It will happen where it’s supposed to.
AM: You are a more natural person.
MT: Yes I am. All I know how to do is be me. What you see is what you get.
AM: Did you enjoy making the movies you did?
MT: Oh yeah, I’m not an actor but when I was a kid we did a lot of play acting. I was Gene Autry. I always enjoyed playing pretend.
AM: When did you know you could sing?
MT: About the time I found out I couldn’t talk. (Laughter) I’ve been singing all my life starting in Sunday school class. My first grade teacher Miss Clark found out I could sing and took me around to all the other classes and had me sing for them.
AM: When did you start writing songs?
MT: I wrote a couple of songs while I was in Okinawa when I was in the Air Force.
AM: How did you end up in the Air Force?
MT: I finished high school and attended the University of Florida for a while. Then I felt like I was going to get drafted, so I went home where my dad had a little bakery. My dad told me, “Son, if you’re not going back to school then you’re going to have to work in the bakery shop.” I told him, “Daddy, I don’t want to be a baker.” He said he would pay me $20.00 a week and $10.00 of it will be room and board. Then I told him up until about ten minutes ago room and board was free. He told me it wouldn’t ever be free no more. Then he told me to walk across the street and get the mail. So I did that and there was an Air Force recruiter there with his table set up on the sidewalk. He had his uniform on and it was sharp. The Uncle Sam poster was there pointing at me, saying “We want you.” I thought how nice it felt to be wanted. So I delivered the mail and told Momma and Daddy I joined up. The crying started then. They took me to the train station in West Palm Beach on Christmas day.
AM: What did you do in the Air Force?
MT: After I got into the Air Force they gave me an aptitude test. I waited anxiously to see what I was suited for. The test let us know whether I should be a mechanic, a clerk or go to officer’s school or what. I was the second to last guy to get my orders and when they came in I was told to go to the Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio to the 4th Army Baking School. (much laughter)
AM: That is too funny!
MT: Every time I tell that story my Daddy is laughing in his grave. It was really a blessing. I had a little radio in the baking area of the kitchen that I’d listen to and they had a band that played every Saturday called the Westerners. One day the band announced that the singer had done his time and was going home so they would need a new singer. I couldn’t say one word in those days. My friends told them even though I couldn’t talk I could sing. Finally I started singing and the crowd hit the dance floor. The band asked me to sing another one, so I sang a Hank Williams song and then a Webb Pierce song. I ended up singing the whole time. So they hired me and I became one of the Westerners. Not one of us was from the west! (laughter) I played with that band for two years.
AM: Were you finished with the Air Force then?
MT: After I got out of the Air Force I went back to Florida and my cousin helped me get a job with the railroad as a fireman. It was a real easy job. All I did was keep the engineer alert with my singing voice. So I had a railroad pass and I had a lot of time off. I’d use that pass to ride right into downtown Nashville.
AM: Were you trying to get discovered?
MT: There were only about six or seven publishing companies at the time. I was told to focus on writing songs since I couldn’t talk yet. I went back to Florida and wrote about five songs and returned to Nashville with them. Webb Pierce recorded my first song called, “I’m Tired’ and it went to number two.
AM: That happened pretty fast.
MT: Now my name was all over Nashville as the boy who couldn’t talk but could write songs and sing. Then Columbia Records invited me to come by and bring my guitar. I got there and Lefty Frizzell was there along with Little Jimmy Dickins, Johnny Horton and about 5 more Columbia artists.
AM: That must have been exciting and nerve wracking.
MT: I started singing my songs and they all wanted them. Before I left the room that day I was signed to a five year deal with Columbia Records. I also got signed to the publishing company. I left the railroad at that time.
AM: You were ready to be a full time writer by this time.
MT: I wrote Charley Pride’s first two singles. There was also a booking agency and they booked a bunch of people including Minnie Pearl. Minnie had a bunch of bookings and she needed a guitar player and singer. She also needed a fiddle player and asked if I knew anyone. I told her I just met one today, so I went down and asked him if he wanted a job paying $18.00 a day for one show or $36.00 for two shows. His name was Roger Miller.
AM: Did Minnie Pearl give you good advice?
MT: About a week out, Miss Minnie was watching from beside the stage and she noticed that I never said anything. Roger Miller would do all the talking for me. She told me if I was going to be in this business I had to learn to introduce my own songs and thank the people for coming and then sign autographs after the show. I told her I worried they would all laugh at me and she told me no they would laugh with me. Not too long after that I began to be on TV shows.
AM: Do you remember the first TV show you were on?
MT: The first show I did was the Mike Douglas Show out of Philadelphia. Jimmy Dean was the co-host and he told the Mike Douglas people that I stuttered and they didn’t want me on the show so Jimmy said if you don’t want him then you don’t want me, so they agreed to see my act. I ended up being on the Mike Douglas Show 48 times! From there it was movies and hit records. That’s the way my life has been. I love to entertain. I’m 82 years old. People ask me when I’m going to quit and I say, “I ain’t quitting. This is what I do. I make people happy and that’s a blessing.”
To learn more about Mel Tillis visit his web site https://meltillis.com/