In Memoriam: Mel Tillis (1932-2017)

Country Music Hall of Fame Member Mel Tillis has died. He was 85.

Here is the official statement from his publicity firm:

Following a lengthy struggle to regain his health, country music legend Mel Tillis passed away early this morning at the Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Florida. Tillis battled intestinal issues since early 2016 and never fully recovered. The suspected cause of death is respiratory failure. Tillis was 85.

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.

Lonnie Melvin Tillis was born in Tampa, Florida on August 8, 1932. Throughout his 60+ year career, the Grand Ole Opry member recorded more than 60 albums, had 35 Top Ten singles, six #1 hits (“I Ain’t Never,” “Coca-Cola Cowboy,” “Southern Rains,” “Good Woman Blues,” “Heart Healer,” and “I Believe In You”), was named the Country Music Association’s coveted Entertainer of the Year, and was elected a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He wrote over 1,000 songs, 600 of which have been recorded by major artists including Kenny Rogers (“Ruby, Don’t You Take Your Love To Town”), George Strait (“Thoughts Of A Fool”), and Ricky Skaggs (“Honey, Open That Door”). Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) named Tillis Songwriter of the Decade for two decades. In February of 2012 President Obama awarded Tillis the National Medal of Arts.

Pam Tillis, his eldest child and fellow country star, posted the following on her Facebook page:

Pam is deeply saddened by the passing of her father, Mel Tillis, last night. It was sudden and unexpected. Pam’s father was dearly loved and one of a kind. Please take a moment and visit Official Mel Tillis and let them know how you felt about this south Florida poet that was a master songwriter, brilliant comedian and beloved father.

Mel Tillis placed at #33 on our list of 100 Greatest Men:

A comedic flair, a speech impediment, and a famous daughter have often overshadowed the fact that Mel Tillis is one of the finest songwriters and performers in the history of country music.

Tillis hailed from Tampa, Florida, and he discovered music at a young age, playing guitar and singing songs at local talent shows.  Though he had a severe stutter from age three, the impediment disappeared when he sang.  Tillis entered the military, and while stationed in Japan, formed a band called the Westerners.  Once back stateside, he moved to Nashville to jump-start his songwriting career, alternating between Tennessee and Florida until the hits started coming in.

From 1957 to the end of the sixties, Tillis would record for major labels and score a handful of hits, but he had a far bigger impact as a songwriter.  He wrote hits that are now standards, recorded by legends like Webb Pierce (“I Ain’t Never, “No Love Have I”), Bobby Bare (“Detroit City”), Ray Price (“Heart Over Mind”, “Burning Memories”) and Kenny Rogers and the First Edition (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”)

However, once the seventies arrived, Tillis became a major presence on country radio, scoring dozens of hits, many of which were his own recordings of his compositions that had been hits for other artists in the sixties.   In 1976, he was named CMA’s Entertainer of the Year, the same year he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.  Tillis’ comedic talents made him an in-demand performer, and he was a fixture on both network and syndicated television shows during the peak years of his career.   He also appeared in several movies, with Smokey and the Bandit II and Cannonball Run being the most successful.

As with many of his contemporaries, the hits slowed down in the eighties, even though other artists continued to score hits with his material, most notably Ricky Skaggs’ chart-topping  recording of “Honey (Open That Door)” in 1984.   He purchased radio stations that he later sold for a big profit, and he became one of the most popular draws in Branson, Missouri, where his theater was a cornerstone for tourist entertainment.

In recent years, Tillis has frequently collaborated with his daughter Pam Tillis, making appearances on her albums and co-headlining a popular Christmas show at Opryland.   Tillis was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2007, and elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame that same year.  In 2010, he released his first comedy album, You Ain’t Gonna Believe This…, on Show Dog Records.

Here are some of his greatest moments…

As a singer:

“I Ain’t Never”

“Good Woman Blues”

“I Believe in You”

“Coca Cola Cowboy”

“Southern Rains”

As a songwriter:

Bobby Bare, “Detroit City”

Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”

Ricky Skaggs, “Honey (Open That Door)”

Patsy Cline, “Strange”

Ray Price, “Heart Over Mind”

Finally, here’s a wonderful episode of The George Jones Show from 1998, which featured both Mel and Pam Tillis in performances and interviews:

5 Comments

  1. It is a tragedy that we’re losing so many legends at such a rapid rate these days. It’s certainly the case with Mel Tillis, who nevertheless did the most with his 85 years. Thoughts and prayers go out to his family, including his daughter Pam.

    One irony about his biggest songwriting credit, “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town)”: It was a much bigger country hit for Johnny Darrell, who took it to #17 in mid-1967, than it was for Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, where it only got to #39 in August 1969. But Kenny’s was the much bigger selling version since it got up to #6 on the Hot 100.

    And it might be well worth noting that another one of Mel’s songs, “Mental Revenge”, besides being a hit for Waylon Jennings, found itself into the hippie C&W lexicon by virtue of being on the set list of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers in 1969 and ’70, and Linda Ronstadt (one of Pam’s favorites) recording it for her 1970 album Silk Purse.

  2. Loved Mel Tillis. Such a talented singer/songwriter.

    My favorite of his songs was ‘I Got The Hoss’. It was such a fun and catchy song.

    I hope people will remember his legacy.

  3. “Mental Revenge” is such a great song. Love the Ronstadt version, which I heard after the Jennings and the Pam Tillis version. All three are great. Tillis recorded it during that odd period of the early 2000s where men putting blonde tips in their hair was a thing, so the peroxide line sounded hilarious coming from a woman to a man.

    For those who haven’t heard this great song, here it is by:

    Waylon Jennings (1968):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Imr3S8trzIY

    Linda Ronstadt (1970):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtbVsE-MNeM

    Pam Tillis (2002):

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