NASHVILLE — Legendary singer-songwriter Mel Tillis, 85, died Nov. 19 at the Munroe Medical Center in Ocala, Fla. Following major surgery last year, the Country Music Hall of Famer never quite regained his full strength. Even before suffering colon cancer, Mel had experienced open-heart bypass surgery in 2014.
The man behind writing such songs as “Detroit City,” “I Ain’t Never,” “Heart Over Mind,” “Burning Memories,” “Honky Tonk Song,” “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town)” and “Honey, Open That Door,” also charted 77 Billboard singles himself, 36 at Top 10, six peaked #1, including “Good Woman Blues,” “I Believe In You” and “Coca-Cola Cowboy.” He recorded over 60 albums, though only two charted Billboard’s Top 10, “Sawmill” (#3, 1973), “Heart Healer” (#6, 1977), and one of his last being Atlantic’s colorful 1998 collaboration “Old Dogs” in which longtime pals Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings and Jerry Reed shared the mic.
Even though his creations “The Violet And A Rose” or “All Right, I’ll Sign the Papers,” tug at the heartstrings, he also tickled the funny-bone with humorous anecdotes or self-effacing stuttering pronouncements. This writer first encountered Mel Tillis and his Statesiders band in Germany, entertaining lonesome GIs, whom he brought a sense of home via his composition “Detroit City,” with its haunting refrain “I wanna go home, I wanna go home . . .” in 1969.
During our last interview, this time at his lakeside home near Ashland City, Tenn., Mel mentioned being named Comedian of the Year from 1973-’78 by Music City News, a fan-voted award: “And would you believe, I’ve never done a comedy album? Go figure. Well, over the years I’ve recorded most of my shows and I’ve got enough material for a hundred albums. Most of the stuff is clean except for the one the cat peed on the matches . . . I did that in Vegas.”
Such showmanship earned him the Country Music Association’s prestigious Entertainer of the Year award in 1976, and national recognition in 2011, when President Barack Obama presented him the National Medal of Arts in the White House. Tillis, humbled by that honor, proclaimed, “I’ve truly been blessed in my career and still can’t believe I was chosen to receive this from my country. I was surprised to say the least.” He was indeed in high cotton, sharing the night with such fellow recipients as pianist Andre Watts, poet Rita Dove and actor Al Pacino.
Tillis has also made some acting attempts in movies, most of which Pacino’d probably pass on: “Cottonpickin’ Chicken Pickers” (1967), “W.W. & The Dixie Dancekings” (1975), “The Villain” (1979), “Smokey & The Bandit II” (1980), “Cannonball Run” (1981), “Uphill All The Way” (1986) and “Beer For My Horses” (2008). Tillis tunes have graced numerous film soundtracks, as well, most notably Clint Eastwood’s “Every Which Way But Loose” (1979), boasting a pair of Mel hits, “Send Me Down To Tucson” and “Coca-Cola Cowboy.” Other soundtrack films have included “Hamburger Hill” (1987), “The Help” (2011) and “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013).
In consideration of his 80-plus writer awards, Mel’s been hailed twice as BMI Songwriter of the Decade. Actually, Tillis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Association International’s Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1976, and belatedly accorded WSM’s Grand Ole Opry cast membership status in 2007, in which daughter Pam was already a member.
Not bad for poor boy Lonnie Melvin Tillis, born to Lonnie Lee and Burma Tillis at 2602 Morgan Street in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 8, 1932: “Yeah, I was born smack-dab in the middle of the Great Depression. My daddy was a baker, and we lived in and around Hillsborough County for about 10 years.” Lonnie senior also played guitar and harmonica, an early inspiration to Mel and brother Richard. At age 3, toddler Lonnie suffered a bout of malaria that left him stuttering. A testament to Tillis’ character and stamina was his ability to turn that handicap into an asset on life’s stage.
Mel’s biography, published in 1984 bears the title “Stuttering Boy,” co-written with journalist Walter Wager, whom Mel identifies thusly, “a Brooklyn boy – and he wrote like he was from Brooklyn.” During our 2005 chat, Tillis confided he was intent on producing a more thorough bio: “I’ve got about a hundred pages on a new one done already. I’m writing it myself, the way it was, and the way I talk, with all the colloquialisms intact, not the stutter. That is, if I ever get off the lake.”
Harking back to childhood, Mel pointed out, “Just about when World War II started, Daddy moved his family down to a little town called Pahokee on the banks of Lake Okeechobee. You know, it’s a wonder I ever did learn how to talk with all them names.”
Before graduating from Plant City High, Mel played football: “I was a running back, though I wanted to be a quarterback. But they said you had to be able to talk to do that. I said, ‘Just give me the ball and tell me which way to run.’ I was pretty fast, I guess, as they called me ‘Crazylegs’ (like fast football runner Elroy Hirsch, who earned that nickname).” Despite college offers to play football, Tillis passed them up, attending the University of Florida for about four months, but with the Korean War underway, would soon find himself in uniform.
Admittedly Tillis was bitten earlier by the music bug. “When I started school I didn’t know I stuttered, but found out in a hurry. When the teacher found I could sing without stuttering, she encouraged me to sing. She told everyone, ‘This little fella can’t talk, but he sings real good.’ I went around to different classes to sing for them . . . and from that time on I found I could mingle socially with other kids.”
Although in school he started playing drums, Mel recalled he had his eye on guitar as an instrument: “Then my brother (Richard) bought a guitar and he wouldn’t let me touch it. He messed around with it about a month, finally I said to him, ‘You wanna sell it?’ . . . So I mowed lawns, baby-sat, dug earthworms for fishermen and sold them, anything to earn the $25 he wanted for the guitar.”
From then on it was practice, practice, until finally learning some chords, but he credits guitar pickers Albert Snyder, Thomas Elliott and a preacher, who all got him to the point where he could play songs on it. He aimed to enter Pahokee’s Prince Theater music talent competition, which he first did at age 15: “I think I won that thing three years in a row. Anyway, they were happy to see me move on.”
After a stint at working in his father’s bakery with business booming in the postwar years, and going to college, Mel enlisted in the Air Force anxious to get away from the world of baking, and requested flight school but got turned down. Ironically, he was assigned to baker’s school in San Antonio, Texas, but eventually was reassigned overseas to Okinawa.
“But first, I had 30 days home leave and then went off to Camp Stoneman up in Pittsburgh, Calif. I was 19 and had a night off, so I went to this l’il old honky tonk that had a country band, I believe its name was the Brass Rail, but the bartender said ‘you can’t come in here, you’re not old enough’ . . . so I checked into a hotel above it and that damned band played all night long, playin’ and shakin’ them walls. I covered up my head with the pillows, trying to get some sleep, and years later, I wrote a song about it, ‘Honky Tonk Song,’ which Webb Pierce made a number one record!”
In Okinawa, Mel found himself baking for 150 Filipino construction workers engaged by the military: “I learned how to cook rice because that’s about all they’d eat.” Mel listened to the Far Eastern American Forces Radio Network (AFN) in Okinawa, which at one time told listeners they had a country band, The Westerners, then playing the NCO Club, but their lead singer was heading home. When Mel attempted to talk to the bandleader regarding the singer’s job vacancy, he stuttered, prompting the leader to retort, “Sing? Hell he can’t talk!” But when Tillis broke into song, he was hired. “I remember I did ‘Alabama Jubilee,’ which was a hit by Red Foley, one of my favorites; you know, he inspired me a lot. Well, when I got to singin’, they all got out there dancin’ and I ended up doing about 10 songs, and they hired me.”
The pay was $5 a night and all he could drink. That lasted about two years, mainly playing the Rocker NCO Club and the nearby Army enlisted Stateside Club, which later inspired Mel to write a song “Stateside.” It became a Top 20 single in ’66 and subsequently his touring band’s name, The Statesiders.
Following his discharge, Mel worked the Tampa area as an entertainer nights and weekends, while working as a fireman on the Atlantic Coastal Railroad Line: “I wrote some songs about that later. Charley Pride’s first record was ‘Atlantic Coastal Line’ and the flipside was ‘Snakes Crawl At Night,’ which I also wrote (and received ample airplay).”
That 1965 RCA cut by Charley failed to chart, but showed his promise as an artist to reckon with. Later, Tillis’ “No Love Have I” became unknown Gail Davies’ first chart song in 1978, while even earlier he had given Bobby Bare his first Top 10 country charter “Detroit City,” and taken Bill Phillips in hand, helping him place a Top 10 cut with then-superstar Webb Pierce – “Falling Back To You” – heard on the flipside of Tillis’ Webb Pierce smash “Tupelo County Jail.” At Columbia Records in 1959, Mel and Bill joined voices to cut back-to-back Tillis tunes “Sawmill” and “Georgia Town Blues,” helping to launch both their careers as recording artists.
During hungry days in Florida, Mel met A. R. (Buck) Peddy, a promoter whom he thought had good Nashville connections, so he signed a management pact with Peddy: “I wrote. He didn’t write, but I had to give him half my songs plus another 35%. I used my railroad pass to come from Tampa to Jacksonville and from there I’d get on the L&N Railway and could go to Nashville.”
Buck took him to Acuff-Rose Music where he met publisher Wesley Rose. “The first one to sit me down and who actually listened to my songs was Wes Rose. Afterwards, he said, ‘You sing real good, but we need songs, we need copyrights’ . . . I appreciated his honesty.”
Thanks to fiddler-friend Benny Martin, Mel met up with major star Ray Price, who listened to some of his demos and particularly liked “I’m Tired,” and unbeknownst to Tillis, his manager Peddy promised Price a third of the song. Although Ray had intentions of recording the ballad, he sang it on the Opry and Webb Pierce overhearing it, pleaded with Price to let him cut it at his next session. While Ray said, “I don’t know,” Webb memorized a verse and took it to Cedarwood, and got writer Wayne Walker to create two new verses and then did record it.
Back in Florida, Tillis was tuned into Smilin’ Eddie Hill’s 1957 late-night WSM trucker show, and heard the newly-recorded “I’m Tired.” According to Mel, “So Eddie started playing ‘I’m Tired’ and I thought hey, that’s my song! Then he got to the second verse and I said, ‘Well, that’s almost my song.’ And when the third verse played, I said, ‘Hell, that ain’t my song. They stole it!” Buck Peddy assured him it was still his song, however, he had to share co-writer credit with not only him but Ray Price. Then I told my mama, ‘I’m headin’ for Nashville. We’re gonna be rich!’ (though royalties had to be split between artist, writers and the B side by Wayne Walker).”
Aside from Pierce, Tillis scored a Top 20 cut in 1958 when Kitty Wells recorded his heartbreaker “He’s Lost His Love For Me,” and on the pop scene that year Mel’s “Five Feet Of Lovin’,” cut by Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps, became a rockabilly click.
Just before this, Mel married young girlfriend Doris Duckworth, who was soon expecting their first child Pamela, born July 24, 1957 in Plant City. On the heels of this blessed event, Mel and Doris made their move to his dream city in a 1949 Mercury with a busted windshield: “There were only three major publishing companies in town. Acuff-Rose was the biggest and Tree only had about five songs (but signed him on a $75 weekly draw). We had it all to ourselves. When I first came up here, there were a handful of writers – Vic McAlpin, Felice & Boudleaux Bryant, Jim Anglin, Danny Dill and Wayne Walker – that was just about it. Guys like Harlan (Howard) and Bill (Anderson) weren’t here yet.”
Another early cut for Mel was Faron Young’s “I’m a Poor, Poor Boy” which didn’t chart; however, Pierce’s take on “Honky Tonk Song” soared straight to the top on May 20, 1957, though Mel had to split royalties again with Peddy, the non-writer.
Cedarwood’s co-publishers were Jim Denny and Pierce, who no doubt helped get their writer Tillis signed to major label Columbia, where he first charted as a singer, under the direction of A&R chief Don Law. “I was there five or six years. I guess my biggest (and first) on Columbia was ‘The Violet And The Rose’ (#24, 1958).” Four years later, Jimmy Dickens made that composition a Top 10, and Wanda Jackson took it to Top 40 in 1964.
Webb Pierce, who recorded some 35 Tillis tunes, followed up his “Honky Tonk Song” with a near chart-topper “Holiday For Love” (#3, 1957): “That’s a song I didn’t get none of, and I wrote the whole thing. (Seems) I had to give it up in a lawsuit in court . . . I never did get any royalties (off that).” Though queried, Tillis couldn’t remember details of that particular case, and according to BMI, Webb and Wayne Walker were also cited as co-writers of “Holiday For Love.” Other Tillis songs that scored Top 10 or better for Pierce include “Tupelo County Jail,” “A Thousand Miles Ago,” “No Love Have I,” “Crazy Wild Desire,” “Take Time” and “Finally,” which Webb sang as a duet with Kitty Wells.
“For awhile, he wouldn’t cut anything unless he put his name on it (as co-writer),” explained Tillis. “Finally, I told him, ‘I ain’t giving you no more Webb.’ He said ‘Lad, it’s not the money. I’ve got to keep my name out there.’ I said, ‘Well, when the money comes in, will you give it to me?’ He said, ‘We’ll see.’ But then he told me, ‘The only reason your songs are hits is because I record them.’ I said, ‘Is that right?’ So I walked outa their office and went on and wrote about 15 hits. I mean songs like ‘Detroit City,’ and ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.’ Later, Webb said, ‘Well, I can’t record ’em all.’ He was a real character, buddy, but I still loved him. When he died up in that hospital, in his mind he was still number one.”
While at Cedarwood, Mel got to know Wayne Walker and they became co-writers: “He was a good writer and taught me a lot about songwriting, especially about the tenses.” Wayne was a favorite of Kitty Wells, who in ’58 cut “He’s Lost His Love For Me,” “All The Time” and “I Can’t Help Wondering,” which Mel wrote solo, and that remained a favorite for her to perform on the road up into her 80’s. “Wayne and I became good friends. Owen Bradley (Decca honcho) used to call us Bones (Tillis) and Fluffo (Walker).”
Tillis liked an idea of Ramsey Kearney’s and they came up with “Emotions,” which Mel got to Carl Smith: “I got to listening to that song and called Ramsey to say, ‘Let me make some changes to that song and we may get us a Brenda Lee cut (in the more lucrative pop market).’ He said, ‘Help yourself.’ So I did and she recorded it (#7, 1961) and it didn’t even sound like the Carl Smith version. It was an altogether different song by then.” (Incidentally, Carl’s rendition became the B side to his 1957 #2 single “Why, Why,” so it too was a moneymaker.)
Columbia’s Don Law urged Tillis to tour, saying that’s where the money was for him as a performer: “Mainly, I had thought about just being a writer, but the Duke of Paducah (Whitey Ford) needed a singer. His vocalist, George Morgan (who would record Tillis’ memorable ‘Little Dutch Girl’ and ‘Alright, I’ll Sign the Papers’ ), had a bad eye and was goin’ into the hospital to get it straightened. Jim Denny said he had a singer. The Duke said he’d pick me up at the apartment Doris and I rented out there on Woodbine and Peach Tree streets. I went home and told Doris I had a gig for 10 days.”
Tillis smiled saying when he left the house he hoped to become nationally successful, but on his first tour out of Nashville, he primarily toured Florida, where he first started out: “Well, they picked me up and I left Doris home alone, 16 years old and pregnant. But a Mrs. Hightower was there and assured me she’d take care of her. When Duke picked me up, he was driving and they had a big bass fiddle in there, and up front was him and (bassist) Ken Marvin.
“Don Davis was on steel, Johnny Tona on fiddle, and that was the band, no drums or nothing. Danny Dill and Annie Lou (The Country Sweethearts) were also on the bill. Now I ain’t said nothin’ all the way to Chattanooga and then the Duke started asking me stuff and I couldn’t get nothin’ out. So when we stopped over in Ringgold, Ga., he called Jim Denny and asked, ‘What have you done to me? This guy can’t talk.’ Jim said, ‘You didn’t tell me you wanted a talker, you said you wanted a singer.’ But I did OK for them and made some good friends.”
Another comic he toured with in those early days was Minnie Pearl, along with fellow singer-songwriter Roger Miller: “I was in her band four months.” He credits Minnie with prompting him to talk more on stage to the crowd, noting, ‘Melvin (that’s what she called him), you’re gonna have to announce your songs, and also thank them for the applause.’ Man, I was just so scared of that large an audience, thinkin’ they’d laugh me off stage.” She pointed out that if indeed they did laugh, it wouldn’t be at him, but with him. Once he got some chuckles, he said, “that encouraged me to keep a’talkin’ and a’stutterin’ which really made them laugh. And that was fine by me.”
Aside from Bill Phillips, who sang with Mel on “Sawmill” and “Georgia Town Blues,” he helped musician Charlie McCoy step up the ladder of success: “I told Charlie to come up from Miami. He was 17 years old and played saxophone, bass, all kinds of instruments. Jim Denny told him, ‘We need a harmonica player. Everybody’s tired of Jimmy Riddle’s style.’ When that kid came back, he had a whole bagful of harmonicas you could play in every key. He’s been here ever since. (Now like Mel he’s also a Country Music Hall of Famer.)”
Tillis says McCoy’s guitar lick stands out on Bobby Bare’s classic cut of Mel and Danny Dill’s ‘Detroit City’ (#6, 1963). “What many people do not realize is that Bare’s record first charted pop (Top 20), June 29, 1963, before it started climbing the country list, July 6.”
Upon completion of writing that song, Mel tried to interest Webb to listen to it; however, Pierce was partying at a hotel with cronies and sent Tillis on his way. So he and Dill got Billy Grammer to cut the demo and “when he was startin’ to do it, he was tuning his guitar, and I said, ‘Let’s go and we’ll leave that tunin’ in there (mimicking the lick sound for us, which became a prominent part of the arrangement).’ Grammer liked it, too, and got Decca to let him record it.”
Billy used the chorus line as its title – “I Wanna Go Home” – and hearing it on the Opry, Mel heard him say he wrote it, but later told him, “You’re not getting any royalty on that.” By him calling it by its wrong name, Mel informed him, “That’s where you made your mistake!”
Meanwhile, RCA’s Chet Atkins was looking for a follow-up to Bare’s breakthrough disc “Shame On Me,” and as everyone knows, adds Mel, “That’s when ‘Detroit City’ took off!” (Using pretty much the same arrangement as Billy’s rendition.)
In 1963, Tillis left Columbia and signed with Bradley’s Decca label, cutting a novelty number with Webb, which he and Wayne Walker amusingly titled “How Come Your Dog Don’t Bite Nobody But Me?” (#25, 1963). That was short-lived, as Decca blamed Mel for allegedly having encouraged label-mate Red Foley to imbibe too heavily, thus Red missed an early morning recording session, so Tillis was canned, not Foley.
At the indie Kapp label, Mel scored his first Top 10 as an artist, “Who’s Julie,” in 1968. Hot on the heels of that success, he chalked up a trio of Top 10s: “These Lonely Hands Of Mine,” “She’ll Be Hangin’ Around Somewhere” and his own creation “Heart Over Mind.”
At Kapp, Tillis also did an album with legendary Bob Wills, “King Of Western Swing” (1967).
Next up, Jim Viennue signed Mel to MGM, once home to Hank Williams. Mel garnered 14 Top 10 tunes there, including the remake of “I Ain’t Never” (actually #1, 1972) and others like “Brand New Mister Me,” “Neon Rose,” “Sawmill” (his #2 solo version, 1972), “Midnight, Me & The Blues,” “Stomp Them Grapes” and “Memory Maker.”
Regarding “Ruby,” Mel said after it was written he had in mind pitching it to Roger Miller, but while on tour, his publisher gave it to The Omegas and it bombed. Johnny Darrell heard and liked it, and his cut hit (#9, 1967) for United Artists. Jimmy Bowen took a liking to it, and during a session with Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, they finished early, so he suggested Kenny cut it and the rest is history. In 2001, Mel learned the song had earned its third BMI MillionAire citation, indicating it had logged more than three million broadcast performances.
While recording for MGM, Tillis met Sherry Bryce, an unknown singer, giving her an opportunity to duet with him, which resulted in two 1971 Top 10s: “Take My Hand” and “Living and Learning.” In 1981, Mel ventured into another duet session, this time with pop singer Nancy Sinatra, “Mel & Nancy,” on Elektra, spawning a Top 20 single “Texas Cowboy Night.” Later, he did a duet with Glen Campbell – “Slow Nights” – prophetically stalling slightly above Top 40 (1984). Mel was also a fan of comedian Jonathan Winters: “Man he goes on all the time; he never goes off!”
When and where did Tillis develop his knack for comedy? “When I was in school, I learned to ad lib and found it made people laugh. I didn’t stutter when I ad-libbed . . . All the way through school, I made ’em laugh.”
He was a frequent guest artist on national TV shows such as Johnny Carson’s Tonight, Dean Martin, Merv Griffin, Jimmy Dean, and ABC-TV even signed him and actress-singer Susan Anton for a summertime variety show in 1978, Mel & Susan Together. It was not a ratings success and folded after a short run.
“Time was goin’ by so fast and I was on the damn road all the time. I was flyin’ out to L.A. a lot, and so I bought my King Air airplane,” noted Tillis, who soon dropped the name of The Statesiders from the credits, but always remained proud of the loyalty and longevity he enjoyed with his bandsmen: “They’re like family . . . I still do about 100 shows a year.”
Through the years, the award-winning Statesiders had boasted some illustrious musicians, among them Buddy Cannon, Jerry Reed, Rob Hajacos, Kevin Grannt and Paul Franklin. Cannon later ran Tillis’ Sawgrass publishing house and even supplied the boss with a #1 Cannon composition “I Believe In You” in 1978.
“Later when I sold my company to PolyGram with my songs still in there (for some $6 million), part of the deal meant that PolyGram had to take him. I think he stayed there a year where, man, he had to wear ties and stuff, acting like an executive. Next thing I knew he started producing and suddenly was a millionaire (ha! ha!). But seriously, I’m proud of that and I’m proud of him.”
After 20 years together, the strain of Tillis’ business had its effects on his home-life. Doris, a talented painter, divorced Mel. Their youngest, Carrie, was barely of school age. Both remained close to their five children and then their grandchildren. In 1979, Mel married the former Judy Edwards, who joined him in his publishing empire and in handling his fan club, prior to their split. Their daughter Hannah wasn’t quite 2 when they nearly lost their lives in a log-home blaze on his estate: “I had been to L.A. and caught the red-eye plane home after doing Carson’s Tonight Show, and the Oak Ridge Boys were on that flight with us and we had a few Bloody Marys. So I was gettin’ pooped. Well, I got home that morning and my wife said, ‘I’ll have you a good meal about 3 o’clock. You go get some sleep. You can take the baby in with you, she’s tired.’
“I picked Hannah up and took her in the bedroom with me. Later, Judy put on some pork chops as she was gonna have ’em with turnip greens, potato salad and cornbread. Well, to begin with, she didn’t know how to cook. She had a Dutch oven that she filled almost to the top with grease and turned it on high. In the kitchen we had baskets with decorations around the top, and the logs were varnished and had sealer on them. She came and looked in on us and saw we were asleep, then on the way back through the living room, the phone rang and it was Larry Lee, who at that time was my manager.
“So they got to talkin’ and they talked and talked. Then Judy said she heard something pop, so she hung up and ran into the kitchen. The bottom of that cast iron oven had split. When it exploded, the hot grease hit all those baskets and decorations above, and they were afire! She ran into the bedroom and woke me. Still half asleep, I grabbed up the baby and ran to the kitchen to look. After seeing all that fire, I said, ‘We gotta get outa here and that ain’t no lie! . . . That fire was spreading so fast over them logs, it’s a wonder it hadn’t got us!”
The house burned down in less than an hour, taking with it all his personal mementos and awards.
“I lost a fiddle I had bought that was Tommy Jackson’s,” mused Mel, adding that most of the awards were replaced by the various organizations; however, “I lost a picture that ol’ Colonel Tom Parker had signed and sent me. He was my daddy’s cousin by marriage. He married cousin Marie from Tampa. I also lost all my guns – I had a big gun collection.”
Mel’s credits also include playing Branson, where he built and opened his own Mel Tillis Ozark Theater, and played every season before departing after the 13th year: “It got overbuilt. They got 40 theaters over there and more than a hundred other shows. Then all these ticket agencies moved in and cut deals. My payment on the theater was $158,000 a month and that didn’t include the 111 people I had workin’ for me, plus the lawsuits. Lord, I was beginning to have to go into my sock-drawer, so I said I’m gonna get outa here before it’s too late.”
Daughter Connie Lynn stayed in Branson, working as a realtor. Of course, son Mel, Jr. (Sonny) and daughter Pam reside in the Nashville area, close to work. Pam, who won fame as a country singer, thanks to “Don’t Tell Me What To Do,” “Maybe It Was Memphis” and her own self-penned #1 “Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life),” also tried her hand in professional theater, co-starring in the Broadway show “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” Sonny co-wrote Jamie O’Neal’s #1 single “When I Think About Angels.” Another daughter Carrie carried on as an opera singer and got involved in theatrical productions for a time. “I had her on my show in Branson, and she just destroyed the people. They loved her voice, ” beamed Dad.
Back in the day, traditionalists frowned on some of the titles Tillis cut, such as “Commercial Affection,” “Let’s Go All the Way Tonight” and “I Got The Hoss,” as being sexually suggestive.
“I think the first one I sang was a Harlan Howard song ‘I Wish I Felt This Way At Home.’ I recorded that with Bob Wills and it was a pretty good record for us. Back when I was in Lincoln, Nebr. in the Air Force, I went into Omaha and met this girl in a bar. I thought she loved me, you know, but I found out it was only ‘commercial affection.’ Then there’s this writer Jerry House from Gordon, Ala., and he wrote a lot of songs for me, including ‘I Got The Hoss,’ and it’s still one of my most-requested songs. Oh yeah, we heard some complaints from the little old ladies. Later, I heard Dolly sang ‘What Did I Promise Her Last Night.’”
Reportedly some 600 of Tillis’ compositions have been recorded. “New Patches” by Tommy Collins is Mel’s last Top 10: “That’s a great song. I loved it. You know, with the money Tommy made off ‘New Patches,’ he bought that house he had over in Ashland City. I’ve still got a lot of his stuff, the funny ones.” (Collins died in 2000.) That same year, 1984, Ricky Skaggs’ version of Tillis’ “Honey (Open That Door)” hit #1.
In 1992, George Strait’s “Pure Country” cinematic soundtrack CD sold over six million units, and the film also boasted Tillis’ “Thoughts Of a Fool,” originally cut by Strait’s fellow Texan Ernest Tubb (#16, 1961).
Atlantic Records released the Tillis-Bobby Bare-Waylon Jennings-Jerry Reed collaboration “Old Dogs,” produced by Shel Silverstein, which earned a 1999 CMA nomination for best vocal event.
“I’ve lost another fishing buddy and a talented, talented brother,” Bare said upon hearing of Tillis’ death. “Without Mel and ‘Detroit City,’ I probably would not have had a career.”
In 2001, Pam and dad did a duet, “Waiting On The Wind,” for her “Thunder & Roses” album, as a bonus track. The following year, she released a tribute CD to dad, “It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis,” performing his songs.
Yet another old friend of Mel’s was Conway Twitty, whom he recalls attending his Branson show, before embarking on that fatal trip back to Nashville, during which the 59-year-old artist suffered a stomach aneurysm that claimed his life, while hospitalized in Springfield, Mo.
“Conway came backstage, where we talked a couple hours. We even got some pictures of him taken out in the audience, and they’re probably the last ever of Conway Twitty,” Mel said.
Taking into account all of the legal skirmishes resulting among Conway’s family, following his untimely passing in June 1993, Tillis took steps to put his own affairs in order: “Oh yeah, that’s all been taken care of. They’ll be a long time gettin’ mine though, I’m in too good a shape.”
Survivors include his longtime life-partner, Kathy DeMonaco; children: Pam, Connie, Cindy Shorey, Mel Tillis, Jr., Carrie April Tillis, and Hannah Puryear; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson; sister Linda Crosby; and brother Richard Tillis. The initial service scheduled for Tillis occurred at Ocklahwah Bridge Baptist Church, Silver Springs, Fla., Nov. 25; followed by a visitation at Sykes Funeral Home in Clarksville, Tenn., and public service at Mt. Hermon Baptist Church, preceding private burial, Nov. 27.