Forgotten Artists: Mel Tillis
“I figure we live in two worlds – public and private. It seems like I’ve got to prove myself in both all the time. I’ve got to climb mountains right to the top and then find new ones to climb. Whenever I finish writing a song, I always ask myself, ‘Well, Stutterin’ Boy, is that all you’ve got’” — Mel Tillis
Introduction to Stutterin’ Boy – The Autobiography of Mel Tillis (1984)
“It seems like just yesterday that I left Florida head’n for Nashville, Tennessee in my ’49 Mercury with a busted windshield, a pregnant wife and $29.00 in my pocket. 2002 marks my 46th year in the music business. If I lost it all tomorrow, I guess I could say it only cost me $29.00 and it’s been one heck of a ride!”
From the biography on Tillis’ website.
Texas journalist and noted music critic John Morthland once described Mel Tillis as a journeyman country singer, intending it as praise. While he never quite reached the top echelon of country music stardom, he had a long and distinguished career as a singer and songwriter, writing many hits for other artists and having many hits of his own. His compositions continue to be performed and recorded today and he has left an additional legacy in the form of daughter Pam Tillis, an excellent singer in her own right, and Mel Tillis, Jr., who works mostly behind the scenes as a record producer.
Lonnie Melvin “Mel” Tillis was born in Tampa, Florida on August 8, 1932. His stutter developed during childhood, the result of a near-fatal bout with malaria. As a child, his family moved frequently around the Tampa area, but sometimes further afield as in the family’s 1940 move to Pahokee, FL on the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee. In high school he learned to play drums, marching with the Pahokee High School Band. Later he would learn to play the guitar.
In late 1951 Tillis joined the United States Air Force. It was while in the Air Force that he started songwriting. One of his first songs was “Honky Tonk Song,” which became a major hit for Webb Pierce in 1957. While stationed in Okinawa, he played at local nightclubs with a band he formed called The Westerners.
After leaving the military in 1955, Tillis worked at various jobs. At some point he met Buck Peddy, who briefly served as his manager. Peddy and Tillis moved to Nashville in 1956. Initially unsuccessful at landing a writing deal, Tillis met Mae Boran Axton (writer of “Heartbreak Hotel”) who put in a good word for him with Jim Denny at Cedarwood Publishing. The first hit out of the box was “I’m Tired,” a song which was pitched to Ray Price. According to Tillis’ autobiography, Price wasn’t ready to issue a new single at the time the song was pitched to him by Buck Peddy but Webb Pierce heard the song and wanted it. Pierce only heard one of the verses so he had Wayne Walker write an additional verse and that’s the version that became the hit. Tillis only received a third of the royalties on this particular song, but it was a start. Unfortunately, it was also the start of a pattern; for the next few years he would suffer the addition of “co-writers” to most of his recorded songs, the chief culprits being Buck Peddy and Webb Pierce (a practice not uncommon at the time).
From this point forward a torrent of great songs flowed from his pen–over a thousand songs, of which over six hundred have been recorded by major artists. While it would take too long to list all of them, the following is a representative list of songs and artists:
- “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” (Johnny Darrell, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition)
- “Detroit City” (Billy Grammer, Bobby Bare)
- “Emotions” (Brenda Lee)
- “I Ain’t Never” (Webb Pierce)
- “Burning Memories” (Ray Price)
- “Thoughts of a Fool” (George Strait)
- “Honey (Open That Door)” (Ricky Skaggs)
In 1958, Tillis finally secured a recording contract with a major label, landing on Columbia Records. That same year he had his first Top 40 hit, “The Violet and a Rose,” followed by the #27 hit “Sawmill.” Unfortunately, while he made many fine recordings for Columbia, his singing career failed to catch fire. His records mostly charted but there were no big hits. During this period other artists continued to record his songs, both as hit singles, and as album tracks. From Columbia, he moved to Decca from 1962-1964.
In 1966 he moved to Kapp Records where he made many noteworthy records. In fact his first recording for Kapp had him performing on a Bob Wills album. “Wine” finally cracked the Top 20 for Tillis (#15) followed by “Stateside” (#17), “Life Turned Her That Way” (#11), “Goodbye Wheeling” (#20), and finally in 1969 that elusive Top 10 record, “Who’s Julie” (#10). After “Who’s Julie” the hits came easier as “Old Faithful” (#15), “These Lonely Hands of Mine”(#9), “She’ll Be Hangin’ Around Somewhere” (#10), and “Heart Over Mind” (#3) followed in quick succession. The Kapp years also found Tillis becoming more of a presence on television, first as a regular on the Porter Wagoner Show, and later on the Glen Campbell Good-Time Hour. He also guested on various other television shows.
In 1970 Tillis moved to MGM where, in my humble opinion, he made his finest records. A long string of hits followed in “Heaven Everyday” (#5), “To Lonely, Too Long” (#15), “Commercial Affection” (#8), “The Arms of a Fool” (#4), “Brand New Mister Me” (#8), “Untouched” (#14), “Would You Want the World to End” (#12, but #1 in several regional markets), and finally in 1972, a #1 record in “I Ain’t Never” (which had languished at #2 for nine consecutive weeks for Webb Pierce in 1959). He continued to record for MGM through 1975 where he scored two more #2s in a remake of “Sawmill” and “Midnight, Me and The Blues” and three more #3s in “Neon Rose,” “Stomp Them Grapes,” and “Memory Maker.”
Tillis left MGM for MCA in 1976 where the string of hits continued, albeit more heavily produced records with more strings, keyboards, and background singers and far less fiddle and steel guitar. The string of hits continued. He scored nine Top 10 records, including four #1 records in “Good Woman Blues,” “Heart Healer,” “I Believe In You,” and the infamous “Coca-Cola Cowboy.” At #2, “Send Me Down To Tucson” just missed reaching the top on Billboard. A switch to Elektra in late 1979 saw Tillis rack up five more Top 10 singles, including the 1981 #1 “Southern Rains,” but by the end of 1982 his run as a high charting artist was over. There was one last Top 10 record, “New Patches” (released on MCA in 1984). He continued to record for a few more years, releasing an album for RCA in 1985, but eventually he faded off the major labels except for reissues and compilations.
Tillis had about an 18 year run as a top charting artist. He won many BMI awards, including Songwriter of the Decade. In 1976 he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame and that same year he was a surprise winner of the Country Music Association’s (CMA) Entertainer of the Year, beating out Waylon, Willie and Dolly for the honor. In June of 2001, he received a Special Citation of Achievement from BMI for Three Million broadcast performances of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.” He received two long-overdue recognitions in 2007 as he was finally inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 2007 (his daughter Pam performing the ceremony), and in October 2007 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Along the way Tillis recorded more than 60 albums with 36 Top Ten singles, appeared on numerous television shows, starred in several movies (Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run II, Smokey and the Bandit II, The Villain, W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings, Uphill All The Way and Every Which Way But Loose) as well as several television movies, including Murder in Music City and A Country Christmas Carol.
Although it has been more than two decades since Tillis was a regularly charting artist, he has been anything but quietly retired. In 1998, he combined with old friends Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, and Jerry Reed to record a two-album set, written entirely by another old friend, Shel Silverstein, titled Old Dogs (later condensed into a single disc). Also in 1998, he recorded his first gospel album titled Beyond The Sunset and served as spokesman and honorary chairman for the Stuttering Foundation of America. In recent years he has recorded a Christmas album.
He continues to tour occasionally and for years he had his own theater in Branson, MO (1994-2002). He has since sold the theater, but still appears there during the holidays. He records only occasionally and enjoys life. He is an avid fisherman.
As always, anything on vinyl is out of print. During the course of his long career, Tillis recorded for Columbia, MCA/Decca (three separate stints), Kapp, MGM, Elektra, and (briefly) on RCA.
The Columbia sides catch his early career before his vocal style was fully formed. There are good songs to be found on the Columbia albums, so don’t be afraid to purchase an album in good condition. As best as I can tell Columbia issued only one album, Heart Over Mind, in 1962 and then one album, Walk On Boy, on their budget Harmony label in 1966. There is no overlap between the two albums.
Tillis found his muse (and his voice) by the time he reached Kapp Records. He issued 11 albums on Kapp. This includes two greatest hits collections and an album titled In Person with Bob Wills. I like all of the Kapp albums that I have heard, although they are not quite his best work.
MGM issued 18 albums during his tenure with the label. This includes three hits collections, three live albums and two duet albums with the now forgotten Sherry Bryce. While I could glibly say “buy all of them if you can,” the fact remains that there is some overlap between the albums. If you can find 24 Greatest Hits, buy it and you will have most of the MGM singles (as well as the absolute best Greatest Hits/Best Of collection I have ever encountered). Add one or two of the live albums and you will have a representative collection of Tillis’ best work. As for me, I’d like to have all of these albums!
I am not as fond of the MCA recordings from 1976 onward. Tillis is still in excellent voice, but to my ear, the records are overproduced and the fiddle and steel blend is notably missing from most of the recordings. Ten albums were issued, including yet another live album and the Very Best Of. By this time the ink in Tillis’ pen seemed to be drying up, as there are more songs from outside sources, most of them not as good as the material that he previously wrote for himself.
At least to my ear, the Elektra recordings are not much different from those from the MCA years. Elektra issued six albums, one of which was a pointless “Urban Cowboy-era” pastiche with Nancy Sinatra. Avoid this album and buy the Greatest Hits collection if you can find it.
Mel Tillis has been poorly served in the CD era, although there are some portions of his career that are covered well. Collectors Choice Music issued a marvelous disc titled Best of the Columbia Years which includes 24 songs, which is likely every song he recorded for Columbia.
Recently the Australian label Raven issued Hitsides! (1970-1980) which includes 25 songs, including a reasonable sampling of the MGM years.
Both of the above are available at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. Other discs available at this source are either very short CDs (8-10 songs) or of uncertain vintage, except for a couple of Elektra albums such as Me and Pepper, which have been reissued intact (no bonus tracks).
Mel Tillis has a website that carries some of his recordings. There is a Christmas album (Snowflake), two gospel albums, and four secular CDs available exclusive to his website (Coca Cola Cowboy, New Patches, Wings of My Victory, and Big Balls In Cowtown). Each of these last four CDs has 10 songs. I am not sure if these are new recordings or reissues of older recordings.
There is one terrific set available from his website (Costco and Sam’s Club carried it several years ago as well); a three-disc set titled Country Collection. I purchased this three-disc set, 12 songs per disc, several years ago. It includes the 36 biggest hits Mel had from 1970 forward. Eleven of the 36 songs come from the MGM years, the rest are MCA or Elektra recordings. At $30.00, this set is a decent value. It has no liner notes or any other information but these are the original hit recordings with great sound.
The Kapp years are totally unrepresented on CD, which is ridiculous since Kapp was purchased by MCA years ago.
Mel Tillis is more than worthy of a decent boxed set. Maybe the folks at Bear Family will read this article. I’ve seen Mel perform live on several occasions–he is in every sense an entertainer and was extremely deserving of that 1976 CMA Entertainer of the Year accolade.
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