×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Mel Tillis, Singer-Songwriter and Country Music Hall of Famer, Dies at 85

Mel Tillis, country music singer and songwriter, has died, the Country Music Hall of Fame confirmed in a statement. He was 85.

According to the Tennessean, Tillis died early Sunday morning at the Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Fla. after almost two years of ill health stemming from a bout of diverticulitis, for which he received surgery. The suspected cause of death is respiratory failure.

Tillis began recording in the late 1950s and continued to perform through 2015, but remained best known for a string of No. 1 country hits in the late ’70s, along with a succession of appearances in Hollywood movies alongside Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood that helped make him a household name even outside the country music sphere.

“Mel Tillis spent a lifetime giving us joy and laughter and music, which is why his death brings such sadness,” said Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young. “Had he never stepped on a stage, he would still have been one of the funniest and most genuine people on the planet.”

“But his whimsy and warmth were only a part of his appeal. He wrote some of country music’s most compelling and consequential songs, he fronted a remarkable band, and he sang with power and emotion. He also shone as an inspiration, revealing what others called an impediment as a vehicle for humor and hope.”

In 1976, Tillis won the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award and was inducted in the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. In 2007, Tillis was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, as well as the Country Music Hall of Fame. President Barack Obama bestowed the National Medal of Arts award upon Tillis in 2012.

Tillis, born Lonnie Melvin Tillis, grew up in Florida and developed a stutter that would stay with him throughout his life as a result of an early bout of malaria; the stutter did not affect his singing voice. Not only did Tillis not try to hide the condition, he trumpeted it with good humor and made it enough of a trademark that he eventually titled his memoir “Stutterin’ Boy.”

He joined the U.S. Air Force and was stationed as a baker in Okinawa, where he formed a band called the Westerners. After leaving the Air Force in 1955 and working several odd jobs, Tillis auditioned for Wesley Rose, who encouraged him to pursue songwriting. Tillis eventually moved to Nashville and began writing songs full-time, most notably for Webb Pierce.

Through the late ’50s and ’60s, Tillis balanced his career as a then-minor hitmaker in his own right with bigger songwriting successes for other artists, including Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City.” It wasn’t until 1971 that he had his own first No. 1 hit as a recording artist, with “I Ain’t Never,” which he followed later in the decade with the chart-toppers “Good Woman Blues,” “Heart Healer,” “I Believe In You,” and “Coca-Cola Cowboy.”

After his recording career faded in the 1980s, Tillis acquired several radio stations including KIXZ and KYTX in Amarillo, Tex., and WMML in Mobile, Ala., which he eventually sold for a sizable profit. He also found a different kind of fame with a new generation by virtue of being the father of Pam Tillis, who had a run of 13 top 10 hits in the 1990s and often referred to her famous dad.

Tillis was a familiar screen presence in the ’70s and ’80s, with small roles in films including “W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings,” “The Villain,” “Every Which Way But Loose,” “Smokey and the Bandit II,” and both “Cannonball Run” movies. He also briefly co-hosted an ABC prime-time series, “Mel and Susan Together,” with supermodel Susan Anton in 1978. TV guest spots were frequent, including a debut acting appearance on “Love: American Style” in 1973, followed by shows like “The Dukes of Hazard,” “The Tim Conway Show,” and “The Love Boat.”

The most prominent latter-day cover of a Tillis song came when Robert Plant and Alison Krauss recorded “Stick With Me Baby” for their T Bone Burnett-produced “Raising Sand,” which won a 2007 Grammy for Album of the Year.

“Mel Tillis was a guy who had it all: He could write, he could sing and he could entertain an audience,” said Grand Ole Opry announcer and WSM DJ Eddie Stubbs. “There’s a big difference between a concert and a show. Mel Tillis always put on a show….You always felt good about being around him.”

More Music

  • Taylor Swift's "ME!" Video Brings the

    Swift Take: Taylor's Dazzling 'ME!' Is a Phantasmagorical Sugar Rush (Watch)

    Taylor Swift has been leaving Easter eggs for her fans, with clues about the title, themes, et al. of her new single. The video, as it turns out, is almost like diving into a literal basket of Easter eggs. The opening title card for “ME!” reads “directed by Dave Meyers and Taylor Swift,” but we [...]

  • Bruce Springsteen Drops New Song, 'Hello

    Bruce Springsteen Drops New Song, 'Hello Sunshine' (Listen)

    While listeners of SiriusXM’s E Street Radio got an advance listen — actually several advance listens — Bruce Springsteen didn’t officially drop his new single, “Hello Sunshine,” until midnight ET — and released an accompanying lyric video as well. While it’s great as far as lyric videos go, of course what really matters here is [...]

  • Pink Hurts 2B Human album

    Album Review: Pink's 'Hurts 2B Human'

    You’d never want to reduce a Pink album strictly to the math, but the strength of her records tends to have a pretty strong correlation to two factors: the number of Max Martin/Shellback productions and the amount of F-bombs dropped. Now, put those two together, and it’s pure gold, but either one is a pretty [...]

  • Beetlejuice review

    Broadway Review: 'Beetlejuice'

    “Such a bold departure from the original source material!” wisecracks the odd-looking fellow sitting on a coffin at the start of the Broadway musical “Beetlejuice.” The weird, nasty and outrageous title character is talking about a short lament just sung by a sad teen at her mother’s gravesite, as he breaks the fourth wall (“Holy [...]

  • Ron HowardBreakthrough Prize, Arrivals, NASA Ames

    Ron Howard Talks New Luciano Pavarotti Documentary

    If one is an anomaly, two are a coincidence and three are a trend, then Ron Howard might strictly become a music documentarian after “Pavarotti” hits theaters. The documentary about the world-famous Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti comes on the heels of Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week” and “Made in America,” a look at [...]

  • Ariana Grande Olivia Munn Michael Che

    Celebrities vs. Critics: Why This Battle Has No Winners (Column)

    When actor Olivia Munn tweeted a “short essay on…ugly behaviors” late Wednesday night, she insisted that a blog had been unfairly maligning her for years. She wrote that she wanted to confront the idea that baseless critiques, particularly those aimed at women, are never okay no matter how famous the target may be. On the [...]

  • Shannon Hoon

    Blind Melon Frontman's Home Movies Captivate in Tribeca Doc 'All I Can Say'

    For a period of five years, Blind Melon frontman Shannon Hoon diligently chronicled his own life, videotaping himself with a Hi-8 video camera through every step of his musical journey — starting out in Indiana, through his meteoric rise to alt-rock icon, up to the day of his death in 1995. These captivating moments finally [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content