NASHVILLE — Country Music Hall of Famer and Grand Ole Opry member Mel Tillis died early Sunday morning at Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Fla., according to his publicist, Don Murry Grubbs. The suspected cause of death is respiratory failure.
The singer, songwriter, comedian and businessman, whose genuine warmth and down-home humor drew countless fans, was 85. In his six-decade career, he recorded more than 60 albums, notched three dozen top 10 singles and wrote several hit songs that are now regarded as classics.
Lonnie Melvin Tillis was born to Lonnie Lee and Burma Tillis on Aug. 8, 1932, near Tampa. His speech impediment developed after a childhood bout of malaria; Tillis was mocked for his stammer when he was young, but would later use it to comedic effect on stage and screen. "After a lot of years and more hurting than I like to remember, I can talk about it lightly — which eases things a bit," he wrote in Stutterin' Boy, the autobiography he released in 1984. "It's a way of showing people that it hasn't licked me, so it doesn't have to lick others."
A child of the Great Depression, Tillis knew hard work from an early age. By the age of 10 he was shelling peas in a cannery with his mother and siblings, "but there was something more than peas in that warehouse," he wrote in Stutterin' Boy.
"It was music — hillbilly music. ... I'd hardly heard any music like that before ... Bill Monroe, Eddy Arnold, and the Carter Family. What a wonderful discovery!"
In high school, Tillis taught himself to play a guitar his older brother, Richard, bought, and soon he was invited to play at parties and events around his town. After a stint at the University of Florida, Tillis enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. He was stationed in Okinawa and served as a baker; he also sang on Armed Forces Radio with a band called The Westerners.
Upon leaving the Air Force in 1955, he returned to Florida and found work as a fireman on the Atlantic Coast Line railroad. When he wasn't working, he used his railroad pass to come to Nashville and visit publishers in town to pitch his songs. (They'd tell him to go back home and work on his music.)
He moved to Nashville in 1957 to pursue a music career full time. That year, I’m Tired, a song he wrote and country star Webb Pierce recorded, went to No. 3 on the charts. Pierce found success with several other Tillis songs, including Holiday for Love, Honky Tonk Song, Tupelo County Jail, I Ain’t Never and No Love Have I.
During the 1960s, Tillis became one of Nashville's go-to writers. Songs like Ruby (Don't Take Your Love to Town), Mental Revenge and Detroit City, among others, became country classics, and have been recorded by dozens of artists in the past half-century. Brenda Lee took Emotions, written by Tillis and Ramsey Kearney, to No. 7 on the pop charts in 1961.
Tillis earned his first charting country single in 1958 when he recorded The Violet and A Rose for Columbia. Fourteen years later, I Ain't Never became his first No. 1. Five more would follow, including Good Woman Blues and Heart Healer (both 1976); I Believe in You (1978); Coca-Cola Cowboy (1979) and Southern Rains (1980).
As a recording artist, Tillis was most successful in the 1970s, with two dozen top 10 hits. Five of those were chart-toppers, including Coca-Cola Cowboy, which was featured in the Clint Eastwood film Every Which Way But Loose. The Country Music Association named Tillis entertainer of the year in 1976. That year he also was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In addition to his music career, Tillis appeared regularly on TV shows such as Hee Haw and Hollywood Squares, was in multiple films, including Smokey and the Bandit II and The Cannonball Run, and appeared in commercials for the fast-food chain Whataburger, which further enhanced his visibility.
When Tillis' chart success began to wane, he focused more attention on his business ventures. He owned radio stations and acquired several publishing companies with thousands of songs in their catalogs. He also opened his own theater in Branson, Mo., performing several thousand shows there before selling the property.
In 1984, Ricky Skaggs took one of his songs, Honey (Won't You Open That Door), to the top of the charts.
In the 1990s, Tillis, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare and Jerry Reed formed the supergroup Old Dogs; the band released a self-titled album of songs written by Shel Silverstein.
It's hard to say who was prouder in 2007 when his daughter, singer Pam Tillis, inducted her father into the Grand Ole Opry. Later that year, Mel Tillis was working in his garden when he got a phone call telling him he was going to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was so stunned he dropped the eggplant he was holding.
"I'm just so thankful, for everything," he kept repeating the day of the ceremony. Four years later, Tillis was named a National Medal of Arts recipient for his contributions to country music; he received his award in February 2012 during a ceremony at the White House.
If Tillis wasn't onstage (and he often was; during the peak of his career, he played up to 300 dates a year), chances are he could be found fishing, gardening or painting — he'd often donate the proceeds from the sales of his art to charity. He toured with his band The Statesiders (named after his 1966 single Stateside), and regularly appeared on the Opry into his 80s. "It so happened that I found what I was good for," Tillis told The (Nashville) Tennessean of his music career in 1965. "I'm lucky. A lot of people go through life and never find out."