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.
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SOURCE: USA Today, Juli Thanki