Obituaries

Mel Tillis, 85, country star known for his songs and his stutter

Mr. Tillis’s resonant baritone was suited to both traditional country and pop-leaning material.
Alonzo Adams/Invision/AP/file 2013
Mr. Tillis’s resonant baritone was suited to both traditional country and pop-leaning material.

NEW YORK — Mel Tillis, whose career as a country singer and the writer of such enduring songs as “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” earned him a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame and a National Medal of Arts — but who was equally well-known for the self-deprecating humor he used to put audiences at ease with his stutter — died Sunday in Ocala, Fla. He was 85.

Mr. Tillis “battled intestinal issues since early 2016 and never fully recovered,” his publicist, Don Murry Grubbs, said in a statement. The suspected cause of death was respiratory failure, he said.

Mr. Tillis found a way to turn his speech impediment into an asset by using his ready smile and innate comedic timing to get his audiences to laugh along with him. He stuttered his way to regular appearances on television talk shows and to clowning bit parts in Hollywood movies.

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He even went so far as to make the nickname Stutterin’ Boy, conferred upon him by singer Webb Pierce, the title of his autobiography (written with Walter Wager and published in 1984), and to have it painted on the side of his tour bus. He also named his personal airplane Stutter One and referred to his female backup singers as the Stutterettes.

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Mr. Tillis stuttered only when he spoke. His resonant baritone was suited to both traditional country and pop-leaning material and was the vehicle for upward of 70 Top 40 country hits. His stutter might not have figured so prominently in his career had he focused exclusively on songwriting or had country entertainer Minnie Pearl, for whom he played rhythm guitar in the 1950s, not asked him to perform some of his songs in her show.

“She’d get me off to one side and say, ‘Melvin, you’re gonna at least have to announce your songs, and then thank the folks,’” Mr. Tillis said, recalling Pearl’s response to his hesitancy about speaking in public, in an interview published in the newsletter of the International Songwriters Association in 2002.

“I was so bashful and scared,” he went on, “and she said, ‘If they laugh they’ll be laughing with you, not against you.’ And I began to tell anecdotes that had happened to me, and people would laugh. And I began to like that, you know.”

Even so, he said of his speech impediment in a 1976 interview with People magazine, “One of my main objectives in life has been to whip this.”

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Though at times eclipsed by his fondness for drollery, Mr. Tillis’s early artistic reputation rested on the decidedly sober material he wrote for honky-tonk singers such as Pierce and Ray Price. “Detroit City,” a wistful ode to homesickness written with Danny Dill, became a Top 10 country and Top 20 pop hit for Bobby Bare in 1963.

Mr. Tillis also contributed hits to the Patsy Cline catalog, including “So Wrong,” composed with Dill and rockabilly singer and guitarist Carl Perkins. “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” an anguished ballad sung from the perspective of a disabled Vietnam War veteran whose wife is cheating on him, was covered by numerous artists. The 1969 recording by Kenny Rogers and First Edition reached the pop Top 10 and the country Top 40.

Billed solo or with his band, the Statesiders, Mr. Tillis had six No. 1 country singles, including “Coca-Cola Cowboy,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the 1978 Clint Eastwood movie, “Every Which Way but Loose.” He placed a total of 35 singles in the country Top 10, 15 in a row from 1976-1981, before the hits stopped coming in the mid-1980s.

He was named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association in 1976. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame that year and elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007. He received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2012.

Lonnie Melvin Tillis was born in Tampa. His father, Lonnie Lee, worked as a baker and played harmonica and guitar. His mother, former Burma Rogers, came from a musical family. Together with the rousing hymns of the Baptist church, Mel Tillis’s parents instilled in him an early love of music.

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Mr. Tillis served in the Air Force from 1951-1955. After that he briefly attended college in Florida and worked for a railroad and as a truck driver before moving to Nashville in 1957. There he landed a songwriting job with Cedarwood Publishing for $50 a week.

He signed a contract with Columbia Records in 1958 but did not enjoy success until five years later, and then only of the middling variety, when “How Come Your Dog Don’t Bite Nobody but Me,” a novelty number he sang with Pierce, reached the country Top 40.

Mr. Tillis went on to record for a number of labels and release some 60 albums, among them “Mel & Nancy” (1981), a collection of duets with the daughter of his friend Frank Sinatra. He also had minor roles in comedic action films, including “Smokey and the Bandit II” (1980) and “The Cannonball Run” (1981) and appeared regularly on TV talk and variety shows including “The Tonight Show” and “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.”

A savvy entrepreneur, Mr. Tillis established a number of successful business ventures, including song publishing and film production companies, a music theater in Branson, Mo., and a 1,400-acre working farm, where he raised cattle, corn, and tobacco, in Ashland City, Tenn., west of Nashville.

He leaves his longtime partner, Kathy DeMonaco; his first wife and the mother of five of his children, Doris Tillis; a sister, Linda Crosby; a brother, Richard; five daughters, Pam, Connie, Cindy Shorey, Carrie April, and Hannah Puryear; a son, Mel Jr., six grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

His daughter Pam, a singer and songwriter, released a tribute album to him, “It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis,” in 2002.

Exploiting his speech impediment for laughs might not have been politically correct, but Mr. Tillis knew that living with a disability had its serious side.

“Stuttering brings out some very strange reactions,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It makes some folks feel nervous and uncomfortable, while others laugh because they find it funny. A lot of people think I’m putting it on. But I don’t worry about that because people who stutter know I stutter. And that’s what counts.

“Yes, I’ve made a lot of money talking this way. But I didn’t ask to be called the singer who stutters. Sometimes I feel the stutter is bigger than the song. I like to think that I have some God-given talent, too.”