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Beloved Singer And Songwriter Mel Tillis Dies At 85

Nov 20, 2017
Originally published on November 20, 2017 9:56 pm
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ELISE HU, HOST:

Country star Mel Tillis died yesterday after a long illness. He was 85. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN says the prolific songwriter's road to fame wasn't an easy one.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Country Music Hall of Famer Mel Tillis had a speech impediment that dated back to his childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEL TILLIS: I stuttered so bad, and I couldn't hardly talk at all in those days. But I could sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEL TILLIS SONG, "HEART OVER MIND")

M. TILLIS: And your singing, and your creative ability comes from one side of your brain and your speech from another side.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART OVER MIND")

M. TILLIS: (Singing) I love you so much that I can't leave you even though my mind tells me I should.

FARMER: Mel Tillis learned to deal with his stutter in rural Florida, where he grew up. In 2012, he told an interviewer from the National Endowment for the Arts that his dad and brother stuttered, too, so he didn't realize he had a problem until his first day of school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

M. TILLIS: I came home that afternoon. I said, mama, do I stutter? And she said, yes, you do, son. And I said, mama, they laughed at me in school. And she said, well if they laugh at you, give them something to laugh about. And I went back to school the next day, and that was my first day in showbiz (laughter).

FARMER: Tillis learned to lean into the teasing. He'd do skits about a stuttering auctioneer on the "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" or a little stand-up routine for a Statler Brothers special.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

M. TILLIS: And she asked me. She said, how come you stutter and you can sing and you stutter? I said, honey, I don't have the time to explain all that to you.

(LAUGHTER)

FARMER: But showbiz was still hard on Tillis. It took some prodding from a country music icon before Tillis got comfortable making fun of himself. Minnie Pearl had a heart-to-heart with Tillis when he was playing in her band. In a 2012 tribute to Pearl, singer and songwriter Pam Tillis said her dad refused to introduce his own songs onstage or even thank the crowd afterward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAM TILLIS: He was very embarrassed by his speech impediment. And she sat him down, and she said, Melvin - she said, you're going to have to talk to the people. You just can't go out there and stand and sing. That's not going to get it (laughter).

FARMER: Mel Tillis took the advice, and his career took off.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE VIOLET AND A ROSE")

M. TILLIS: (Singing) A violet fell in love with a rose.

FARMER: Tillis' road to fame was indirect. He was a cook in the Air Force, picked strawberries, drove a truck and worked for the railroad. That allowed him a free ticket to Nashville, where he tried his hand at songwriting. He would eventually release three dozen top-10s, like "Coca-Cola Cowboy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COCA-COLA COWBOY")

M. TILLIS: (Singing) And she said, you're just a Coca-Cola cowboy. You got an Eastwood smile and Robert Redford hair.

FARMER: He also wrote a chart topper about a disabled Vietnam veteran praying that his girlfriend wouldn't leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUBY, DON'T TAKE YOUR LOVE TO TOWN")

M. TILLIS: (Singing) Oh, Ruby, don't take your love to town.

FARMER: "Ruby" became an even bigger hit for Kenny Rogers. Tillis penned songs for George Strait, Brenda Lee and even Tom Jones. It wasn't until 1972 that Tillis had his first number one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AIN'T NEVER")

M. TILLIS: (Singing) Well, I ain't never, I ain't never seen nobody like you.

FARMER: In 1976, Tillis was named as the Country Music Association's entertainer of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

M. TILLIS: It's an awfully long way from Pahokee, Fla., to up here on this stage at Grand Ole Opry. And I'd like to thank all of you for helping the old, stuttering boy drive the bus. Thank you so much.

(APPLAUSE)

FARMER: For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART OVER MIND")

M. TILLIS: (Singing) You've got me heart over mind, worried all the time, knowing you will always be the same. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.