Mel Tillis Dead at 85
Mel Tillis, whose career spanned performing, songwriting, movies and television, has died after a long battle with his health. He was 85 years old.
Tillis died at Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Fla., early Sunday morning (Nov. 19). The Country Music Hall of Famer had battled intestinal issues ever since he was hospitalized in 2016 after undergoing colon surgery, and he never fully recovered. The suspected cause of death is respiratory failure, according to a press release from his publicist.
Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis in Dover, Fla., on Aug. 8, 1932, Tillis developed a stutter as a result of a childhood bout with malaria, according to AllMusic.com. It did not affect his singing voice, and according to his official biography, he began performing with a group called the Westerners in the early 1950s while serving a stint as a baker in the Air Force in Okinawa, Japan. Webb Pierce gave him his big break, launching his musical career by recording one of Tillis' songs, "I'm Tired," in 1956.
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He also wrote hits for Brenda Lee and Ray Price, and parlayed that success into a recording contract with Columbia Records, scoring his first Top 40 hit with "The Violet and a Rose" in 1958. He continued to have more success as a songwriter, including the Kenny Rogers and the First Edition classic, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town." He went on to a long string of hit singles of his own, including "I Ain't Never," "Heart Healer," "Good Woman Blues," "Coca-Cola Cowboy" and "Southern Rains." The CMA named him its Entertainer of the Year in 1976.
Tillis also acted in a number of films, including Every Which Way But Loose with Clint Eastwood, The Cannonball Run I and II and Smokey and the Bandit I and II with Burt Reynolds, the Western parody The Villain, Uphill all the Way with Roy Clark and more, as well as television movies, talk shows and a short-lived variety show with model Susan Anton. His speech impediment became one of his trademarks, which he used to great comic effect in his good-humored appearances.
In later years Tillis ran a successful theater in Branson, Mo., where he performed until 2002. He also continued on with a successful songwriting career. He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2007, the same year he was elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2012 he received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.
He underwent heart surgery in March of 2014, but bounced back to continue performing. In 2015 he published his first novel, the humorous Actin' Sheriff.
Tillis is survived by six children: songwriter Mel "Sonny" Tillis, Jr.; singer-songwriter Pam Tillis; Carrie April Tillis; Connie Tillis; Cindy Tillis; and Hannah Tillis; six grandchildren; a great grandson; a sister, Linda Crosby, and brother Richard Tillis; the mother of five of his children, Doris Tillis; and his longtime partner, Kathy DeMonaco.
The family are asking for prayers at this time. News regarding funeral services in Florida and Nashville is to be announced.