“Country Music legend, Mel Tillis always said he felt like he had an angel on his shoulder all of his life.”

Growing up in rural Florida during the 1930’s, parents Lonnie and Burma Tillis, and their 4 children often struggled with the basic needs of life. Lonnie, a baker, worked as they moved from town to town. But, it was his strong mother, Burma who held the family together through tough times.

Mel’s early life was primarily a happy one though a life-threatening illness, malaria, almost took his life. With a tenacious mother by his side caring for him, Mel survived, though he was left with a "stutter" after recovering from the illness.

The disability became something to adjust to. But, an eternal optimist, Mel moved through life towards his destiny. He made the best of the disability.

I learned when I was 6, if I sang I didn’t stutter.” Even though schoolmates laughed at him, he learned early from his mother “they may laugh but there is something you can do — you can SING."

During his teenage years, Mel’s classmates predicted in jest that he and his older brother Richard, just 11 months apart,  would become  “hillbilly music” stars.  Truly, they saw the talent they both so easily possessed. In future years Richard would become a support to Mel on the road; Mel, would march out his path in a different way - by becoming a legendary performer.

Mel fondly recalled his Daddy playing a harmonica, and guitar. Mother Burma could pound out almost any gospel song on the piano. It was a family affair as sisters Imogene and Linda entertained too. Other family members encouraged his love of music, including his Uncle JT who gave him his instrument – a fiddle.

Throughout his life, music was a constant.  Sports became a big focus too and a life-long interest. “Gus” was a standout athlete for the Pahokee, Florida high school Blue Devils. However, he would turn his attention to music and entertaining once and for all playing and singing where he could. While serving in the United States Air Force in Okinawa, Japan, he was the lead vocalist for The Westerners a band that played the type of country music popular in the day by the likes of Bob Wills, and others. His first professional show was there in 1952. With that experience too he headed to Nashville soon after.

Nashville Bound

Nashville wasn’t ready for “BONES” as he was called due to his slim appearance.   Studio executives told him quite openly "we don't need stuttering singers but instead copyrights.”  Mel got busy writing songs – and with a manager A.R. “Buck” Peddy who believed in him – he began pitching his songs around Nashville.

Fellow songwriters, Wayne “Fluffo” Walker, Danny Dill, Billy Swan, Fred Birch and others began pitching each other’s songs around town as often as they could. Initially, there was little success. He traveled back and forth from Nashville to Florida with a growing family in tow. Again, the eternal optimist must have believed he would achieve success eventually – it was only a matter of time.

Webb Pierce, one of the biggest stars at the time, hired Mel to write songs for him. The hits started coming for Webb, in part thanks to Mel. Other stars of the day took note – Patsy Cline, and the Everly Brothers just to name a few who recorded his songs. Mel had a gift for the "three chords and the truth" style that made the Nashville sound so popular. He wrote songs true to life with a memorable tune. He would then grab his own share of the spotlight with his first hit in 1965, “WINE.” Thus began a 60+ year career of songwriting, and performing that took surprising twists and turns along the way.

When his songwriting began producing less fruit, he turned his attention to the pure craft of entertaining – following in the footsteps of his mentors like folk singer/ actor Burl Ives, band leader Bob Wills and even contemporary idols like Bob Dylan. He began assembling the best musicians he could find – dressed them well and led his band, “The STATESIDERS" (named after one of his first hits) all across the world. He entertained in clubs, honky tonks, casino showrooms, symphony halls, large venues, football fields, parks, his own theater or two, and wherever he could amass a crowd who liked pure country music and comedy.

Songs are gifts, that’s all, I think I was meant to write a certain number of songs. One day I just looked up and there they were.

The Country Music Hall of Famer and Grand Ole Opry member notched 62 studio albums, 37 Top 10 country hits, countless awards, regular appearances on the biggest TV shows of the day,  and a handful of movies. He became one of the most recognizable entertainers across several genres.  He found his niche and he fit just perfectly – with or without rhinestones. He found his “rhythm” so to speak on stage.

You see, I’ve got a television audience rather than a record audience. I think people come out to see the person, the character; they want to hear the stories that I tell on television along with my records.

His proudest moment?

Mel shared one of his proudest moments in his career, "meeting Mrs. Jean Marie MacArthur" the hometown hero of Murfreesboro, Tennessee and widow of General Douglas MacArthur. Mel and Jean met during a fundraiser he was performing at. She asked him to play her favorite song. He obliged and as The Statesiders played he stepped off the stage and asked Mrs. Jean to dance to “Tennessee Waltz.” He called the meeting..."another little angel tap on my shoulder that I couldn't ignore."

Why I haven’t danced to that song since my General passed.

— Her husband was the great General William Douglas MacArthur.

Mel remained grateful for every one of those “ angel taps ” on his shoulder he spoke of so often. He lived his life doing exactly what he felt he was created to do.

Mel passed on November 19, 2017 and left an enduring legacy to this day — songs and all.