Mel leaves behind an iconic musical legacy

Mel Tillis
Mel Tillis

Nashville lost yet another big name personality with the death in Florida at the weekend of veteran singer/songwriter Mel Tillis after an illness, aged 85.

Tillis, a Country Music Hall of Fame member, was a highly popular performer, songwriter, actor and music publisher. Yet, despite his many distinctions in music, he was also identified with a stuttering speech impediment from childhood that he transformed into a comic attraction.

Mel moved to Nashville from his home town of Tampa in the late 1950s, teaming up with Webb Pierce and Ray Price, two big country crooners at the time. His success as a songwriter and talent as a vocalist soon won him a recording contract with Columbia Records and he charted 77 singles over a 30-year period, 19 of which he wrote or co-wrote, 35 of which went Top 10.

Many of his songs were honky tonk country standards, among them Ruby - Don’t Take Your Love to Town (a massive hit for Kenny Rogers), Detroit City (for Bobby Bare), Heart Over Mind (for Ray Price), I Ain’t Never (for Webb Pierce), Honey (Open That Door) - for Ricky Skaggs, and Diggin Up Bones, for Randy Travis.

He was a singer with a polished vocal delivery and, while his genre was traditional country, he recorded some cross-over material, including a duets album with Nancy Sinatra, titled Mel and Nancy.

He made his TV acting debut in 1973 on Love, American Style and went on to appear on Nashville 99, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Tim Conway Show, Love Boat, The Tonight Show, The Dean Martin Show and Hollywood Squares. In movies, he appeared with Burt Reynolds in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings in 1975, followed by The Villain, Every Which Way but Loose, Smokey and the Bandit II, Cannonball Run and Uphill All the Way.

Mel was a highly versatile entertainer, whose qualities were praised by fellow Nashville performers this week. His daughter Pam Tillis is a Nashville singing star and member of the Grand Ole Opry.