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

He has 'battled intestinal issues since early 2016 and never fully recovered'
Mel Tillis.
Mel Tillis.

Mel Tillis, whose career as a country singer and the writer of enduring hit songs like “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 stutter he employed to humorous and self-deprecating effect onstage — died Sunday in Ocala, Florida. He was 85.

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.

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.

He even went so far as to make the nickname Stutterin’ Boy, conferred upon him by singer Webb Pierce, the title of his autobiography, and to have it painted on the side of his tour bus.

Tillis stuttered only when he spoke, not when he sang. 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.

“I was so bashful and scared,” he said in 2002 of his hesitancy about speaking in public, “and she said, ‘If they laugh they’ll be laughing with you, not against you.’”

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.”

Billed solo or with his band, the Statesiders, 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.

Lonnie Melvin Tillis was born on Aug. 8, 1932, in Tampa, Florida. His father, Lonnie Lee, worked as a baker and played harmonica and guitar. His mother, former Burma Rogers, came from a musical family.

He is survived by 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 Tillis; six children: Pam Tillis, Connie Tillis, Cindy Shorey, Mel Tillis Jr. (known as Sonny), Carrie April Tillis and Hannah Puryear; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Categories: Entertainment

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