Mel Tillis, a humble boy from Pahokee who overcame a stubborn stutter to become one of the greatest country music stars of all time, died early Sunday morning at the Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala. He was 85.
Tillis’ daughter, singer and songwriter Pam Tillis, posted on her Facebook page Sunday that the death was “sudden and unexpected,” although he had battled intestinal problems since early 2016 and never fully recovered, according to a statement from publicist Don Murry Grubbs.
While Tillis, whose slight southern twang and cowboy charm earned him coveted spots in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, was born in Tampa in 1932, he spent his formative years in the rural Lake Okeechobee hamlet of Pahokee.
And it’s Pahokee that he considered his hometown — a place where weekends were spent on the lake, at barbecues and driving around town in friend Michael T. Wilson’s Chevrolet convertible.
“His family had a big bakery in Pahokee, but he didn’t much like working in it. He was ready to get out of there,” said Wilson, who lives in Jupiter, but graduated from Pahokee High School and became lifelong friends with Tillis. “Being a country western singer was absolutely what he wanted to do.”
There was no Plan B, said Wilson, who traveled the country with Tillis and his band the Statesiders.
Tillis played the drums in the Pahokee High School Band and was on its football team. Sandra Jarriel, whose late father Robert Lampi was the Pahokee band director for 30 years, said when Tillis would come home for high school reunions he would always call on her family.
“His fame did not go to his head,” said Jarriel, 70. “I truly feel that he did think Pahokee helped shape him. It wasn’t just talk.”
In Tillis’ Pahokee High yearbook from 1951, there is this bold prediction for his future: “Mel Tillis is now the highest-paid entertainer in Hollywood.”
“He liked to call himself the Lawrence Welk of country music,” said Wilson, who described Tillis’ stutter as more of a hesitation than a full on speech impediment. “He was a comedian too, he was hilarious.’
His favorite joke was about three rabbits named Foot, Foot Foot and Foot Foot Foot.
It was that mix of humor, unpretentiousness and talent that propelled Tillis to a stardom. In the mid ’70s, Tillis made the rounds of TV Talk shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore. He worked Nevadan’s poplar casino shows, where he became friends with Frank Sinatra. He got cameo roles in films starring Palm Beach County native Burt Reynolds, including “Smokey and the Bandit II,” “The Cannonball Run,” and “Cannonball Run II.”
In 1976, he won the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award. His No. 1 singles include 1972’s “I Ain’t Never”; “Good Woman Blues,” in 1976; 1978’s “I Believe in You”; “Coca Cola Cowboy” in 1979, and “Southern Rains” in 1980.
“He got his start downtown here at our Prince Theater,” said Pahokee native and resident Larry Wright, 70, whose oldest sister was married to Tillis’ best friend. “He sang there and he was just a regular guy and then it all started.”
Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis on Aug. 8, 1932 in Tampa, his family moved to Pahokee where his uncle owned the bakery.
Tillis attended the University of Florida briefly and was an enthusiastic Gator fan, Wilson said. His first paid performance was in December 1951 at the roof garden of Jacksonville’s Mayflower Hotel during a party for the Gator Bowl, according to the Country Music Hall of Fame website.
Tillis served in the Air Force during the Korean War. He worked as a baker and cook in Okinawa and sang regularly on Armed Forces Radio.
It was when he returned from war that Tillis met Wilson. Wilson last saw Tillis about a month ago at Tillis’ Ocala home.
“Nothing ever changed about him. He was always very humble and very appreciative,” said Wilson, who learned of his friend’s death early Sunday from Tillis’ daughter. “I miss him dearly and I always will.”
According to a statement, Tillis is survived by his six children, Pam Tillis, Connie Tillis, Cindy Shorey, Sonny Tillis, Carrie April Tillis, and Hannah Puryear, six grandchildren, a great grandson, sister Linda Crosby and brother Richard Tillis, the mother of five of his children Doris Tillis, and his longtime partner Kathy DeMonaco.