Mel Tillis: Part One - M-M-M-Mel: Entertainer With The Genuine Country Beat
One of the real superstars of the country music business, Mel Tillis makes his long-awaited British debut this month at the Wembley Festival. There he's guaranteed to delight his audience with his brand of songs, humour and good solid country music. Alan Cackett begins a profile on this highly versatile entertainer.
Part One: The Early Days:
Mel Tillis is a rarity in country music. In a career that spans almost 25 years, he has always remained loyal to the hard country tradition, yet has demonstrated a great versatility. He excels in at least four key performing areas: singing, songwriting, comedy and showmanship. And in more recent times he has been making an impression as an actor. He is one of the truly major entertainers of country music.
He was born on August 8, 1932, in Tampa, Florida, and spent most of his childhood in the small country town of Pahokee. This was in the northern regions of the Everglades, near the famous Okeechobee River. Music featured early in the young Tillis life. He joined the school band as a drummer, and also studied violin.
Despite being an inveterate stutterer, Mel became popular amongst his school friends with his easy manner and quick humour. Often his quick wit would get him into trouble, as he had a tendency to give funny answers to questions in class. This went down well with fellow students, but his teachers were not quite so amused with the classroom comic.
It is his humour that has helped him to get to the top in country music. Turning a disability to advantage, Mel has made his speech affliction a source of comedy (he calls himself ‘The Guru of the Stutterers’), and has become an inspiration for the many people who have a similar speech problem.
He used his natural ability to be funny when he first made the move to Nashville. He discovered that no one was immune to laughter, and though he was serious about becoming a singer, he was able to use the comedy to become more socially accepted amongst the recognised stars and business people in country music. Initially, he made his mark in Nashville as a songwriter, but like so many unknowns, Mel found that the road to the top far from smooth.
In his teens he showed a flair for football, and after graduating from high school he tried to make the grade at college football. A year at the University of Florida proved to the young man that perhaps he wasn’t cut out for that life after all. He has remained an avid football fan ever since, closely follows the fortunes of his favourite teams, and likes nothing better than to relax between shows by watching a match on TV.
He decided to join the air force, and spent many happy hours entertaining his fellow GIs, both with his comedy and his singing. He had dabbled with writing little rhymes when he was younger and putting them to music. During his air force stint he tried many of his original songs on his new-found audience, and found to his surprise that they were well received.
He was urged to make a career out of his talent for singing and songwriting, but was not too sure where to begin. When his four-year stint with air force was completed, he took a job on the railways. He worked in the guards van, and often his stuttering would cause all kinds of problems. He was still busy writing songs and finally decided to take the gamble, packed in his job on the railway, and moved to Nashville.
He found Nashville to be an easier place to make his mark than he ever dared to imagine. It was the autumn of 1956, and he knew no one, but luckily he knocked on the right door and landed a songwriting contract with Cedarwood Music. Within a matter of weeks he had Webb Pierce, one of the big names of country music at the time, riding to the top of the country charts with I’m Tired. It was a song that Mel had started when he was only a school kid. Like so many songwriters just beginning to make an impression, Mel had a whole bunch of songs, and during the next few years provided hit songs for artists like Ray Price, Carl Smith, Brenda Lee and at least another dozen for Webb Pierce.
Mel Tillis has proved to be one of the most successful songwriters to have contributed songs to the honky-tonk style. Though he didn't come from Texas, the recognised home of most honky-tonk singers. His background was very similar; he was a southerner and came from a small town, basically a farming community. Saturday night was always dance night, and the songs he wrote mostly catered for that kind of environment.
He came up with songs like I Ain’t Never, Tupelo County Jail, A Thousand Miles Ago and Honky Tonk Song for Webb Pierce; Heart Over Mind for Ray. Price and Ten Thousand Drums for Carl Smith. They were some of the very best honky-tonk songs every written. In the late 1950s honky-tonk music began to decline. It had rolled throughout the decade, but now it was the turn of the soft crooners, and Mel Tillis had to alter his writing style.
He possesses the talent to write convincingly and commercially in diverse musical genres, writing everything from a sacharine-sweet, pop-style tune like Emotions, a big hit for Brenda Lee in 1960, to a singing honky-tonk dance tune like I’m Tired and No Love Have I. Mel worked closely with Webb Pierce, co-writing songs and learning much about the music business.
Soon after he moved to Nashville, Mel secured a recording contract with Columbia. He held on with the label for almost five years, even though he never achieved any major hit singles. He made the country charts for the first time at the end of 1958 with The Violet And The Rose, a self-penned song with a sad story line. This was followed by Finally and Sawmill, both of which saw chart action during the following year. He released many more singles for Columbia, but none of them made any impression on the charts.
Many of the hit songs he had written for other stars appeared on an album released by Columbia in 1960. This has been unavailable for many years, but when Mel finally made his breakthrough as a singer in the late 1960s, these old Columbia recordings were re-issued on a budget Harmony Label. Most of the recordings were in a straight country style, a mixture of a solid beat with steel guitar, fiddles and honky-tonk styled piano. He enjoyed one more hit with Columbia in 1960 when he recorded a duet with Bill Phillips of Georgia Town Blues.
Two years later Mel signed a short-lived contract with Decca Records. This was instigated by Webb Pierce, and the pair made the charts with a duet, How Come Your Dog Don’t Bite Nobody But Me,.in the early months of 1963. At this time Mel was relying entirely upon his songwriting to make a living out of the music business. He was happy with his success, but still believed that he had a future as a singer.
He joined the small Ric label in the summer of 1964, and a year later he enjoyed his first top ten hit with Wine. It was the beginning of the new Mel Tillis style, and within a couple of months he had joined the Kapp label. His first single for the larger label, (I Wanna Go) Stateside was another big hit and provided the name for his band, The Statesiders, formed in 1968.
He remained with the Kapp label for five years, releasing ten albums, all of which were of a consistently high standard. As a singer, Mel demonstrated a wide diversity. He proved that there are few better singers of heart songs. His vocal and instrumental approach represented a blending of traditional styles, occasionally revealing the influence of Hank Williams, Ray Price and Bob Wills, and even the earlier folksy styling of the hillbilly music of the 1920s and 1930s.
Throughout the 1960s he maintained his success as a writer, initially penning hits for other stars. These included Bobby Bare, who scored with Detroit City in 1963. This song is rightly considered an all-time country classic. Co-written with Danny Dill, it is a poignant expression of the alienated southerner adrift in the industrial north. Jack Greene made the top of the country charts with All The Time in the spring of 1967, and the same year saw Waylon Jennings score with Mental Revenge, then Kenny Rogers scored a world-wide pop/country hit with Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town.
A song about a crippled war veteran who couldn’t maintain the affection of his restless young wife, the song fell into the Vietnam war years, though Tillis had always maintained that the song, based on a true story, concerned a Korean war veteran, and was written before the Vietnam conflict had made headlines news. Whichever war it referred to, it was a moving song, and has been recorded by countless singers, both pop and country.
His consistent success as a songwriter led to Mel setting up his own publishing company, Sawgrass Music. Through the years he has not only built up a healthy catalogue of his own songs, but also signed up some promising young writers, who have benefited greatly from his experience.
Counted amongst these writers, mention should be made of the talented Jim Owens, who having written songs like Too Lonely Too Long and Where Love Has Died, went on the present his own unique Hank Williams show, as well as providing hit songs for a host of Nashville singers. Then there’s the young Damon Black, who came up with the memorable Sweet Mary And The Miles In Between, Ronal McCown (The Arms Of A Fool and about two dozen other songs recorded by Mel), Jerry House (Working Woman), Gene Dunlap (I Believe In You), Joe Smartt (Babe It’s Your Memory), Ken McDuffie (Good Woman Blues) and Buzz Rabin (This Is Me).
All of these writers have gained an invaluable insight into songwriting and publishing from Mel. He has had years of experience behind him, and has often spent many hours giving the young writers encouragement, coaching them and suggesting changes in their songs, without taking the usual songwriter’s percentage by becoming a co-writer.
Slowly, as the 1960s were drawing to a close and Mel was making an impression as a singer, he was naturally keeping his own songs for himself. He scored on the charts with songs like Life Turned He That Way, Goodbye Wheeling, Survival Of The Fittest, All Right (I’ll Sign The Papers), Something Special, Who’s Julie and Old Faithful.
His first album for Kapp, STATESIDE, was a blend of his own songs, like Burning Memories, Wine and The Snakes Crawl At Night, the latter becoming one of Charley Pride’s first hits, with country hits of the period like Bill Anderson’s sugary I Love You Drops and Jack Clement’s Home Is Where The Hurt Is. It wasn’t an album to set the world alight, but it kept to a straight country sound with steel guitar to the fore, and was a good example of mid-1960s country music.
It was almost two years after the initial album that his second Kapp album, LIFE TURNED HER THAT WAY was released. The delay was due to a couple of singles missing the charts, but he hit solidly with the title tune, a sad Harlan Howard song that lay the foundation for a classic album. His original version of Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town was included, alongside fine renditions of Hank Williams’ I Could Never Be Ashamed Of You and The Old Gang’s Gone.
His third album, MR. MEL, surprisingly gained a British release on the old London label. It included the hit singles Goodbye Wheeling and Survival Of The Fittest, alongside All The Time, the number one hit Mel had written for Jack Greene, and perhaps a little unexpectedly Tom Dooley and the old Johnnie & Jack hit Poison Love. This album demonstrated that Mel wouldn’t be content to be tied down to one style, and though he was building a reputation as a straight country singer, he would often include the old traditional, folk-flavoured songs he might have heard as a youngster, in his repertoire.
It was at this time that Mel had become very friendly with Porter Wagoner. Porter had recorded several of Mel’s songs, including the original version of Detroit City when it was titled I Wanna Go Home, plus Wine, Your Mother’s Eyes, The Snakes Crawl At Night and The Violet And A Rose.
In 1968 Mel joined the popular Porter Wagoner TV show. Working alongside the other regulars. Dolly Parton and The Wagonmasters, the stuttering lad learnt a great deal about entertaining. For the first time he was really able to put his stutter to good use in front of a large audience. Comedy was very much an integral part of the show, and Mel fell into the format neatly. He also picked up from Porter the importance of having a really good, tight band. But the pair didn’t restrict their friendship just to show business, they were both very keen fishermen, and any spare time would be spent in a boat on the Tennessee lakes, fishing throughout the night.
In 1969 Mel became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and with his band The Statesiders he began to make a big impression as an entertainer, and not just another country singer. He was presenting a tight-knit show that incorporated fine singing, good solid country music, and that all-important ingredient of comedy.
His fourth album for Kapp, LET ME TALK TO YOU, included some more excellent original songs, like Something Special, a slow, soft ballad that became a top ten country hit, and All Right (I’ll Sign The Papers), a straight country song that kept well within the traditions of country music. Okeechobee Ocean, written in partnership with Fred Burch, took Mel back to his younger days in Florida, whilst Little Ole Wine Drinker Me was in the standard Mel Tillis honky-tonk style.
With the regular appearances on the Porter Wagoner Show, Mel was now receiving maximum exposure, and each of his singles was making the charts, most of them reaching the top ten. The ballad beauty, Something Special, became the title track of his next album, which was a finely honed blend of country, folk and swing. A nice reading of Haven’t Seen Mary In Years, a song closely associated with bluegrass, plus Dolly Parton’s I’ve Lived So Fast And Hard, Harlan Howard’s Another Bridge To Burn and the self-penned Lonely Girl added to a good, solid country collection.
With a style of music that was loosely based on western swing. Mel had always been an admirer of the legendary Bob Wills, and recorded two albums with the bandleader. KING OF WESTERN SWING featured Mel as special guest vocalist on well-known classics like Faded Love, Sugarfoot Rag, plus a couple of Tillis’ originals, Looking Over My Shoulder and I Wish I Felt This Way At Home.
The Tillis style is perfectly suited to western swing, which was the forerunner of modern honky-tonk. In the late 1960s both honky-tonk and western swing music reappeared, this time strengthened by singers like Tillis, Merle Haggard and bands such as Asleep At The Wheel. Mel’s grainy baritone just rolls along naturally, and backed up by twin fiddles and steel guitar there’s little doubt that he is one of the best modern honky-tonk singers around.
His own band, The Statesiders, is based loosely on a western swing outfit in its instrumental line-up. A second album, MEL TILLIS AND BOB WILLS IN PERSON, was also released by Kapp. It was a collection mainly of swing classics like Cotton-Eyed Joe, Bubbles In My Beer and Home In San Antone.
Mel’s own albums continued to reflect both the honky-tonk and western swing influences, whilst aiming at a broader country audience. He enjoyed a top ten hit with Wayne Carson Thompson’s Who’s Julie, a superb honky-tonk cheating song, and followed it with an album carrying the same title. Once again his choice of material couldn’t be faulted, from oldies like Kaw-Liga and My Special Angel to country hits of the day, including Tom T. Hall’s Ballad Of The Forty Dollars, Johnny Cash’s Daddy Sang Bass and his own self-penned classic Detroit City.
He made the top ten again with Old Faithful in the early months of 1969, and that became the title of his last album for Kapp. It was very much a ground-breaking album, because Mel became one of the few Nashville country singers to take his own road band into the studio for recording. It has always been the policy in Nashville to use session musicians, this helps the recording to be completed quickly, because the musicians are used to the studio and play together often. It also tends to lead to many Nashville recordings by different artists to have a ‘similar’ sound.
Many of Mel’s Kapp recordings have a distinct similarity to early Charley Pride, but his album, recorded with The Statesiders, gave Tillis a distinctive sound that was totally his own. The honky-tonk sound was at the forefront, especially on the up-tempo numbers like Crazy Arms, Pick Me Up On Your Way Down, Heartaches By The Number and Games People Play. Fiddles were used throughout, and even added that little extra to sad ballads like Cover Mama’s Flowers and Where Love Has Died.
Now that Mel was able to use his band on his recordings, there was a new conviction to his records. These Lonely Hands Of Mine, She’ll Be Hanging Round Somewhere, Too Lonely Too Long, and especially his new version of Heart Over Mind, which gave him his biggest hit on the Kapp label in the spring of 1970, showed the new spirit of Mel Tillis.
His forte as a singer lies in the performance of the wailing, heavy-beat, honky-tonk song. To achieve this sound successfully he needed to have his band in the studio with him, giving the records that powerful backing that had made his shows so good. Heart Over Mind was, and still is, one of the great honky-tonk performances of the modern period.
It was to be his last major hit for Kapp Records. Two GREATEST HITS set followed, and his recordings have been repackaged over the years by MCA (who own the label). The summer of 1970 saw Mel Tillis join MGM Records, an association that was to prove highly productive and very successful. It was to be a decade when Mel Tillis was to emerge as one of the truly great performers of modern country music.
To be continued in May issue