Mel Tillis: Part Two - M-M-M-Mel: Entertainer With The Genuine Country Beat
One of country music's most successful entertainers, Mel Tillis has a 25-year career behind him that has seen accolades in both the singer and writing realms … as well as the occasional award for his comedy. Alan Cackett concludes his profile on the much acclaimed superstar …
Part Two: All around success
Mel Tillis, known as one of the funniest men in country music, capitalising on a mild stutter by exaggerating it and telling peculiar stories, made his initial impact in country music as a songwriter. Hit songs for Webb Pierce, Carl Smith and Brenda Lee in the late 1950s were followed by more successes throughout the 1960s, like Detroit City for Bobby Bare, Unmitigated Gal for Faron Young, All The Time for Jack Greene and Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town for Kenny Rogers.
His prowess as a songwriter speaks for itself, but by the late 1960s he was beginning to make his name as both a singer and entertainer. A string of moderately successful singles on the Kapp label led to him joining MGM Records in the summer of 1970, and suddenly Mel Tillis the songwriter was overshadowed by Mel Tillis the singer.
His first single for the new label, Heaven Everyday, was the beginning of a new era for Tillis. The song was written by Jerry Foster and Bill Rice, the hottest songwriting team in Nashville at the time. It has so far been the only song written by the pair that Mel has recorded, and it gave him a top ten hit. His next single, Commercial Affection, was a self-penned song, another top ten hit, and showed that Mel was no longer giving away his best songs.
The success he was now enjoying led to the release for One More Time, his first album for MGM, but it was an album that came up against strong opposition. With the speed that only a record company can muster when cashing in, out again came Mel's Columbia recordings from the late 1950s in an album titled HEART OVER MIND. Kapp also released a new album, SHE'LL BE HANGING AROUND SOMEWHERE, all neatly coinciding with the upsurge of interest in him through his run of chart hits.
The MGM album was well-paced and a balanced mixture of hard and soft selections. Alongside his own songs, like Brand New Wrapper and Gonna Burn Some Bridges, were neat versions of Welcome To My World, I Can't Stop Loving You and Is Anybody Goin' To San Antone. As with his latter albums for Kapp, Mel was accompanied by his road band, the Statesiders. He was one of the few Nashville acts at that time allowed to use his band in the studio.
The album resurrected by Columbia was titled after his top three hit of 1969, Heart Over Mind, but these were much earlier recordings from a decade before. It was mainly up-tempo, honky-tonk material with all songs penned by the singer, most having been hits for other singers, like Emotions (Brenda Lee), Ten Thousand Drums (Carl Smith), and Holiday For Love (Webb Pierce).
Because of the Columbia album, Kapp had to title their album after Mel's Heart Over Mind, which was included on the album. It was a solid package with an emphasis on Mel's smooth vocal style balanced with a slightly up-tempo instrumental backing provided by the Statesiders.
Mel's third single for MGM, The Arms Of A Fool, was his first hit to be written by Ronal McCown, a songwriter who has provided Mel with many more subsequent hit songs. It comfortably made the country top ten and led to the release of a second MGM album, COMMERCIAL AFFECTION/THE ARMS OF A FOOL. The album contained ten magnificent tracks, all woven together by voice and music to produce a colourful tapestry of sound.
Included was a fine rendition of the Faron Young hit Wine Me Up, the initial hit song Mel had penned for Webb Pierce (I'm Tired), and the bluegrass-flavoured Before I Met You. Mel's phenomenal success at the time put to rest the contention that an artist must be backed by an extensive promotional campaign if he is going to achieve any respectable level of popularity. He had become one of the top names in country music by sheer hard work and dedication, and a natural talent to entertain.
At this time he landed a regular spot on Glen Campbell's Goodtime Hour television show. Previously Mel had made quite an impression on the syndicated Porter Wagoner TV Show, but this was different. Campbell was a big name popular country star and his show was televised nationally. Mel had already been successful at making his stutter work for him, but now his comedy sketches on the Campbell show threatened to overshadow his singing talent.
Mel has never allowed stuttering to worry him. As he says on his shows:“I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me because I stutter. I make a good living at it!” Mel isn't the only one in the family who stutters. His father stutters, and also his brother, Richard. His stuttering completely disappears when he's singing—“I just throw myself into the rhythm of the song like following a bouncing ball,” he explains.
In 1971 Mel enlarged the scope of his road show by adding a touch of glamour in the shape of Sherry Bryce. She was a complete unknown when they first met on a show at Haleyville, Alabama, about 20 miles away from where Sherry lived. Sherry was a supporting act on the show, and Mel was immediately impressed both with the petite lady's singing and her songwriting. She took up the offer to join the Tillis road show, and also became Mel's singing partner.
When they went in to record the first single, it was the first time that Sherry had been in a full-size studio. She overcame any nerves, and that single, Take My Hand, gave the pair a sizeable hit in the summer of 1971. It was followed by Living And Learning, a Terry Skinner song that fared equally well on the charts and led to them being nominated as one of the top duet teams of the year.
More successful singles followed like Let's Go All The Way Tonight, Anything's Better Than Nothing, Don't Let Go, Mr. Right And Mrs. Wrong and You Are The One. The pair released two excellent albums, LIVING AND LEARNING and LET'S GO ALL THE WAY TONIGHT, but after five years the partnership came to an end. Sherry, a talented and under-rated singer, has since slipped back into obscurity, though she continues to record as a solo artist for minor labels.
Tillis continued to score the hits throughout the early 1970s, hitting the charts solidly with songs like Brand New Mister Me, Untouched, Would You Want The World To End, I Ain't Never (his first No.1 in the autumn of 1972) and Neon Rose. His third solo album for MGM, LIVE AT SAM HOUSTON COLISEUM, caught the magic of Mel in person for those unfortunate not to have seen this great showman in action. There was some great music, mainly wrapped up in his hit songs, most of which were self-penned, plus his stuttering routine, as he tried to introduce a song and give the audience a little bit of background information.
The success of the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour series led to Mel becoming an in-demand TV personality. He appeared regularly on chat shows like the Mike Douglas Show and Dinah's Place (with Dinah Shore), Though it was his natural comedy that led to these bookings, he always insisted on having the Statesiders on hand so that he could show the TV viewers that he was a great singer as well as a funny man.
Would You Want The World To End, his forth album for MGM, in the autumn of 1972 seemed a more subdued set than his previous albums. There were some excellent sad ballads like Mama's Gonna Pray, Your Memory Sure Gets Around and Eve's Garden, though the twin fiddle sound really shines through on Stolen Wine and Best Way I Know How. Having hit the top of the charts with his up-dating of I Ain't Never, it was obvious that an album carrying that title was needed. It contained consistently good performances on all of the songs, but it was the up-tempo numbers backed by the sprightly rhythmic guitars and twin fiddles that powered the album.
Further album releases like SAWMILL (titled after his No.2 country hit of 1973), STOMP THEM GRAPES and THE BEST WAY I KNOW HOW all followed in quick succession. The reason for such regular album releases was simply that Mel Tillis was hitting the top ten of the country charts with every release. Midnight, Me And The Blues, Stomp Them Grapes, Memory Maker, Best Way I Know How and Woman In The Back Of My Mind all hit the top five.
Best Way I Know How, a superb Jerry Chestnut ballad, was lifted off an album almost three years after its initial release to become Mel's first hit of 1975. It was a string-filled production with a dramatic singing effort from Mel, who was proving as time went on that he was a versatile vocalist. By this time MGM, which had been one of Nashville's most successful labels, was suffering from financial and promotional problems. Many of the big country names were beginning to leave the label and so it came as no surprise at the end of 1975 when Mel didn't renew his contract.
He had enjoyed a good five years on the label, and right up until the end he was still enjoying big hits, hitting the top ten with Looking For Tomorrow (And Finding Yesterday) and Mental Revenge. Throughout, his albums had maintained a consistently high quality, keeping mainly to a straight country style, utilising a blend of honky-tonk and western swing with twin fiddles and steel guitar to the forefront.
MGM releases several compilation albums whilst Mel was still with the label, including VERY BEST in 1972, GREATEST HITS in 1974, and BEST OF in 1976. There was a second 'live' album, LIVE AT BIRMINGHAM, but the formula which had worked so well on the first one didn't seem so good this time around. But there were some excellent studio sets, highlighted by M-M-MEL, which gained a British release in 1975. The album had a good opening with Jerry House's My Bad Girl Treats Me Good, but it was the fine interpretations of Jessi Colter's Storms Never Last, Waylon's Rainy Day Woman and Mel's own Mental Revenge, which made the album work so well.
Happily married to Doris for many years, the couple have four children, Pamela Yvonne, Connie Lynn, Cynthia Lee and Mel Jr., Mel's personal life suffered the way so many big stars do. The devoted couple split up a few years ago, and Mel is now married to a young lady named Judy, who was once his secretary. His children are all grown and Pam Tillis often appears on her father's recordings as a background vocalist and has also worked several shows with the band. Having suffered in later years by MGM's lack of promotion, he signed with MCA at the beginning of 1976 and found that he had a label that was prepared to push him right to the top. And that's exactly what happened, and by the end of the year he had won the most coveted award in country music—Entertainer Of The Year.
His first single for the new label, Love Revival, reached No. 11 on the charts. The follow-up, Ken McDuffie's Good Woman Blues, reached the top, and both were included on the album LOVE REVIVAL. This was a self-produced package, which featured mainly new material (though nothing from the Tillis pen) plus a bright swing treatment of Hank Thompson's The New Green Light.
Mel hit the top of the charts again with Heart Healer, a strong up-tempo honky-tonker that became the title of his second MCA album. An excellent mix of rousing sing-along numbers like Everyone Needs Someone and Play It Again Sam (which featured some high-stepping background singers), with more sophisticated, elusive melodies like Tommy Collins' Someone Else Tends The Garden and I Don't Want To Feel This Way Forever. A revival of an old Mel Tillis song, Burning Memories gave him another top ten hit, followed by Jerry House's rocking I Got The Hoss and Ronal McCown’s What Did I Promise Her Last Night, the latter a mid-tempo, string-filled ballad.
Those last two hits were included on the album LOVE'S TROUBLED WATERS, in which Jimmy Bowen took over the production. Once again Tillis utilised the writers he had in the past, and presented some fine songs that spotlighted the ups and downs of romantic attractions. Woman, You Should Be In Movies, an under-rated song by Buddy Cannon, Bill Holmes' excellent Do You Wanna Fly Woman and Ronal McCown's honky-tonkin' Saturday Music. The major criticism of this album is that a string selection was used to replace the twin fiddles, and though it made for a 'different' Mel Tillis sound, it wasn't the true sound of honky-tonk.
The Statesiders were now taking a back seat in the recording studio, and Mel's next single, I Believe In You, a string-filled sophisticated ballad that had class written all over it, deservedly made the top spot on the charts in the spring of 1978. An album, carrying the same title, followed and once again the selection of material just couldn't be faulted. Sonny Curtis' evocative Tennessee, Bob Corbin's America's Sweetheart and the follow-up single, Sterling Whipple's Ain't No California.
Once again Bowen surrounded Mel with a richer backing, with most of the songs lushly orchestrated and carefully arranged. It all resulted in a more up-town Tillis, without sacrificing his country heritage. He hit the No. 2 spot on the charts with the double-sided Send Me Down To Tucson and Charlie's Angels. Both were included on the album, ARE YOU SINCERE, and it was becoming obvious that the Jimmy Bowen production was becoming a little too heavy-handed.
Tucson was featured in the film Every Which Way But Loose, in which Mel played himself. The album also included a smoother rendition of Goodbye Wheeling, a Tillis song which had been a hit for him back in the mid-1960s. His next single, Coca Cola Cowboy, was also taken from the film Every Which Way But Loose, and it hit the top spot on the charts in the summer of 1979.
Another album, MR. ENTERTAINER, soon followed. It was to be his last studio set for MCA, because that very same year he signed with Elektra Records. Once again Jimmy Bowen was in charge of production, and alongside the usual songs from Ronal McCown, Joe Smartt and Dave Hanner, were two songs from a new 'Tillis' writer—Carlton Day. He came up with the swamp story of Cottonmouth, which would have been so much better without the string arrangement, and the sad ballad What Do You Do When Your Love Is Gone. By now Mel was drifting further away from country, even included a Barry Manilow song, Jump Shout Boogie, a song that was totally unsuitable for the singer.
Regular television work, based more on his personality and comedy than his singing ability, had made Mel Tillis a well-known figure on the American entertainment scene. He has also been active for a number of years in films. His first film spot had been in the low budget comedy Cotton Pickin' Chicken-Pickers in the late 1960s. A few years later he landed a part in W.W. And The Dixie Dance Kings, and has since appeared as a stuttering telegraph operator in The Villain, and played himself in the Clint Eastwood film Every Which Way But Loose.
It is of course as a singer and entertainer that Mel has made his biggest impact, and alongside has two well-equipped buses, he also owns a Beechcraft King Airplane, which can carry a maximum of ten people. With its many miles of travelling for shows, plus the demands of television guest spots and film work, the plane has made life a lot easier for Mel and his band.
To fulfil his contract with MCA, Mel recorded an album at the Symphony Hall, Phoenix, Arizona, in March, 1979. M-M-MEL LIVE was an excellent example of how Mel and his band the Statesiders entertain an audience. The comedy is all there, especially during the lengthy version of Detroit City, and alongside his older hits like Heart Over Mind, Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town and Who's Julie, were some fine versions of his more recent songs. Send Me Down To Tucson, I Believe In You and What Did I Promise Her Last Night, were all much improved compared to the studio versions, and showed that Mel Tillis was still one of the best honky-tonk/western swing performers around today.
Just after recording that 'live' set. Mel joined the ever-growing number of country performers who signed with Elektra Records in Nashville. His first single, Blind In Love, a smooth ballad, comfortably made the top ten, and led to the release of the album ME AND PEPPER. Production by Jimmy Bowen followed closely to the formula of his last few MCA sets, with the string arrangements by Alan Moore and the background vocals provided by a whole host of Nashville session singers, providing an over-rich sound that Mel could have done without.
His next single, Chance Walker's honky-tonk flavoured balled Lying Time Again, was another top ten hit in the early months of 1980, but it was typical of the album—a good country song spoilt by heavy-handed production. The same happened to the best song on the album, Mundo Earwood's Fooled Around And Fell In Love, a song that would have made for a classic recording if left just to Mel and the Statesiders.
Buzz Rabin's Your Body Is An Outlaw gave Mel another hit, and was cause for rejoicing, because the Statesiders were back with him in the studio. Instead of strings you had steel guitar and fiddles, and Mel's daughter, Pam Tillis Mason, provided the excellent harmony vocal. It was a fine single, and the album that followed was Mel's best ‘country’ set for several years. Back came the honky-tonk sound again on songs like Steppin' Out and A Thing Called Sadness, and a nice swing style to the fore on Stay A Little Longer, Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes and Cherokee Maiden.
Steppin' Out was lifted off the album as the next single, but it was not a big hit, so for Southern Rains it was back to the big production. A major hit was the result, and the album with the same title featured a line-up of musicians and singers that an epic production demanded. I'm not going to say it was a bad album, because that wouldn't be true. It's one of my favourite Mel Tillis albums, but I'm sure that is due to the quality of the songs rather than the overall presentation.
Though he wasn't to be treated sympathetically in the studio, the selection of good new songs just couldn't be faulted. The highlight of the album, A Million Old Goodbyes, is a classic song, and it deservedly gave Mel a big hit in the summer of 1981. Another track from the album, One Night Fever was also lifted from the album, but in between the two releases was a duet record with Nancy Sinatra.
At first I couldn't believe it when I read that he had teamed up with Frank's daughter. Texas Cowboy Night, a song that Mel had a hand in writing, is best described as cute. The album that followed, MEL AND NANCY, mainly produced by Billy Strange, turned out to be a waste of Mel's talent. Hopefully it will turn out to be one of those 'one-off' affairs. Sure there were some good songs, and at times some flashes of steel guitar and fiddle, but the production was mainly Hollywood-ish and there's no way that Miss Nancy can sing.
Why Mel allowed himself to be dragged into the project, only he can answer, but I suspect it was out of friendship for Jimmy Bowen, who has been a long-term friend of the Sinatra family. There's no doubt that during the past few years Mel has allowed himself to be dragged further and further away from the straight country styling of which he is the master. The uptown Tillis sound has made him money, and it can be argued that he has brought a straight country honky-tonk style to many people who believed that country music was all sweet strings and lushly arranged ballads.
His latest single, released in mid-February, is an ode to the racing car driver's life. It's A Long Way To Daytona is the first self-penned Mel Tillis song to be released on a single for a number of years. An up-tempo tune with electric lead and piano to the fore, it continued the association with Billy Strange as producer, and this could well lead to a new sound for Mel. Unfortunately it is unlikely that he will return to his honky-tonk style—that is strictly for the show. So let's hope that the stuttering man will make many more return trips to Britain following his debut at the Wembley Festival.
Mel Tillis Selective Album Discography
The Great Mel Tillis Sings – Harmony KH 7370
Life Turned Her That Way – Kapp KS 1514
Stateside – Kapp KS 1493
Arms Of A Fool – MGM SE 4757
Mel Tilli & Sherry Bryce – MGM SE 4800
Saw Mel – MGM SE 4907
Stomp Them Grapes – MGM M3G 4960
Very Best – MGM 2353 083 (British Compilation)
M-M-Mel – MGM 2315 353 (British Release)
Love Revival – MCA MCF 2763 (British Release)
I Believe In You – MCA MCF 282 (British Release)
Love's Troubled Waters – MCA MCF 2827 (British Release)
Mr. Entertainer – MCA 3157
M-M-Mel Live – MCA 3208
Very Best – MCA 3274
Great Mel Tillis – Gusto GT 0047
Me And Pepper – Elektra 6E-236
Southern Rain – Elektra 6E-310
Me And Nancy (With Nancy Sinatra) – Elektra 5E-549
All the above are U.S releases, except where indicated.