One of Nashville's most prolific hit-makers died Sunday. Mel Tillis spent the last year dealing with intestinal issues, according to his publicist. He died at a hospital in Ocala, Florida, at age 85.
Tillis, a Country Music Hall of Famer, wrote more songs than he could count. Hundreds were recorded, many of them Top 10 country hits. He, himself, is remembered as a smooth singer and a natural entertainer, but that required overcoming a disability that generally discourages people from a career on the stage.
Tillis had a speech impediment that dated back to his childhood.
"I stuttered so bad, and I couldn't hardly talk at all in those days, but I could sing," he told an interviewer from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2012. "Your singing and your creative ability comes from one side of your brain and your speech from another side."
Tillis learned to deal with his stutter in rural Florida, where he grew up. He said his dad and brother stuttered too. So he didn't realize he had a problem until his first day of school.
"I came home that afternoon and said, 'Mom, do I stutter?' And she said, 'Yes you do, son.' And I said, 'Momma, they laughed at me in school.' And she said, 'Well if they laugh at you, give them something to laugh about.' And I went back to school the next day, and that was my first day in show biz," he said.
Tillis learned to lean in to the teasing. He'd do skits about a stuttering auctioneer on the "Glen Campbell Good Time Hour," or a little standup routine for a "Statler Brothers" special.
"She said, 'How come you stutter and you can sing and you stutter?' " Tillis said to laughter. "I said, 'Honey, I don't, I, I, I don't have the time to explain all that to you…' "
But show biz was still hard on Tillis. Given today's sensitivities, some of his early TV appearances feel downright cruel. Dean Martin called Tillis "one of my best friends" while introducing him at an award show, but still made fun of his stutter.
It took some prodding from a country music icon before Tillis got comfortable making fun of himself. Minnie Pearl had a heart-to-heart with Tillis when he was playing in her band.
In a 2012 tribute to Pearl, singer and songwriter Pam Tillis said her dad refused to introduce his own songs on stage or even thank the crowd afterward.
"He was very embarrassed by his speech impediment," his daughter said. "And [Minnie] sat him down. And the way he relayed it to me, she sat him down and said, 'Melvin, you're going to have to talk to the people. You just can't go out there and sing. That's not going to get it.' "
Mel Tillis took the advice. And his career took off.
Tillis's road to fame was indirect. He was a cook in the Air Force, picked strawberries, drove a truck and worked for the railroad. That allowed him a free a ticket to Nashville where he tried his hand at songwriting. He would eventually release nearly three-dozen top tens, like "Coca-Cola Cowboy."
He also wrote a chart-topper about a disabled Vietnam veteran praying that his girlfriend wouldn't leave. "Ruby" became an even bigger hit for Kenny Rogers. Tillis penned songs for George Straight, Brenda Lee and Tom Jones.
Tillis had his first number one single in 1972, "I Ain't Never."
In 1976, Tillis was named as the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year.
"It's an awfully long way from Pahokee, Florida, to up here on this stage at the Grand Ole Opry, and I'd like to thank all of you for helping the old stuttering boy drive the bus," he said.
Mel Tillis toured into his 80s and even had his own theater where he performed in Branson, Missouri. In recent years, a fan told him she'd come to hear him stutter and he hadn't stammered a bit. He told her he'd spent most of his life trying to quit.