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Mel Tillis Dead at 85

Mel Tillis CMA Entertainer of the Year
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

Following a lengthy illness, country singer Mel Tillis has died. He was 85 years old.

A press release reports that Tillis died on Sunday morning (Nov. 19) at the Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Fla., the city in which he was living. It is suspected that he died of respiratory failure.

Lonnie Melvin Tillis, widely known as Mel, was born Aug. 8, 1932 in Dover, Fla. He learned drums and guitar as a child, and showed promise at age 16 when he won a local talent show.

After attending the University of Florida for a short time, Tillis joined the United States Air Force and, while stationed in Okinawa, formed a band called the Westerners. After leaving the Air Force in 1955, Tillis eventually moved to Nashville, Tenn., and began writing songs full-time. One of his first songwriting hits was “I’m Tired” (for Webb Pierce); he also penned “Honky Tonky Song” and “Tupelo County Jail.”

Though he was a hit songwriter, Tillis wanted to perform his own music, and signed a contract with Columbia Records in the late 1950s. In 1965, after switching to Kapp Records, he had his first Top 15 hit, “Wind.” Then, in 1968, Tills had his first Top 10 hit, “Who’s Julie.” He rapidly rose to fame in 1969, and he had two Top 10 country hits, “These Lonely Hands of Mine” and “She’ll Be Hanging Around Somewhere.”

After his Top 5 hit “Heart Over Mind” in 1970, Tillis notched a string of hits including his first No. 1 covering “I Ain’t Never.” He went on to have two No. 1 hits in 1976, “Good Woman Blues” and “Heart Healer,” and the same year, Tillis won CMA Entertainer of the Year. He was then inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Tillis’ last Top 10 hit was “New Patches” in 1984, and he also went on to appear in several movies, acquire radio stations and write an autobiography, Stutterin’ Boy. Tillis was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

Over the course of his career, Tillis penned more than 1,000 songs, with approximately 600 recorded by other artists. He recorded more than 60 albums, and celebrated 36 Top 10 singles and nine No. 1s. His last studio album was You Ain’t Gonna Believe This from 2010. Tillis received the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award from the ACM in 2010 and the National Medal of Arts from then-President Barack Obama in 2012.

Tillis is survived by six children (including country artist Pam Tillis) and six grandchildren, a great-grandson, a sister and a brother. He is also survived by Doris Tillis, the mother of five of his children, and his longtime partner, Kathy DeMonaco. Tillis’ family will soon release details about memorial services in both Florida and Nashville.

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