Country music singer-songwriter Mel Tillis died today at 85. In addition to being a Country Music Hall of Famer, Tillis appeared in many movies alongside Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood and co-hosted the ABC variety series Mel and Susan Together with model Susan Anton. Tillis died in Ocala, Fla. after a battle with diverticulitis. His official cause of death has yet to be announced.
Tillis was born on August 8, 1932, in Tampa, Fla. Although he developed a stutter during his childhood, he went on to learn the drums and guitar, which was the unofficial start to his life as a musician. He attended the University of Florida, but dropped out to join the United States Air Force. While stationed in Okinawa, he and his band The Westerners performed at local nightclubs.
After serving in the Air Force, he would eventually visit Nashville and audition for Acuff-Rose Music’s Wesley Rose. He returned back home to Florida to hone his skills and eventually moved to Nashville and began writing song. In 1957, he wrote “I’m Tired” which became a hit for Webb Pierce. He also wrote more hits including “Honky Tonk Song” and “Tupelo County Jail”. His songwriting career would soon take off as he wrote hit after hit in the late ’50s. He eventually signed his own contract with Columbia Records. In 1958, he had his first Top 40 hit, “The Violet and a Rose” which was another hit, “Sawmill”.
On the film side, he first appeared in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings alongside Burt Reynolds. This was followed by a string of movies including The Villain, Every Which Way but Loose, Smokey and the Bandit II, Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run II and Uphill All the Way. He also appeared in the Clint Eastwood-starring Every Which Way but Loose which included his song chart-topping hit “Coca Cola Cowboy.”
He continued to write music for Ricky Skaggs and Randy Travis in the ’80s and wrote an autobiography titled Stutterin’ Boy. In 1998, he formed the group The Old Dogs with Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, and Jerry Reed and recorded a double album of songs written by Shel Silverstein.
On June 9, 2007, Tillis was inducted by his daughter and successful country singer Pam Tillis into The Grand Ole Opry. The same year on August 7, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame with along with Ralph Emery and Vince Gill.