Stuttering Mel Tillis an unlikely country star  

Dr. Gabe Mirkin

In spite of stuttering from age three onward, Mel Tillis became a world-famous singer and songwriter, movie actor and television host.  He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007.  President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 2011.  He wrote more than 1,000 songs and recorded more than 60 albums over his 60-year career.   He had colon cancer surgery in January 2016 and 22 months later he died of respiratory failure, probably caused by spread of the cancer from his colon to his lungs.  

Mel Tillis

Because of his stuttering, he described himself as “the most unlikely to ever make it” in show business. From his early years he stuttered when he talked but not when he sang.  He believed that his stutter was caused by suffering from malaria at age three.  However, I can find no medical reports of malaria as a cause of stuttering.   When he was trying to break into show business, a record company executive told him to become a songwriter and forget about performing.  

Tillis credits comedian Minnie Pearl for helping him become a singer, rather than just a songwriter.  She had hired him to play the guitar for her revue in the late 1950s. He would move from the background to the center of the stage, sing and play his guitar, and then immediately disappear into the most inconspicuous part of the stage as far back as possible.  One day, Minnie came up to him and told him, “Melvin, you have a speech hang-up.  If you are going to be in this business, you need to introduce your own songs, and when you’re finished, you need to thank them yourself.”  He said, “Minnie, they’re laughing at me,” and she replied, “They’re laughing with you.”  He acknowledged that, “The more I go on stage and feel my independence and that power over audiences, the less I stutter.”  After he became a star, he recounted this story: “I had a guy come through my autograph line and he said, ‘Mel Tillis! I paid $35 to hear you stutter, and you ain’t stuttered one damn bit!’ I said, ‘I’m trying to quit, sir.'”  In 1998, he became honorary chairman of the Stuttering Foundation of America.

Early Life and Music Career

He grew up in a small town in Florida where his father was a baker who played harmonica and guitar.  His mother was also musical.  He learned to play the guitar, violin and drums and at age 16, he won a local talent show.  After high school, he went to the University of Florida but dropped out to enlist in the U.S. Air Force.  He was turned down for pilot training and instead was trained in his father’s profession as a baker and shipped off to Okinawa.  After he left the Air Force, he told everyone that he had served his country . . . “cakes and cookies and bread.”   

At age 23, he returned to Florida, worked for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in Tampa and used a railroad pass to go to Nashville.  There, after hearing him sing, Wesley Rose of the Nashville publishing house Acuff-Rose Music told him to become a songwriter instead.  He returned to Florida and worked as a strawberry picker, railroad fireman, milkman and deliveryman.  Eventually he was hired by Webb Pierce as a writer for Cedarwood Music where he wrote a series of very successful songs, including I’m Tired, I Ain’t Never, Tupelo County Jail and Honky Tonk Song.  In 1969, at the height of the Viet Nam War, his Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town dominated the country charts.  It tells the story of a veteran paralyzed during the Korean War.  The soldier begs his wife not to leave him and even dreams of killing her: “If I could move, I’d get my gun and put her in the ground.”

His songwriting made him a very wealthy man and while still working for Cedarwood, he bought other publishing companies, Sawgrass, Sabal and Guava, and in 1983, he bought Cedarwood’s catalog for a reported $3 million.  He also bought four radio stations, which he later sold for a very healthy profit.  In 1994, he built a $23 million concert theater in Branson, Mo. and performed there regularly from 1994 to 2002.  He also bought a 1,400-acre working farm in Ashland City, Tennessee, where he raised cattle, corn and tobacco.  He had six children, including Pam Tillis, a successful country music singer, and songwriter Mel “Sonny” Tillis, Jr.  Songs he wrote that are still heard regularly today include Wings of a Dove, Detroit City, Heart Over Mind, Memory Maker, I Got the Hoss, Smoke That Cigarette, Good Woman Blues, Rainy Day Woman and Send Me Down to Tucson.

Cause of Death

At age 81, Tillis had heart surgery, which sounds like coronary artery heart bypass surgery in which doctors take a vein from the leg and sew it into the chest to bring extra blood to the heart muscle.  Two years later, at age 83, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.  The same lifestyle factors that increase risk for heart attacks also increase risk for certain cancers, particularly colon cancer:  an unhealthful diet (low in plants and high in sugar-added foods and drinks, red meat, processed meat and fried foods), not exercising, smoking and so forth.  More on colon cancer

Colon cancer causes death only after it spreads to other parts of the body.  It is likely to have spread from his colon to his lungs (Scientific Reports, July 15, 2016), leading to respiratory failure that was listed as his cause of death.

Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com

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