OCALA, Florida (CelebrityAccess) — Country music singer and songwriter Mel Tillis died on Sunday morning at the Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Florida due to respiratory failure. He was 85.
Tillis battled intestinal issues since early 2016 and never fully recovered, a note from his publicist Don Murry Grubbs said in announcing Tillis’s passing.
Tillis underwent colon surgery in January 2016 after a serious bout of diverticulitis and contracted an infection that left him in intensive care for more than a month.
Tillis had a career in country music that spanned more than 6 decades and produced 35 Top Ten singles, six #1 hits (“I Ain’t Never,” “Coca-Cola Cowboy,” “Southern Rains,” “Good Woman Blues,” “Heart Healer,” and “I Believe In You”) and fans around the world.
Known for his affable personality, stuttering speech, and resonant baritone, Tillis easily straddled both traditional country and the Nashville sound that predominated the format during the height of his career in the 1970s.
A native of Florida, Tillis learned the drums and guitar at an early age and after briefly attending the University of Florida, he dropped out for a stint in the U.S. Air Force, where he formed his first band while stationed in Okinawa.
After returning to the US, Tillis made his way into professional songwriting, scoring early hits with “I’m Tired” (1957) and “Tupelo County Jail” (1958) for Webb Pierce, but made the transition to recording artist and performer with the help of Grand Ole Opry legend Minnie Pearl, who encouraged Tillis to perform some of his music.
“She’d get me off to one side and say, ‘Melvin, you’re gonna at least have to announce your songs, and then thank the folks,’” Mr. Tillis said in a 2002 interview with the International Songwriters Association.
“I was so bashful and scared,” Tillis added, “and she said, ‘If they laugh they’ll be laughing with you, not against you.’ And I began to tell anecdotes that had happened to me, and people would laugh. And I began to like that, you know.”
Tillis went on to record more than 60 albums and scoring almost 30 top ten country hits in the 1970s alone.
Tillis was also a canny businessman and invested in a number of successful business ventures, including song publishing, a farm that raises cattle, and tobacco, and a branded theater in Branson, Missouri.
Tillis was a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame; a member of the Grand Ole Opry, a recipient of the National Medal of Arts; and was named as Tillis Songwriter of the Decade for two decades by Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI).
The Country Music Hall of Famer leaves behind six children (Pam Tillis, Connie Tillis, Cindy Shorey, Sonny Tillis, Carrie April Tillis, and Hannah Puryear), six grandchildren, a great-grandson, a sister (Linda Crosby) and brother (Richard Tillis), the mother of five of his children (Doris Tillis), his longtime partner (Kathy DeMonaco), and many lifelong friends and fans around the world.
The Tillis family will soon release more information regarding funeral services in Florida and Nashville.