Singer-songwriter turned stutter into trademark

Mel Tillis

NEW YORK • His catalogue has an estimated 1,000 songs, 600 of which were recorded by other artists.

On Sunday, Mel Tillis, who embraced his speech impediment to become one of Nashville's most celebrated singer-songwriters over a six-decade career in country music, died at age 85. Respiratory failure was suspected, but he had suffered from intestinal issues since early last year.

A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, he recorded more than 60 albums and penned hits for stars such as Kenny Rogers, George Strait and Ricky Skaggs. Under his own name, he cut six singles that topped the country charts.

Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis in Florida, he became one of the most sought-after Nashville songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s.

Perhaps his best-known crossover hit was Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town, narrated by a military veteran paralysed during "a crazy Asian war". Kenny Rogers and the First Edition scored a Billboard top 10 hit with the song in 1969.

Tillis, known for his rich baritone, spoke with a stutter since he was a toddler. Rather than attempt to disguise it, he used the impediment as one of the trademarks of his act.

His ability to poke fun at himself assured him of a loyal following. He even titled his 1984 autobiography Stutterin' Boy, a nickname conferred on him early in his career.

"My stutter has been a blessing... It's helped me to try harder and to be somebody that helps other people," he once said. "After the show, I'll spend a little time with children who stutter, let them know it's okay."

Among the many honours he received was the National Medal of Arts in 2012 from then United States president Barack Obama.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2017, with the headline 'Singer-songwriter turned stutter into trademark'. Print Edition | Subscribe