Mel Tillis, the Country Music Hall of Famer known for his stammer when he spoke that disappeared when he sang, died Sunday morning of suspected respiratory failure. He was 85.
Tillis’ publicist, Don Murry Grubbs, told the Tennessean that the “Coca Cola Cowboy” singer never fully recovered from diverticulitis surgery in January 2016 and spent a month in the intensive care unit battling sepsis.
“Mel Tillis was a guy who had it all: He could write, he could sing and he could entertain an audience,” said Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs. “There’s a big difference between a concert and a show. Mel Tillis always put on a show….You always felt good about being around him.”
Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis near Tampa, Florida, he suffered a childhood attack of malaria that caused a speech impediment that, in later years, he used to for comedic effect when performing on stage.
After earning his first charting country single with “The Violet and a Rose,” Tillis established himself as a songwriter with hits like “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town),” “Mental Revenge” and Peggy Lee’s “Emotions.”
Years later, he got his first No. 1 single with “I Ain’t Never,” and his “Coca Cola Cowboy” was featured in the Clint Eastwood film “Every Which Way but Loose.”
Tillis went on to be named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association in 1976 and later that year was welcomed into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2007, his daughter, singer Pam Tillis, inducted him into the Grand Ole Opry and later that year he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Four years later, he received the National Medal of Arts for his contributions to country music during a White House ceremony.
He recorded over 60 albums and wrote over 1,000 songs during his six-decade career.
Tillis is survived by his partner Kathy DeMonaco, his children, Pam, Carrie April, Cindy, Mel Jr. (nicknamed “Sonny”), Connie and Hannah; brother Richard; sister Linda Crosby; six grandchildren and one great-grandson.