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Mel Tillis was raised in east Hillsborough County, attending Plant
City High School where he played on the football team and beat
drums in the band.
Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis at Tampa General
Hospital on August 8, 1932, he spent the first eight months of
his life in a neighborhood near Lowry Park. His family soon relocated
to Dover, 18 miles east of Tampa. When he was three, he contracted
malaria, which resulted in permanent stuttering for him. He spent
brief periods in Pahokee, Florida as well.
Speech therapists at his schools administered
various treatments but failed to cure the speech problem which
at one time embarrassed him but later became his trademark in
learned to play guitar (and later the fiddle) during his early
teens while remaining active in the high school band. In the early
50s, devoid of any real career ideas, he enlisted in the Air Force.
He was discharged in 1955 when for a short time
he attended the University of Florida. Bored, he dropped out and
moved back to Plant City where he worked at various tasks including
strawberry picking and truck-driving. In 1956 he wrote a song
called "I'm Tired," which was recorded by and became
a big hit for Webb Pierce. This enabled Tillis, as he said later,
"to get the hell out of the strawberry patch in a hurry".
He found that the stutter never appeared when
he sang and gradually his confidence grew and he moved to Nashville.
During 1956 and 1957 he began to perform and made his first recording,
only to be told he needed original material, which prompted him
to concentrate more on writing. He signed with Columbia Records
and had his first US country chart success with his co-written
song "The Violet And The Rose" in 1958. The rest is
Tillis early years, he took the initiative to seek out one of
his television idols, Ernie Lee, who listened to him and saw great
promise. Ernie recalled he didn't know what to expect "from
a kid who took days to just say one sentence" but when he
sang his speech was flawless. He has written dozens of well-know
songs for other singers, including "Ruby, Don't Take Your
Love To Town" made famous by Kenny Rogers.
Mel has appeared in more than a dozen feature
films including "Every Which Way but Loose" with Clint
Eastwood, "W.W. & the Dixie Dancekings", "Cannonball
Run" I and II, and "Smokey and the Bandit II" with
Burt Reynolds, and the lead with Roy Clark in "Uphill All
eldest of his two children, Pam Tillis, was born July 24, 1957
in Plant City and has become a country music star in her own right.
Tillis still appears often in the area and
can usually be seen at the Plant City Strawberry Festival and
the Florida State Fair.