(Pictured: Mel Tillis.)
You gotta pick your spots. For example, I am not the person to write an appreciation of AC/DC’s Malcolm Young, who died over the weekend. David Cassidy is more my speed, but he is still with us at this writing, so that piece can wait. Here, then, are a few words about Mel Tillis, who died Sunday at age 85. I do not intend this blog to become a country-music blog, even though this makes something like five country-themed posts in the last couple of months, but as I say, you gotta pick your spots.
Mel Tillis was the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year in 1976, so he fits with a broader obsession at this blog. And he must have been a dark horse to win that year—the other nominees were Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Ronnie Milsap, and Dolly Parton, all of whom scored #1 hits in 1975 and/or 1976, while Mel did not. Up to that point, he’d been #1 only once, with a version of Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never” in 1972, although he’d scored 17 other Top 10 hits between 1969 and 1976. The week after the 1976 CMAs, in October, his “Good Woman Blues” hit #1, and it started the best streak of his career: 15 straight Top 10 hits between 1976 and 1981, including four #1 singles.
In 1979, I was on the radio in Dubuque, playing country music. Mel’s “Coca Cola Cowboy” was one of the biggest songs of that summer, doing a week at #1 in August. Earlier that year, “Send Me Down to Tucson,” a fabulous cheatin’ song, had gone to #2. (Both were heard in the Clint Eastwood movie Every Which Way But Loose.) Another of his songs, the 1977 hit “I Got the Hoss,” was a frequent request, for reasons that become obvious when you hear it. The Top-10 hits that followed “Coca Cola Cowboy” were successful but not especially memorable—as I look at the list, I can’t call any of then back to mind. Mel cut an album with Nancy Sinatra in 1982, and he hit the country singles chart for the last time in 1989. His last studio album came out in 2010.
Mel did a bit of acting too, first appearing as a country singer in a 1973 episode of Love American Style, if IMDB can be believed. He was in several Burt Reynolds movies: W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings, Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run, and Cannonball Run II. He also appeared in commercials, most famously for the Whataburger chain. He was a popular guest on talk and variety TV shows during the last half of the 70s, and his visibility likely contributed to his Entertainer of the Year win in ’76. His visibility also made him the most famous stutterer in America, and as a person who shares that affliction (although not to the degree he had it), I admired his perseverance, and his willingness to make fun of it.
In 1981, a group of us from college attended a national radio convention in Chicago. Willie Nelson was supposed to headline a concert one night, but he was taken ill, and the organizers had to scramble to find a replacement. Mel flew in on short notice and did the show, telling the audience that he owed so much of his success to radio that he was happy to make the trip. I used to have an autograph he signed that night, but like a lot of stuff from that era, it’s long gone.
Listening to Mel Tillis again, I’m reminded—and surprised—at just how great so many of his records were, so perfectly in the pocket for their time.
On the subject of those who have recently left the planet . . . .
Given this blog’s interest in history and how events and people resonate as the years pass, I need to at least mention Charles Manson. I remember when the Tate/LaBianca murders happened in the summer of 1969, and as a precocious reader of the newspaper and compulsive radio listener, I would have heard about the trial of the murderers in 1970 and 1971. I remember devouring Vincent Bugliosi’s book about the case, Helter Skelter, in a single snowbound weekend sometime in high school, grimly fascinated by his Beatles connections. Later, I learned about his own aspirations for stardom, and how his opportunism meshed with the naivete of guys like Dennis Wilson and Terry Melcher, who believed that he was some kind of avatar for their generation.
I strongly recommend a piece from The Atlantic called “The Real Cult of Charles Manson.” Spoiler: his “family” is much, much larger than we all realize.