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July 29, 2017
Florida Icon: Mel Tillis

Photo: Brandon Alms

"Stuttering made me a stronger person." - Mel Tillis

Florida Icon: Mel Tillis

Entertainer, Ocala; age 83

Art Levy | 10/28/2015

My daddy stuttered a little bit, and my brother, he stuttered a little bit, and I stutter. Until I went to school, I thought that was just the way people talked.

My uncle had a bakery down in Pahokee, Florida, and he called my daddy and said he needed help with the bakery, so we moved from Plant City to Pahokee, and that's where I grew up. I still consider Pahokee my hometown.

I came home from my first day of elementary school. I said, 'mama, do I stutter?' She said, 'yes, son, you do.' I said, 'mama, they laughed at me.' And she said, 'well, son, if they're going to laugh at you, give them something to laugh about.' I went back to school the next day, and that was my very first day in show business.

There was an empty lot up from where we lived, and some people come in there and put up a tent, Church of God folks. We're Baptists, but my mom wanted us to go because there'd be music. I sat on the front row. They come out there with them banjos and guitars, and I thought that was the finest thing in the world. It really inspired me. From then on, I started trying to sing, and I realized I could sing without stuttering. I'd listen to Bob Wills on the radio and the Grand Ole Opry, and I'd sit there with that doggone radio, and I learned them songs. I was only about 6 years old.

Florida's got hundreds and hundreds and thousands of lakes, and those lakes used to be so clean and pure. I'm concerned about the lakes now. So many of them are polluted up.

Stuttering opened doors for me. I know that. I know people came to my shows to laugh at me - and I let them laugh. The next thing I knew, I did 39 Johnny Carson shows - and the Mike Douglas show, the Merv Griffin show, the Dinah Shore show, the Dean Martin show, a bunch of movies and TV shows.

I graduated from high school in 1951 and attended the University of Florida, and I was there for three months. I went home for the Christmas holidays, and I told my daddy, 'I ain't going back to school, daddy,' and he said, 'if you ain't going back to school, you're going to work in the bakery' and I said, 'daddy, I don't want to be a baker.' So, I signed up for the Air Force. I had my training, took an aptitude test to find out what I was suited for and waited for my orders. The orders came in and said for me to report to the Fourth Army Baking School in San Antonio, Texas. I tell folks I served my country: I served them cakes and cookies and pies and doughnuts and bread.

If you can laugh, son, you've got it made. It's the best medicine in the world.

I was in a few of them Burt Reynolds movies. I did Smokey and the Bandit II. I had a scene with Jackie Gleason. That was fun. I really liked him. I did Cannonball Run, one and two. Burt's from West Palm Beach, and I'm from Pahokee, about 35 miles away. He always called me Pahokee trash.

My parents taught me how to behave. I got a little switching now and then. You can't switch your children no more, but it worked on me.

I was working with Minnie Pearl and her band, and we opened in Melvin, Iowa. In those days, I really stuttered bad. Roger Miller came out and introduced me and then, after my song, Roger came back out and said, 'Melvin says thank you.' This went on for two or three days. Miss Minnie didn't know I stuttered at the time. Nobody told her, and I didn't do too much talking, but she noticed something was wrong. She took me aside and said, 'Melvin, I notice you have some kind of speech problem.' She said, 'Melvin, if you're going to be in our business, you have to introduce your own songs. You need to thank the folks, and you need to sign autographs.' I said, 'Miss Minnie, I can't do that. They'll laugh at me.' She said, 'no they won't. They'll laugh with you.' From that day on, I started talking onstage a little bit at a time.

Growing up in Pahokee, it was just like I was Huckleberry Finn. We had Lake Okeechobee to play in. It was like we had our own lake, and we shared it with the birds.

I met Al Pacino when we both got a national medal of the arts award a couple years back. He's got that Northern accent. He said to me, 'you talk funny.' I said, 'you do, too.'

That's what you do it for, the applause and the appreciation.

I had a guy come through my autograph line not too long ago. He said, 'Mel Tillis! I paid $35 to hear you stutter, and you ain't stuttered one damn bit!' I said, 'I'm trying to quit, sir.'

 

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