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Mel Tillis considers Hall of Frame, Frank and baking

By Dan MacIntosh, November 2007

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"'Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town,' 'Detroit City,' 'Honey, (Open That Door)'," he lists. "'Mental Revenge,' Waylon Jennings had that one. 'Emotions' with Brenda Lee. That was a pop hit." He also wrote "I Ain't Never" for Webb Pierce, "Burning Memories" for Ray Price, and George Strait had a hit with "Thoughts of a Fool."

The best songs are timeless ones, which is why many of Tillis's musical creations are still recorded today.

"I just had a song cut by Robert Plant, and I said, 'Who the hell is that?' I was told he was with Led Zeppelin. And I said, 'Who was Led Zeppelin?' And he did a duet CD with Alison Krauss."

The CD is "Raising Sand" (Rounder). "He cut an old song I wrote for The Everly Brothers called 'Stick with Me Baby'. And 'Stick with Me Baby' was on the flipside of 'Cathy's Clown' I think...And Little Richard just recorded 'I Ain't Never'. I wrote that one, too."

Tillis once tracked an album with Nancy Sinatra and got to know both Nancy and her iconic dad, Frank.

"I had a lot of fun doing it," he recalls. "Warner Bros. didn't promote the damn thing. I had a good time. And I had a chance to meet her father, Frank Sinatra, and we became big friends over the years. I did a lot of things with Frank and his wife - benefits and stuff like that. I went to his home in Palm Springs for his 65th birthday. He had a big tent out back, and they had everybody that you've ever heard of or seen in the movies, but had never met them, were there. It was a western thing, and I had my band, The Statesiders, and we provided the music."

This friendship also reconvened in Sinatra's home-away-from-home, Las Vegas.

"I'd be at the Frontier working, and he'd be at Ceasar's, and we'd finish, and he'd call me up, 'You wanna belt one?' And I'd go down there, and we'd sit and we'd talk and talk. We'd have great times."

"I listened to his music growing up when I was a kid in Florida," Tillis says of Sinatra's recordings. "As a matter of fact, I won a contest at a talent scout thing, and I did one of his songs. I did a song called 'We Kept Right On Dancing'. I told him about that, and you know he sent me a copy of the sheet music, and he'd signed it. That's something else."

In addition to all his multiple entertainment talents, Tillis can also cook. "My daddy had a bakery. I grew up in a bakery in Pahokee, Fla. I went to the University Of Florida for about three months and was going to get drafted I felt like, so I came back to Pahokee, where I'm from, for Christmas. And my daddy said (Tillis goes into his deep daddy voice) 'Well, if you ain't going back to school, then you're going in the bakery shop'."

"And I'd been in a bakery shop all my life. He taught me all that stuff. And I could decorate the cakes and everything. And I said, 'I don't wanna be a baker!' And he said, 'Well, that's it. Besides that, I'll pay you $18 a week, and $10 dollars is going to be for room and board.' I said, 'It used to be free!' He said, 'It ain't free no more'."

"So, I went across to the street to the post office, and they had a guy there recruiting. It had a sign where Uncle Sam says, 'We Want You!' Oh, it's nice to be wanted so I joined the damn Air Force, and they sent me to Lackland Air Force Base. I was out there for about three months. I took that aptitude test, and I waited and I waited for my orders to come back." But when his assignment came back, it told him to report to baking school. "I said, 'My God!' And my daddy laughed his ass off. So, I spent four years in the Air Force as a baker."

Nevertheless, he still loves to cook. "I cook all the time. I do 95 percent of the cooking in my house."

Chef Tillis still records music, by the way. His most recent CD, "The Father's Son," is a gospel recording. "The album before that one was gospel album, and it went gold," he relates. "It finally went gold. It took it 19 years to go gold. We sold them on the internet and at our concerts. It was called 'Beyond the Sunset'."

Tillis is currently planning a new non-gospel album, too.

"I talked to Buddy Cannon, Kenny Chesney's producer," he says. "Buddy used to work for me. He ran my publishing company for about 13 or 14 years. He wants to record a new album with me and the Statesiders band."

Hopefully, this new CD will contain more of Tillis's great songs. Tillis still writes songs, but not at the same pace as when he first started. "I write a few, but not as many as I used to because I'm doing other things. Every now and then, I write a song."

One of his most recent songs is for a direct-to-DVD called 'Huntin' Buddies'. It's a show that also stars Tim Conway and Tom Lester of Green Acres fame. Tillis quotes a few song lines: "We're huntin' buddies, old Tom and I/We've got our licenses/We're bona fide/Heaven help us should we ever get lost/Because Tom can't see and I can't talk."

Do you notice how this theme song has a little fun with Tillis's stuttering problem? But it's worth noting that even this speech impediment couldn't a good man like Tillis down. For this former child baker, you might say his election to the Country Music Hall of Fame is simply frosting on the cake.

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