Country music singer Mel Tillis dies at 85 - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Country music singer Mel Tillis dies at 85

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Mel Tillis performs at the Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert at the Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday, July 6, 2013 in Norman, Okla. (Photo by Alonzo Adams/Invision/AP) Mel Tillis performs at the Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert at the Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday, July 6, 2013 in Norman, Okla. (Photo by Alonzo Adams/Invision/AP)

(RNN) - Country music star Mel Tillis has died, the Tennessean reported, citing a publicist. He was 85.

A statement from Tillis' publicist on its website said he died at a hospital in Ocala, FL. The cause of death is believed to be respiratory failure.

Tillis had undergone colon surgery in January 2016 and canceled a scheduled trip on the Country Music Cruise. He had also undergone heart surgery in 2014. The publicist's statement said he had suffered intestinal problems for more than a year and "never fully recovered."

Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis on Aug. 8, 1932, "Mel" gained fame in the 1970s with a string of successful hits. He had six No. 1 singles and more than 30 top 10 hits and was named the Country Music Association's entertainer of the year in 1976.

His No. 1 songs were I Ain't Never, Good Woman Blues, Heart Healer, I Believe in You, Coca-Cola Cowboy and Southern Rains.

Additionally, Tillis had other hits such as Stateside, I Got the Hoss, Send Me Down to Tucson, Neon Rose, Sawmill and Midnight, Me and the Blues. He also wrote hit songs for other artists, including Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town for Kenny Rogers, Detroit City for Bobby Bare and Thoughts of a Fool for George Strait.

Tillis was perhaps best well known for a speech impediment that he used for comedic effect, being named comedian of the year six times. He developed the stutter as a child after a bout with malaria. It disrupted his speaking, but did not affect his ability to sing.

Tillis got his musical start in the 1950s performing with an Air Force band while stationed in Okinawa.

Shortly after leaving the Air Force in 1956, Tillis wrote I'm Tired, which became a No. 3 hit for Webb Pierce and helped launch Tillis' career.

Tillis' mainstream success lasted about a decade. He had a couple of top 10 hits in the 1960s before reaching the top of the charts throughout the '70s. His last No. 1 hit came in 1980 and he only achieved modest success afterward.

He joined Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare and Jerry Reed to form Old Dogs and released an album in 1998. It wasn't a commercial success, but the group was nominated for vocal event of the year by the Country Music Association.

During the height of his career, Tillis hosted a short-lived ABC variety show with model Susan Anton and made cameo appearances in several popular movies, including The Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run II, Smokey and the Bandit II and Every Which Way But Loose, which featured Coca-Cola Cowboy on its soundtrack.

Tillis was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976, the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007 and received the National Medal of Arts in 2012.

He had six children, including daughter Pam Tillis who became a country music star in her own right.

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