FLORIDA BOY (Mel Tillis, R.I.P.)

In the days when Mel Tillis was as famous for being a reliably charming and hilarious talk show guest as he was for being a country singer, he liked to tell the story of his discovery by Mae Axton (Hoyt’s mother and co-composer of, among many others, a little tune called “Heartbreak Hotel”). She met him somewhere in Nashville, learned he was a sihger/songwriter, checked out his stuff and encouraged him to see a producer/executive she knew. Recognizing that his afterwards-famous speech impediment might be a problem during any formal interview process, she wrote a letter for him to take along.

The essence of the letter was this: “Never mind that he can’t talk. Good singer. Great writer.”

Of all the people who have ever been thus described to a Nashville Executive–by Mae Axton or anyone else–and who then carried the tag for a decade or more, while so many other people (Bobby Bare, Brenda Lee, Tom Jones, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers) sang his hits….

…only Mel Tillis emerged all the way from such deep and lengthy shadows to become a superstar in his own right. On the slow-moving Writer-Becomes-An-Unlikely-Singing-Star train, even Roger Miller had a shorter, faster ride to the Promised Land reached by so few.

Some of what allowed Mel to buck the Narrative was likability, some of it stick-to-it-tiveness, some of it elbow grease–all qualities prized by country audiences.

Most of it, though, was that he turned out to be a great singer as well, master of both comedy….

and melancholy…

..able to work nearly endless variations at both ends of the scale until it all meshed into a Sawdust-in-the-Suburbs world-view…

…one where country’s impoverished roots and middle-class aspirations were revealed as two sides of the same coin. By the seventies, when Tillis ascended to the top of the country charts often enough to become a presence in the larger culture, the assurances of the latter were still undercut by the memory (and shame, and guilt, and stubborn refusal to admit either) so inescapable in the former.

Most of that contradiction has been washed away now and what country music understood itself to be for nearly a century along with it. Now, the real impoverishment is spiritual…and hence not curable by either the dream or the reality of a split-level in the suburbs or a house in the Hills or even a recording contract in Nashville.

I had the pleasure of serving a couple of Mel’s daughters (not Pam, alas) breakfast, lunch and dinner at a girl’s camp in the summer of 1979. They were shy to a fault–even shyer than most shy kids, even shyer than I had been–and, if their stammering, stuttering father came from a similar psychological place and transcended it so thoroughly, it was a mark of character that makes me proud to have shared a home state with him.

And, speaking of Pam, she sang the harmony on the cut below, my pick for the greatest country record of the 80s….or, if there really could be such a thing, ever.

There was a lot of talk about outlaws back then.  And a lot of that talk–mostly from people who didn’t really like country music or its audience–said that outlaw was the “real” country.

Maybe along about here I should mention that the girls’ camp where Mel sent his daughters was at the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina.

Nobody ever called Mel Tillis an outlaw.

And  nobody was more country than Mel Tillis:

Born: Tampa (1932).
Raised: Pahokee.
Died: Ocala (2017).

Nobody.

MIGHTY, MIGHTY MAN (Ben E. King, R.I.P.)

beneking

“Most of us got out of there (the Brill Building era) with no money at all. A lot of beautiful rooms and a lot of yachts and lots of limousines was bought and a lot of private jets was bought as well, but we got none of those. But we got everlasting music. So if I had a chance to go back and change anything I would change nothing. Because those that have the yachts and the houses and the private planes and stuff, they still got to listen to my music when they turn on the radio. I beat ’em anyhow.”

(Ben E. King, from Hitmakers: The Teens Who Stole Pop Music, 2001)

The vocal bridge from fifties’ doo-wop to sixties’ soul was built by a multitude. The single voice that sank the foundation so deep in the sand it couldn’t possibly float away with the tide belonged to Benjamin Earl Nelson, who took the stage name Ben E. King somewhere along the journey that turned his group, the Five Crowns, into a version of the by then long Clyde-McPhatter-less Drifters that could finally carry on something more than the name.

King’s best known vocals (“There Goes My Baby,” “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance For Me,” “Spanish Harlem,” and especially “Stand By Me”) are so monumental that they’ve tended to overshadow the incredible depth and breadth of his accomplishments, including co-authorship of some of those very records that defined him for the public imagination.

But it’s as a singer he’ll be most remembered. There was something deceptively modest in his ease of delivery, I think, which invited other great singers to cover the same turf or even the very same songs. In later years, John Lennon hit with a spectral version of “Stand By Me.” Tom Jones did yeoman work on “I Who Have Nothing.” Aretha Franklin her own self offered a luminous version of “Don’t Play That Song For Me,” and a thunderous re-imagining of “Spanish Harlem.”

But even Aretha’s searing, soaring vocals could do no more than match Ben E. King.

They weren’t better, you see, because, in this world or the next, nothing really can be.