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Clean Living Pays Off For Tillotson
Friday, June 10, 2005   By: Michael R. Fitzgerald

Crossover country didn't start with Shania Twain. Jacksonville's Johnny Tillotson was an early star.

Crossover country didn't start with Shania Twain. In the Fabulous Fifties, pop crooners like Tony Bennett and Patti Paige discovered that spruced-up versions of  "hillbilly" songs could be a gold mine. That vein ran both ways: country singers - and their labels - found they could recruit fans from the pop market. Eddy Arnold and Ray Price donned tuxes and started bringing 'country-politan' music into Manhattan and Vegas cabarets.

Johnny Tillotson was a cross between Arnold and Ricky Nelson. Born in Jacksonville in 1939, Tillotson lived on the Northside until the age of 9, when he moved to Palatka to stay with his grandmother.

He had always been into music - country music. "All I wanted to do was be a country star on the Grand Old Opry, like Hank Williams," said Tillotson in recent interview. He formed his own band while at Palatka High and appeared on local radio station WWPF. Still, he wondered, how do I get to the next step?

In 1956, he read about a Jacksonville schoolteacher named Mae Axton, whose song "Heartbreak Hotel," went to No. 1 for Elvis Presley. With guitar in tow, he rode the Greyhound up Highway 17 and popped in, unannounced, at the Axton's Dellwood Avenue home.

He came to the right place. "This scrawny, beguiling youngster was too much," Axton said in her autobiography, Country Singers as I Know 'Em. Tillotson was the same age as her soon-to-be-infamous son, Hoyt - but better-looking. This kid could go places. "She was like my guardian angel," Tillotson said. "She had a heart of gold."

She began booking Tillotson on some of the RCA Records package shows she did publicity work for, putting him in front of thousands of country fans. She had done the same for Presley a year or so earlier. She helped Tillotson land a regular spot on Toby Dowdy's local TV show, McDuff Hayride. All this exposure led to a large regional following for the 17-year-old singer. After three years with Dowdy on TV 4, he landed his own show on 12.

Tillotson by then was enrolled in the University of Florida's journalism school in Gainesville. He juggled college, a weekly TV show and gigs with his band, graduating from UF in 1959.

A local DJ entered an audition tape of Tillotson for a Nashville talent show in 1957. Tillotson placed second on the show but snagged the prize he came for: a publisher spotted Tillotson and brought him to Archie Bleyer of New York-based Cadence Records, home of the Everly Brothers.

Cadence released Tillotson's first single, his own ballad, "Dreamy Eyes," backed with a rocker, "Well, I'm Your Man," in 1958. It did well enough to convince Cadence to keep spending. Upon graduating, Tillotson moved to New York so he could work more closely with Bleyer. Together, they plugged away, scoring six minor chart entries between '58 and '60, finally hitting pay dirt in 1960 with "Poetry in Motion." That single made it all the way to No. 2 in the U.S. and made the top spot in England, selling over a million and a half copies worldwide. Though he didn't write "Poetry," Tillotson wrote much of his material, an unusual accomplishment for a pop singer in the pre-Beatle era.

Country or pop? In any case, the public went for Tillotson's style in a big way. He had 14 top-40 hits between 1959 and 1967. In 1963, his career was interrupted by a call from Uncle Sam. During his six-month stint, Cadence released his self-penned "It Keeps Right On a-Hurtin'," which went to No. 3. "Hurtin'" would be Tillotson's last record for Cadence (though a cover version of the song would become a No. 1 country hit for Billy Joe Royal in 1991). After his discharge, Tillotson returned to find Cadence belly-up. He switched to MGM (then headed by Mike Curb, later of Curb Records), where he would score a couple more hits.

Tillotson's MGM output was very much in the vein of "crossover" icons Arnold and Ray Price. Tillotson even hit No. 35 with a cover of Price's "Talk Back Trembling Lips." He followed with a Guy Mitchell cover, "Heartaches By the Number," in 1965. He also continued to croon straight pop along with his own sanitized versions of R&B tunes - a la Pat Boone.

Tillotson's hits started slowing during the British Invasion. Yet he retained a loyal following in England. In 1968, nearing 30, Tillotson shed his teen-idol image, reinvented himself as a cabaret crooner, and landed regular spots at New York's Copa and in Miami Beach and Vegas. He signed a couple of ill-fated deals with labels on their last legs, like Ampex and Buddah.

In 1973, Tillotson took another crack at country, signing with Columbia's Nashville division, where he got to work with hotshot producer Billy Sherill. "You can't fake country," Tillotson said. "You have to really understand it and love it." However, other than some good music, not much came of the project.

Tillotson, a shrewd salesman, always manages to land on his feet. He carved out a niche for himself as an attraction in Vegas and tours the lounge and nightclub circuits in the U.S. - as well as Australia and the Orient, where he remains surprisingly popular. He lives in Woodland Hills, California., with his second wife, Nancy. He has raised two children, Michael and Kelli. Michael is a Hollywood set designer; Kelli was killed in an auto accident in 1991.

Tillotson says his schedule is busier than ever. How does he account for a 40-plus-year run in a business known for flashes in the pan? For one thing, he says, he keeps his wits about him: he's never smoked or drank and has never done drugs. "I take good care of myself and keep up my stamina," he says. He's almost as squeaky-clean as that other Jacksonville native, Pat Boone. He and close friend Boone share a strong religious foundation. "Faith helps get you through some tough times - like when my daughter died," he said.

Another reason he manages to stay in the business, he says, is because he loves it. "The key for me is variety: I play Vegas, county fairs, corporate functions, rock n' roll package shows - so I never get burned out." His next gig is an oldies show in Dearborn, Michigan. on August 10. (2002)

It also doesn't hurt that millions of TV viewers hear his voice five nights a week on "Nick at Night." Tillotson sings Gidget's theme song, "Wait 'Til You See My Gidget."


(c)1968- today j.e. simmons or michael warren