No retirement for Golden Age pop and country singer Johnny Tillotson

  • People
  • Friday, 05 Sep 2014

1960s pop and country star Johnny Tillotson knows the value of timelessness and continues to put poetry in motion.

"You could change the whole song ... or change the title and I wouldn’t have cared,” said Johnny Tillotson. It’s not every day that someone gets a call from Elvis Presley, and the King of Rock n’ Roll apologises for altering the words to their song. But that’s just what happened to classic crooner Tillotson, who had his self-penned song, 1962’s It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’ (a tune about his father’s terminal illness) covered by the inimitable legend.

Presley had apparently altered the words to the second verse of the song, and when the two singers met in Las Vegas sometime in the 1960s, the “king” courteously owned up to tweaking the lyrics. “He was a very humble man and thought I might have noticed he changed the words,” Tillotson related the experience during his recent stop in Malaysia, where he played shows at the Hard Rock Cafes in Kuala Lumpur and Malacca.

The Jacksonville, Florida-born musician, now at the ripe age of 75, has lived through the golden age of music, and has contemporaries that have included the who's who of the music industry, Presley included, of course. And he’s grateful for everything that’s come his way. “It’s kind of like a dream come true. I wanted to be a singer, writer and recording artiste since I was nine. I never imagined it would last this long, but it has. That’s because my audience has been very loyal to me. So, it’s great that I’m still able to do this today,” the amiable singer said gratefully.

Tillotson’s career began at a time when everything was measured up to talent – if you didn’t play your instrument or sing well enough, you’d only be flaunting your “ability” in your bedroom ... or bathroom. But he still got a leg up, courtesy of his songwriting friend Mae Axton, who had the honour of being dubbed Queen Mother of Nashville for her contribution to the country music scene there.

“I lived closed to Mae, and she was always encouraging, telling me to never give up,” revealed the singer of his mentor, who also included his steel guitar player Tommy Durden, who together with Axton, penned the classic Presley hit Heartbreak Hotel in 1955.

Archie Bleyer, Tillotson’s producer and owner of Cadence Records – which was home to Everly Brothers, Andy Williams, The Chordettes, Lenny Welch and Don Shirley – was just as relevant to his career. “When I got my diploma (in journalism and communications), a publisher sent my original songs to Archie, who heard it and said he wanted to record me. He said I sounded like half of the Everly Brothers,” the septuagenarian shared with a twinkle in his eyes, recalling how his appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville led to him being spotted by Nashville-based publisher Lee Rosenberg.

Tillotson didn’t have the means to travel from Florida to Bleyer’s home in New York, so the producer urged him to complete his course (at the University of Florida) before buying the singer a plane ticket to the Big Apple.

“All we did was search for hit songs. We’d make our rounds around New York and Nashville and I’d write my own songs, too. Archie had such a great appreciation for songs.”

Bleyer signed his protégé to a three-year contract and began churning out the hits, the first two of which included the Tillotson-penned Dreamy Eyes and its flip side Well I’m Your Man in 1958. But it was late the following year when the hit machine was cranked with the release of a steady stream of gems, including True True Happiness, Why Do I Love You So, Earth Angel and Pledging My Love.

Weaving his magic

However, nothing quite prepared Tillotson for what was to happen with the release of Poetry In Motion in 1960, the song that has come to define him. The song peaked at No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and hit the summit on the UK Singles Chart.

He then buckled down and focused on his recording career, though he still got a shout out on TV and even appeared as a teen idol in magazines. Tillotson, like many artistes of his time, enjoyed the diverse musical landscape of the 1960s, a decade which saw pop and rock culture grow from roots to branches.

He looks back fondly at that decade, which had him rubbing shoulders with pop music’s elite, working with the likes of Only The Lonely hitmaker Roy Orbison and Ray Charles. “The 1960s were great because there was Elvis, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams ... they were innovators and knew how to write songs. I was lucky to record a song that was a pretty big hit,” he conceded.

Pop may have been his calling card, but Tillotson always had his ears tuned to country. “Mae would bring the country shows to Florida when I was starting out. Jim Reeves, Daron Young ... they would all come to town and do big package shows. She would get me to be the opening act for those shows. I learned a lot on that circuit and hanging out with those musicians.”

Everly Brothers and Jerry Lee Lewis also made a trip in one of these package shows, but it was the headliner who blew everyone away. “Buddy Holly stole that show because he had so many hits. It was a thrill to watch him,” Tillotson said, adding that he would often open his own shows with Holly material, citing Oh Boy as a prime example.

It was heady times indeed when his star was on the rise at the dawn of the 1960s, and when concert attendance was equivalent to that of a football game. Around the time Poetry In Motion was released, he played a show before a homecoming football game at his own institute of higher education, University of Florida. “I performed in front of 54,000 people. It was really exciting to perform in front of that many people, especially because I went to school there.”

Today, Tillotson simply enjoys the opportunities to sing, and since the 1980s, has had a second wind of sorts with his career thriving in Asian countries. He even has an album expected out soon, with music gleaned from his travels to Britain, Germany, Thailand and Japan. His favourite songs these days include Poetry In Motion (“because it paints a nice picture of ladies smiling”), country crooner George Jones’ He Stopped Loving Her Today and the Willie Nelson/Ray Charles duet Seven Spanish Angels.

And what has attracted him back to Malaysia since his last visit in 1980? Besides the opportunity to sing to an appreciative audience, it’s the many friends he’s made here that has prompted a revisit. “Any time I’m back here I’m happy. It’s something I look forward to. I love all the wonderful noodles,” revealed the grandfather of two.

And noodle away he will, and continue to entertain audiences old and young alike. After all, the concept of retirement is alien to him. “I have too much fun to consider retiring. In fact, I don’t think there is a retirement age. But if people suddenly stop coming to the concerts, then I have to think it over.”

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