Johnny Tillotson

Entertainer, Songwriter

1939 - Present
Inducted in 2011

Biography

Jacksonville native Johnny Tillotson has led one of the most successful recording careers in the American music industry, spanning five decades from his first hit single in 1959.  Tillotson is widely regarded as one of the most important forerunners in bringing country music to the pop music market.

From 1959 to 1965, Tillotson rang up 26 Top 100 hits that included nine Top 10 hits in the U.S. and six No. 1 international hits.  Two of his songs won Grammy Award nominations, including "It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin'," which became a huge cross-over success that cemented country music's appeal to pop music lovers in 1962.

Tillotson was born in Jacksonville in 1939 to Doris and Jack Tillotson, a country music disk jockey.  When he was 9, Tillotson was handed the responsibility of taking care of his grandmother in Palatka, Florida, some 40 miles to the south.  He spent most of his youth in Palatka, eventually graduating from Palatka Senior High School.  But by that time, he had established a statewide reputation as a talented singer.

As a young child, Tillotson showed an interest–and talent–in music, including singing and songwriting.  Both of his parents encouraged his musical bent, and as a child he got his first exposure as a singer on his father's radio program.  Not surprisingly, the young Tillotson favored country music, but when he was 14, he saw Elvis Presley perform in Jacksonville in 1955 and his perspective on popular music shifted. 

The exposure afforded him from his dad's radio program brought Tillotson to a stint on "Toby Dowdy," a local TV show, and subsequently his own program at age 16.  He managed to balance his budding career in show business with his studies at the University of Florida, where he enrolled as a journalism and composition major.  As a student in Gainesville, Tillotson got his first big break when a local disk jockey friend entered one of  Tillotson's tapes in a nationwide country-and-western talent contest sponsored by Pet Milk.  Tillotson was named as one of six finalists, which got him an invitation to Nashville for the final judging.

He didn't win the contest (the winner was 17-year-old Margie Bowes of Danville, Va. who went on to have five Top 40 country hits) but he did catch the attention of Lee Rosenberg, a Nashville song producer.  Rosenberg gave his tapes to Archie Bleyer, owner of Cadence Records, a small independent label, who soon signed Tillotson, age 17, to a three-year recording contract.

In 1958, Cadence released "Dreamy Eyes," a Tillotson-penned tune styled after the sound of Buddy Holly.  The song went to the top of the Florida charts but failed to gain much traction nationally.  Tillotson refocused his attention on his studies at UF, and graduated in 1959. 

Four more Cadence-released singles sputtered, but with the sixth release, "Poetry in Motion," Tillotson's name and sound found worldwide appeal.   Written by Paul Kaufman and Mike Anthony, and recorded in Nashville with such stellar session talents as saxophonist Boots Randolph and pianist Floyd Cramer, the pop tune vaulted to No. 2 in the U.S. and No. 1 in the United Kingdom.  The tune made Tillotson a teen idol, splashed in teen magazines and in TV appearances, especially from a touring gig with the enormously popular Dick Clark's Cavalcade of Stars.  

In 1962, Tillotson wrote a song inspired by his father's struggle with terminal cancer.  "It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin'" became one of the biggest hits of his career.  The song eventually was covered by more than 110 artists, including Elvis and Billy Joe Royal, for whom it became a No. 1 hit.  The song won the BMI Millionaire award for receiving more than one million airplays.

Tillotson's boyish good looks, energy and charm caught the attention of Hollywood, and in 1963 he appeared in the teen musical Just for Fun starring another teen idol, Bobby Vee.  Tillotson caught the acting bug, and as Beatlemania swept the country changing pop music forever, he dreamed of pursuing a career in acting.

When his record company Cadence folded, Tillotson formed his own production company and leased his recordings to MGM Records.  In 1964 Tillotson covered a recent No. 1 country hit by Ernest Ashworth,  "Talk Back Trembling Lips." The song became Tillotson's last  Top 10 hit, winning a second Grammy nomination.  He followed that winner with another country-laced tune, "Heartaches By the Number," which earned his second Grammy nomination as Best Vocal Performance of 1965. 

The same year, Tillotson's voice was being heard nationwide every week, singing the title song for the TV sitcom "Gidget" starring Sally Fields. In 1966, he also appeared in another movie, the camp comedy The Fat Spy, starring Jayne Mansfield,in 1966. 

With musical tastes changing, in 1968 Tillotson moved to Los Angeles and try his hand at a career in film.  A succession of minor roles channeled him into nightclub work for a few years, but in the 1970s he returned to recording, signing with a series of labels, including Columbia and United Artists.  He eventually returned to nightclub work, with appearances at such tony clubs as New York's Copacabana. 

For nearly three decades, Tillotson has maintained a daunting touring schedule.  In 1996 he was playing more than 200 days a year, including regular tours of Europe and the Far East where he still has an enthusiastic fan base generated by his string of worldwide hits in the 1960s. 

In 2008 Tillotson was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.  He still tours and supports numerous causes through benefits and special appearances, continually crediting the early encouragement he received from the people of Jacksonville, Palatka and Gainesville for his successful career.