Country music star Mel Tillis dead at age 85, publicist says

Nov 19 (Reuters) - Mel Tillis, who embraced his own speech impediment to become one of Nashville's most celebrated singer-songwriters during a six-decade career in country music, has died at age 85, his publicist said on Sunday.

Tillis died early Sunday morning in an Ocala, Florida hospital, a statement posted on Absolute Publicity's website said. Respiratory failure was the suspected cause, but the singer had suffered from intestinal issues since early 2016.

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Country star Mel Tillis
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Country star Mel Tillis
circa 1955: Promotional portrait of country music singer and songwriter Mel Tillis holding a guitar in an embroidered Western jacket. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Mel Tillis Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Mel Tillis Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Mel Tillis Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Mel Tillis Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Mel Tillis Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of Mel TILLIS (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Mel Tillis Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of Mel TILLIS (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)
UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of Mel TILLIS (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)
LOS ANGELES - APRIL 4: Mel Tillis performs on THE GLEN CAMPBELL GOODTIME HOUR. Image dated April 4, 1971. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE - 'Love and The Cryin' Cowboy' - Airdate: December 23, 1973. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) MEL TILLIS
LOVE AMERICAN STYLE - 'Love and the Cryin Cowboy' - Airdate December 28, 1973. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) DIANE TRASK;MEL TILLIS
LOVE AMERICAN STYLE - 'Love and the Cryin Cowboy' - Airdate December 28, 1973. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) MEL TILLIS
1976 AMERICAN MUSIC AWARDS - Airdate: January 31, 1976. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) MEL TILLIS
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Mel Tillis Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON -- Pictured: (l-r) Singer/Songwriter Mel Tillis during an interview with guest host David Brenner on October 15, 1976 -- (Photo by: Gene Arias/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 16: Musician Mel Tillis attends the Taping of 'Match Game 77' on February 16, 1977 at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
1978, JUL 3 1978; Gripping Ride; James Leatherberry hangs onto Schoolboy during the bull-riding competition at the Greeley Independence Stampede. The two tangled Sunday in the Stampede, which is to be held through Tuesday night. Box seats are $6.50; reserved and Class A seats $5 and general admission $3.50. Tickets for the Fourth of July night show with Mel Tillis will be $6.50 for arena and box seats and $6 for other reserved seats. Information call I-356-2855.; (Photo By Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD SQUARES -- Country Music Week -- Episode 55 -- Air Date 03/24/1980 -- Pictured: Square guest/country singer Mel Tillis -- Photo by: Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank
LOS ANGELES - JULY 1980: Country singer Mel Tillis attends an event with his wife in July 1980 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Eisenberg/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
The cast of 'The Cannonball Run', directed by Hal Needham, 1981. Back row, left to right: Alfie Wise, Jack Elam (hidden), unknown, Joe Klecko, Jamie Farr, Mel Tillis, Bert Convy, Adrienne Barbeau, Michael Hui, Rick Aviles, and Warren Berlinger. Centre (in orange) Dom DeLuise. Front row, left to right: Tara Buckman, Dean Martin, Farrah Fawcett, Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Jackie Chan and Sammy Davis, Jr. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Mel Tillis, U.S. country singer, singing into a microphone during a concert, circa 1982. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images)
DAYTONA BEACH, FL ? February 14, 1982: Country & Western star Mel Tillis enjoys pre-race activities before the Daytona 500 NASCAR Cup race at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)
UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 01: WEMBLEY ARENA Photo of Mel TILLIS (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)
1983: American country music singer Mel Tillis, wearing a tuxedo, looks to the side while attending the 18th Annual Academy Of Country Music Awards at Knott's Berry Farm, Buena Park, Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty Images)
LOVE BOAT - A country star traveling with her adopted children has to choose between the kids and her boyfriend; a popular songwriter secretly writes better songs for his former lover than for his wife. Doc deals with a country folk doctor who insists on practicing medicine aboard, while at the same time chasing her beautiful daughter; a married woman's affair haunts her as she claims an expensive broach is only costume jewelry during 'Country Music Jamboree: Hits & Missus/Return of Annabelle/Just Plain Folks Medicine/Caught in the Act' which aired on April 30, 1983. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) JESSICA WALKER;MEL TILLIS
LOVE BOAT - A country star traveling with her adopted children has to choose between the kids and her boyfriend; a popular songwriter secretly writes better songs for his former lover than for his wife. Doc deals with a country folk doctor who insists on practicing medicine aboard, while at the same time chasing her beautiful daughter; a married woman's affair haunts her as she claims an expensive broach is only costume jewelry during 'Country Music Jamboree: Hits & Missus/Return of Annabelle/Just Plain Folks Medicine/Caught in the Act' which aired on April 30, 1983. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) TANYA TUCKER;JESSICA WALTER;DOTTIE WEST;MEL TILLIS
Mel Tillis and Ned Beatty at the Child Help Benefit Gala, Century Plaza Hotel, Century City. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
BUENA PARK,CA - APRIL 6: Musician Mel Tillis attends the 22nd Annual Academy of Country Music Awards on April 6, 1987 at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES - 1996: Singer MelTillisoses for a portrait in 1996 in Bramson, Mosouri. (Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - 1996: Singer MelTillisoses for a portrait in 1996 in Bramson, Mosouri. (Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images)
BRANSON, MO - 1996: Country singer MelTillis poses for a portrait in 1996 in Branson, Missouri. (Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - 1996: Singer MelTillisoses for a portrait in 1996 in Bramson, Mosouri. (Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - 1996: Singer MelTillisoses for a portrait in 1996 in Bramson, Mosouri. (Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images)
Musician Mel Tillis attends the 22nd Annual Academy of Country Music Awards on April 6, 1987 at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Mel Tillis and Lee Roy Parnell during 52nd Annual BMI Country Awards - Arrivals at BMI in Nashville, Tennessee, United States. (Photo by R. Diamond/WireImage)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 06: Singer Mel Tillis and his wife Kathy Tillis attend the 40th Annual CMA Awards at the Gaylord Entertainment Center November 6, 2006 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images)
Mel Tillis at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, Tennessee (Photo by Rick Diamond/WireImage)
Singer/songwriter Mel Tillis and wife Kathy arrives at the 41st Annual CMA Awards at the Sommet Center on November 7, 2007 in Nashville TN. (Photo by Frank Mullen/WireImage)
(EXCLUSIVE, Premium Rates Apply) NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 11: Musicians Mel Tillis and Billy Dean attend the 56th Annual BMI Country Awards at The BMI Building on November 11, 2008 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/WireImage for BMI)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 11: Frances Preston, 2008 BMI Icon Hank Williams Jr. and musician Mel Tillis attend the 56th Annual BMI Country Awards at The BMI Building on November 11, 2008 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/WireImage for BMI)
NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 20: Musicians John Rich (L) and Mel Tillis pose during the 4th Annual ACM Honors at the Ryman Auditorium on September 20, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for ACM)
NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 20: Mel Tillis accepts the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award during the 4th Annual ACM Honors at the Ryman Auditorium on September 20, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images for ACM)
NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 28: Recording artists Troy Gentry (Montgomery Gentry) Mel Tillis and Eddie Montgomert backstage during Country Comes Home: An Opry Celebration at the Grand Ole Opry House on September 28, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Grand Ole Opry House has been restored following damage sustained during flooding in May 2010. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 07: Inductee Mel Tillis at the 2010 Nashville Music City Walk of Fame Induction Ceremony at Walk of Fame Park on November 7, 2010 in Nashville City. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 07: Mel Tillis performs at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge 50th Anniversary Celebration at Ryman Auditorium on November 7, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/FilmMagic)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 07: Mel Tillis attends the 2010 Nashville Music City Walk of Fame Induction Ceremony at Walk of Fame Park on November 7, 2010 in Nashville Tennessee. (Photo by Tony R. Phipps/FilmMagic)
Mel Tillis attends the 2010 Nashville Music City Walk of Fame Induction Ceremony at Walk of Fame Park on November 7, 2010 in Nashville Tennessee. (Photo by Ed Rode/WireImage)
INDIO, CA - APRIL 30: Musician Mel Tillis performs onstage during 2011 Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 30, 2011 in Indio, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
INDIO, CA - APRIL 30: Musician Mel Tillis performs onstage during 2011 Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 30, 2011 in Indio, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
INDIO, CA - APRIL 30: Musician Mel Tillis performs onstage during 2011 Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 30, 2011 in Indio, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
INDIO, CA - APRIL 30: Musician Mel Tillis performs onstage during 2011 Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 30, 2011 in Indio, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
INDIO, CA - APRIL 30: Musician Mel Tillis performs onstage during 2011 Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 30, 2011 in Indio, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
INDIO, CA - APRIL 30: Musician Mel Tillis and fans pose backstage during 2011 Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 30, 2011 in Indio, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 08: Singer Mel Tillis performs during Marty Stuart's 10th Annual Late Night Jam at the Ryman Auditorium on June 8, 2011 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 09: Mel Tillis performs on the Chevrolet Riverfront Stage during the 2012 CMA Music Festival on June 9, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon IV/WireImage)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 09: Mel Tillis performs during the 2012 CMA Music Festival on June 9, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Beth Gwinn/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 22: (L-R) Taro Alexander, Mel Tillis, Saadiq Wicks and Everett Bradley attend the 11th Annual Our Time Benefit Gala at the Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on April 22, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Rommel Demano/WireImage)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 06: Jim Ed Brown, Crystal Gayle, Charley Pride, Lynn Anderson and Mel Tillis appear at CMA Close Up Stage: 70's Heritage Panel at Music City Convention Center on June 6, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 06: Mel Tillis appears at CMA Close Up Stage: 70's Heritage Panel at Music City Convention Center on June 6, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 06: Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare and Jim Ed Brown appear on CMA Close Up Stage: 70's Heritage Panel at Music City Convention Center on June 6, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 07: Recording Artists Mel Tillis and 'Whispering' Bill Anderson performs at The Grand Ole Opry on June 7, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 07: Recording Artist Mel Tillis performs at The Grand Ole Opry on June 7, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - FEBRUARY 25: Recording Artist Mel TIllis performs at 'The Legend's at Legends' during CRS 2015 on February 25, 2015 at the in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - FEBRUARY 25: Recording Artist Mel TIllis performs at 'The Legend's at Legends' during CRS 2015 on February 25, 2015 at the in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - FEBRUARY 25: Recording Artist Mel TIllis performs at 'The Legend's at Legends' during CRS 2015 on February 25, 2015 at the in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 12: Recording artist Mel Tillis performs at The Grand Ole Opry on June 12, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images)
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A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry, Tillis recorded more than 60 albums and penned a string of hits for stars such as Kenny Rogers, George Strait and Ricky Skaggs. Under his own name, he cut six singles that topped the country charts, including "I Ain't Never," "Coca-Cola Cowboy" and "Southern Rains."

Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis in Florida, he became one of the most-sought-after Nashville songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s. All told, his catalog contains an estimated 1,000 songs, 600 of which were recorded by other artists.

Perhaps his best-known crossover hit was "Ruby, Don't You Take Your Love to Town," narrated by a military veteran paralyzed during "a crazy Asian war." Kenny Rogers and the First Edition scored a Billboard top 10 hit with the song in 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War.

Tillis, known for his rich baritone and the smooth sincerity of his vocal performances, spoke with a stutter since he was a toddler, according to online biographers.

But rather than attempting to disguise it, Tillis used the speech impediment as one of the trademarks of his act. His ability to poke fun at himself on stage assured him a loyal following among country music fans.

He even entitled his 1984 autobiography, "Stutterin' Boy," a nickname conferred on him early in his career.

Among the many honors bestowed on Tillis, President Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 2012.

His daughter Pam Tillis, a country music singer-songwriter in her own right, is among the six children who survive him. 

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