Clean living pays off for Jacksonville’s Johnny Tillotson

Johnny Tillotson

Johnny Tillotson

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 suddenly discovered thousands of pop-music fans who had developed a taste for country. A few country singers such as Eddy Arnold and Ray Price donned tuxes and started bringing “country-politan” music to Manhattan and Vegas cabarets.

Jacksonville’s Johnny Tillotson’s was pretty much a hybrid of Eddy Arnold and teen pop idol 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, especially country music.

“All I wanted to do was be a country star on the Grand Old Opry, like Hank Williams,” Tillotson said. 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 bus up Highway 17 and popped in, unannounced, at the Axtons’ Dellwood Avenue home. He came to the right place.

Mae Axton took an immediate liking to the young Tillotson, who was the same age as her soon-to-be-infamous son, Hoyt — but better-looking. This kid could go places.

“This scrawny, beguiling youngster was too much,” Axton wrote in her autobiography, Country Singers as I Know ‘Em.

Axton was Tillotson’s “guardian angel,” he said. “She had a heart of gold.”

Axton began booking Tillotson on some of the RCA Records package shows for which she did publicity, putting him in front of thousands of North Florida country-music fans. She had done the same for Presley a year or so earlier. According to her book, she helped Tillotson land a regular spot on Toby Dowdy’s WMBR (now WJXT) television show, McDuff Hayride. After three years with Dowdy on TV-4, Tillotson landed his own show on WTLV, Channel 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.

A local radio DJ entered an audition tape of Tillotson to 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.

Tillotson wrote much of his own material, an unusual accomplishment for a singer in the pre-Beatles era. Cadence released Tillotson’s ballad “Dreamy Eyes” backed with the rocking “Well, I’m Your Man” in 1958.

“Dreamy Eyes” did well enough to convince Bleyer to keep spending. Upon graduating in 1959, Tillotson moved to New York so he could work more closely with Bleyer. Together they plugged away, scoring six minor chart entries, hitting pay dirt in 1960 with “Poetry in Motion.” That single made it to No. 2 in the U.S. and earned the top spot in England, selling more than 1.5 million copies worldwide.

Was it country or pop? Tillotson straddled both worlds. In any case, the public went for his style in a big way. He garnered 14 top-40 hits between 1959 and 1967.

In 1963, his career was interrupted by a letter from Uncle Sam. During Tillotson’s six-month stint in the army, Cadence released Tillotson’s self-penned “It Keeps Right On a-Hurtin,’” which went to No. 3.

However, “Hurtin’” would be Tillotson’s last record for Cadence (Billy Joe Royal scored a No. 1 country hit with the song in 1991). Tillotson returned from duty to find Cadence belly-up. He soon switched to MGM Records, then headed by Mike Curb, where he would score a couple more hits.

Tillotson’s MGM output was very much in the vein of crossover icons Eddy Arnold and Ray Price. He hit No. 35 with a cover of Price’s “Talk Back Trembling Lips.” He followed with a Guy Mitchell cover, “Heartaches By the Number,” in1965. He also continued to croon straight pop along with his own sanitized versions of R&B tunes in the style of Pat Boone.

Tillotson’s hits started slowing during the British Invasion. Yet he retained a loyal following in England. Nearing 30 in 1968, he 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 singing country, signing with Columbia’s Nashville division, where he got to work with famed producer Billy Sherrill.

“You can’t fake country,” Tillotson said. “You have to really understand it and love it.” Sales were disappointing, however.

Tillotson, a shrewd businessman, always manages to land on his feet. His schedule is busier than ever, he said. He’s carved out a niche for himself as a Vegas attraction and tours the lounge and nightclub circuits in the U.S. He also tours Australia and the Orient, where he remains surprisingly popular.

How does Tillotson account for a 50-year run in a business known for flashes in the pan? For one thing, he said, he keeps his wits about him. “I take good care of myself and keep up my stamina.”

Tillotson has never smoked, drank or done drugs. He is almost as squeaky-clean as his close friend, fellow Jacksonville native Pat Boone. He and Boone share a strong religious foundation, Tillotson said. “Faith helps get you through some tough times — like when my daughter died.”

Tillotson lives in Woodland Hills, Calif., with his second wife, Nancy. He has fathered two children, Michael and Kelli. Kelli was killed in an auto accident in 1991. Michael is a Hollywood set designer.

Another reason Tillotson manages to stay in the business, he said, 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.”

It also doesn’t hurt that millions of TV viewers hear his voice five nights a week on “Nick at Night.” Tillotson performs Gidget’s theme song, “Wait Till You See My Gidget.”

Johnny Tillotson and Ray Charles

Johnny Tillotson and Ray Charles

11 Responses to “ Clean living pays off for Jacksonville’s Johnny Tillotson ”

  1. This is a good story. Thank you for publishing this. I always liked Johnny Tillotson and I remember when he used to sing on “The Wilburn Brothers Show” from time to time. I always looked forward to seeing him.

  2. It’s great to read about Tillotson and that he is doing well.
    At the age of about 5 I was on the Toby Dowdy Show (just clapping my hands to the music).
    My father worked for Winn Dixie back then and they were the sponsors of the show.

  3. My Aunt, who just passed away a few weeks ago dated Johnny when she first came to Jacksonville right out of high school. They only dated briefly, but the memories still linger in our family…and especially since her death we all had to rehash those memories. I am glad he is doing well, and often wonder if he ever thinks of my Aunt from time to time…Johnny, if by some miracle you see this…do you remember short little Claudene in Jacksonville, that came from the farm in south Georgia?

    Thanks!

  4. I remember Johnny well when stationed in Jax 1956. He sang with a young girl………can’t recall her name, but I do remember her as going on with her talent…………

  5. I had the pleasure of knowing Johnny, when he had been attending my high school- Andrew Jackson here, in the mid tolate fifties. He had his “Dreamy Eyes” out and it was a big hit for him. Some younger fans may not know that he started out in Jacksonvlle on the Toby Dowdy Show
    on the old Channel 4 WMBR-TV, our first major station, with a country-western format music/variety show. He did sing with a little sweet singer who was about 11 I believe, along with Jimmy Strickland and his band and Glenn Reeves who later became a promoter/producer here and I believe in Nashville. The 50-60s had a lot of launches of musical stardom thanks to our friends at the “old” Channel 4! cmd 4/26/11

  6. Johnny, I just wanted to thank you and let you know your music made so many memories in my life. Along with other artists of the 50s & 60s, have made many memorable moments in our lives. You and others alike, need to be reminded that not only the music but your personalties also made an impression upon our lives forever. You can look back at time and have such a peaceful feeling remembering the music, where we were, who we may have been with and what a special moment it was when a certain song was heard. I served with 3/26 Marines in Vietnam 1967-late 1968 during the Seige of Khe Sanh. Music & letters from home were the only morale boosters we had there. Sometimes, all it would take to lift us up when we were down was a song from back home that brought good memories and we could pick ourselves up and keep on goin’. These memories will never be forgotten. I thank the many people, such as yourself, for the songs that made such an impact in my life when I needed something special in a time not so good. God had his hand on us all during our time there.
    May God Bless and keep you healthy and safe. Thanks so much for the Memories and being in my life. Ed, from Council Bluffs, Iowa

  7. Johnny, I was a Hartford deejay during your great years in the late 50s and into the sixties. You may recall…when Cadence wouldn’t even extend you car fare on your promotional trips…we, at WPOP always seemed to find a nice home for you to stay at…like the Sozzi’s (NeaL…guitar player) in West Hartford. Most of our deejay team at WPOP survives…and three of us live here in Florida. Thanks for the record hop visits you so generously gave us. Andy Carlton is also still around…living up in Massachusetts. He used to bring you to our many record hops in those days. All the best to you and yours. Don Blair, The Teddy Bear….Venice, Florida.

  8. i would like to write johnny a letter i have something i need to ask him and do know how are where to send this letter any response would be helpful thanks

  9. I have liked Johnny ever since i first heard him in the 60′s in England.Great singer,great guy and a great entertainer.Wish sometimes those times would re-appear,will never happen, but what memories.God Bless you Johnny and your family.

  10. I saw Johnny and Ray Peterson at the county fair back in 1965 (same week), the war in Naum was just kcking into high gear I was a young soldier, no clue what was ahead, $98.00 month was big money to me,

  11. I have met Johnnie in the 60′s when he came to the palsy telethon in Birmingham, Al. I had gotten his autograph on the side of the ole Tutwiler hotel where he was staying. I still have it to this day. He is a great singer and have all of his records. Best wishes, Mary Jean Cox,

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