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.”