Mel Tillis never forgot his Plant City roots, friends say

Mel Tillis had more than 30 top-ten country music hits. He was a star of the Grand Ole Opry, but to people in Plant City, he was a common man with a stutter that never stopped him. 

He was just out of the Air Force when he went to visit WPLA announcer Al Berry. He stuttered when he introduced himself. 

"He said, ‘I'm going to sing,’ and I said, ‘This ought to be interesting,’" recalled Berry. But when he began performing, "Our jaws dropped and we couldn't believe it! We said 'You're in, Melvin.’" 

For the next 60 years, he was one of the biggest stars in Nashville.  In the 1970's, he appeared on the popular Dean Martin Celebrity Roast and in movies with Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood. 

In every role, he stuttered -- and audiences loved him. 

"And some of it on stage was an act, but it was a real problem when he was younger," said Joe Newsome, who knew Tillis and members of his family in Plant City. 

Tillis was born in 1932 in Tampa, moved to Plant City, and then to Pahokee on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. 

Newsome says even after Tillis made it big, he came back to Plant City to help his mom. He says Tillis later built her a home in Nashville. 

"He was not only good to his mother; he was good to his whole family. He never forgot his roots," continued Newsome. 

Tillis appeared at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City several times, most recently in 2015. 

Newsome says he didn't feel well then. 

"I said, ‘Mel, you shouldn't have come, buddy.’ He said, ‘I don't want to let you down.’ But he wasn't well then.”

Tillis died over the weekend in Ocala. He was 85 years old. 

"He didn't put on. He wasn't a fake. He was just Mel Tillis," added Berry.