PAHOKEE — Two daughters of the legendary country crooner joined a group of city officials and interested local residents Monday morning to dedicate the stretch of East Main Street coming into town as “Mel Tillis Boulevard.”
City Manager Chandler Williamson started off the ceremony by thanking all those who attended for joining in the remembrance. “Thank you for the opportunity to allow the City of Pahokee to do this for Mel Tillis and his family,” he began, with his daughters Carrie and Cindy listening in the front row of folding chairs set up in a grassy area along the street north of town.
“We’ve had a sign for Mel Tillis here previously in the City of Pahokee, and the commission in 2017 only thought it was right to revisit honoring Mel Tillis.”
The late Mr. Tillis, A Country Music Hall of Famer, died at age 85 at Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala on Nov. 19, of that year after a long battle with intestinal issues; they arose after he had colon surgery in 2016, from which he never fully recovered. Respiratory failure was the suspected cause of death. He was born in Dover, Fla., on Aug. 8, 1932, and developed a stutter after a chilhood bout with malaria, which fortunately for the world did not affect his voice. His official biography states that he began singing with the Westerners, a group formed in the early 1950s, while serving as a baker in the U.S. Air Force in Okinawa, Japan. Webb Pierce’s recording of Mr. Tillis’s song “I’m Tired,” in 1956, set off Mr. Tillis’s long career in the industry. His first Top 40 hit was “The Violet and a Rose” in 1958 and had much success as a songwriter as well, including the Kenny Rogers and the First Edition classic song, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” There followed an extended run of hit singles he recorded himself, and 20 years later, he was honored as the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year in 1976.
Mr. Tillis also acted in several movies, including “Every Which Way But Loose” with Clint Eastwood. He ran a successful theater in Branson, Mo., during his later years, and performed shows there until 2002. He was inducted into both the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2015, he wrote his first novel, a humorous tome called “Actin’ Sheriff.”
Mr. Williamson continued: “And I was reading Mel Tillis and found out a couple of things that I didn’t know. I didn’t know he was in the Air Force like I was and that he was serving his country first before he became a famous country music singer. In that, just learning a little bit more about who he was, the significance of how he created when he started his career and how he blossomed in the late 1960s into the ’70, some of his theme songs that made him famous in Nashville and across this country was very interesting to learn. He was a man who frequented our streets here in Pahokee.”
Then newly installed City Commissioner Regina Bohlen recognized distinguished visitors, including Lisa Wilson from Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa MacKinlay’s office, Dan Liftman from U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings’ office, “and then of course our special guests this morning, Carrie and Cindy, Mel’s daughters... We appreciate everyone coming in. I’d like to recognize somebody special, too, and that’s Mary Dobrow, for helping put all of this together.
“This morning she sent me this, and I thought it was the perfect way to start this,” Mrs. Bohlen said as she proceeded to play from her cellphone one of his hit songs that memorialized his life in the Glades, a portion of the song “Okeechobee Ocean.”
“Well I left my home in the Everglades, down on the Okeechobee ocean. My shoes were filled with a wandering dust and my head full of silly notions. Oh, I got me a job on an old share boat that took me out to sea, where the shrimp were big and they sure did stink to an old bean picker like me. Well, I wanna go home where the wildcats roam and the sugarcane grows real tall, I wanna go back where the land is black and the little guy said you are ‘Down on the Okeechobee Ocean.’”
“I think that says a lot about Mel,” Mrs. Bohlen said, “and how he felt about this area. And when you talk about the black dirt, it’s all about that.”
Then she yielded to Commissioner Bennie Everett III, who continued along those lines: “‘Because there ain’t no California where the water tastes like wine. Ain’t no big rock candy mountain where you feel good all the time. I ain’t found that old blue bayou, though I roamed my whole life long, searching for my blue heaven, heard somewhere it’s called home.’”
Commissioner Everett went on to read the Pahokee City Commission’s resolution in memory of Mr. Tillis and declaring that Nov. 19 “shall henceforth be known and celebrated as Mel Tillis Day.”
The commissioners then gathered with Mr. Tillis’s daughters to present a framed copy of the city’s proclamation, and Cindy Tillis Shorey, who grew up in Nashville as the third of his six children, stood to say a few words.
“I haven’t been here in 50 years, and Carrie and I and the whole family — it won’t be another 50 years. We want to come back, we want to participate however we can, and if you do indeed revitalize Pahokee High School — that was the one building I really wanted to see — we want to be part of it,” Mrs. Shorey said, fighting back her emotions. “One thing I want to share, and then I’m going to let Carrie talk, because she won’t cry: The most significant dream that I’ve had since my dad passed was immediately after ... and I believe the Lord speaks to us in dreams. I dreamed of my dad standing on the avenue, and when we drove to the levee, I knew where that dream was, so God showed me that. And he loved this land ... and that he grew up here. And I have to tell you, coming here has just given me a whole new beauty for his homeland. And thank you so much!”
Then Mr. Tillis’s second-youngest child, daughter Carrie, took the microphone. “Dad, in any given year ... he would do sometimes upwards of 300 shows a year, and at every single show, when he got to the point where he’d done all his hit songs, he’d start telling stories. And it started with, ‘I grew up in a little farming community on the banks of Lake Okeechobee, in a little place called Pahokee, Florida,’ and he talked about his uncle Ernest ... and he told the most beautiful stories. He talked about goin’ fishin’ ... and havin’ the big fish fries, and family. He had a great love affair with the State of Florida and never lost it. ... Every day, he was a Florida boy.
“So, please know that even today, we’re so honored that his memory, that you chased back his memory,” said Ms. Tillis. “Well, it went alive, every day, anytime anybody drives through here, that he is remembered. It’s so important to keep his memory alive. Thank you so much for this honor and the beautiful words and the day as well.”
She promised that the Tillis children would come back and visit Pahokee more often in the future. After the ceremony, Mrs. Shorey said surviving Tillis family members — of whom several are performing or otherwise involved in the music industry today — would try to establish a fundraiser on Mel Tillis Day to benefit children in some way, adding that Mr. Tillis “was always for the children” so it would befit his legacy for such an event to be planned in his name.
Chris Felker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.