It always tickles me when I discover a surprising connection between two completely different types of musical artists. Johnny Tillotson, the subject of today’s post, has been entertaining fans for more than a half-century as a successful country/pop singer, but I think he’d be the first to agree that a lot of his early success came from his association with bandleader Archie Bleyer, who was probably best known as the musical director of the Arthur Godfrey show.
By the time the two met in 1957, Bleyer had already left Godfrey behind — he was canned around the time the irascible host publicly dumped Julius La Rosa — and he was devoting most of his time to his newly formed Cadence Records. With La Rosa on board, along with a young Andy Williams, the Chordettes (Bleyer was married to one of them) and the Everly Brothers (one of whom would become Bleyer’s son-in-law) the company had a good stable of talent even if the relationships were a little convoluted.
At that point, Tillotson was just eighteen and a Florida college student, but had been singing semi-professionally since childhood. He’d had his own radio show for a while and had even managed a spot on the Grand Ole Opry, all of which led to a recording contract with Bleyer’s Cadence Records. Tillotson, who wrote many of his own songs, made his first record in 1958 and although it wasn’t a big seller it did well enough to encourage him to continue. After finishing college he moved to New York to pursue a full-time singing career, and after a couple of so-so efforts, he broke out the following year with a mega-hit on “Poetry In Motion.” (Trivia: among the recording session musicians were saxophonist Boots Randolph and pianist Floyd Cramer.)
Over the next few years Tillotson would find a lot of success recording for Cadence Records, and industry veteran Bleyer was also a valuable resource for promoting the young singer’s career. With his guidance, Tillotson was soon touring with Dick Clark, appearing on television, and even showing up on magazine covers as as the newest teen idol. During this period he had Top Ten hits on songs like “Without You,” and “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’,” a song he wrote in memory of his late father. It would earn him his first Grammy nomination.
By late 1963 Cadence Records was beginning to feel the bite of the British Invasion in music and was also losing stars to other labels, so Bleyer eventually threw in the towel. But Johnny Tillotson was still a star and was able to easily move to MGM records, where he would continue to spin out popular records for a number of years, beginning with one of his biggest, “Talk Back Trembling Lips.” It was soon to be followed by his second Grammy nominee, “Heartaches by the Number.”
As the years passed, Tillotson discovered that he was never able to repeat his early success on the record charts, but he still sold a ton of platters and stayed pretty busy. He even found a few small acting parts on TV and in Hollywood films. In the 1970s and 1980s he toured extensively, even entertaining fans in spots like Australia and the Far East, and also did more than his share of charity shows before finally beginning to slow down in the 1990s.
After a decade of inactivity, Tillotson decided a few years ago that he would enjoy again making a record, and he chose a song he wrote as a tribute to uniformed personnel of the United States, titled “Not Enough.” It did very well and led to an increased interest in making appearances before his fans, including those overseas. He remains active even now, at age 78.