Key to Johnny Tillotson’s success is the songwriting

Published on March 26th, 2021

By Jim Dail

Johnny Tillotson knew he could sing, but he also knew an important part of his career would be the ability to write songs.

“I knew to get on records with a label it was good if you had original material that you could take to the publishers,” he said. “When I went to Nashville, I had won a Pet Milk talent contest, so I sang down in Nashville for this event. People loved the fact that we did country music, and to this day I love doing it and the rock and roll hits.”

And he’s got a few hits to sing, including “Poetry in Motion” and “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’,” which he will do Saturday as part of Affordable Music Productions’ Legends of the ‘50s and 60s Live in Concert in Ontario.

 “At that contest, a lady came to me after I sang and asked if I write,” he said. “I had a tape of three songs. She said Archie Breyer [of Cadence Records] is in town and that he’s recording the Everly Brothers this afternoon. I asked her if I could give her the tape, and she said she would get it to Archie.  She got it to him and he played the songs for his daughter and his daughter thought I sounded like half of the Everly Brothers. The fact that I could write songs was really the key.”

In addition to his hits, he has had a number of his compositions recorded by others, including “I’m Not Leaving You (It’s All In Your Mind),” “Your Memory Comes Along,” “Dreamy Eyes” and “Another You.”

All told, Tillotson has had more than 30 singles in the Billboard charts, though it wasn’t immediate success. He recorded his first sides in New York, and while they charted, they only made the bottom of the Billboard Top 100. Then, he started recording in Nashville, and he struck pay dirt with “Poetry in Motion.”

Many of his songs were recorded in Nashville’s famed studio, Studio B, with the prominent musicians of the day.

“It was a great studio, and I loved country music growing up so when I had a chance to pick material and write I was definitely influenced by the country sounds,” he said. “Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph and so many great musicians were part of it.”

While his songs have been recorded by hundreds of artists, a special place in his heart goes to Elvis.

“When he did ‘It Keeps Right on A-Hurtin’,” it was such a thrill because I got to meet him and it was so exciting to be around him,” he said. “There was just this aura around him.”

It’s the songs themselves that he believes makes these modern shows so successful.

“Fans remember the songs well, and they sing along with you at the shows,” he said. “People just remember great songs. They look forward to you and the meet and greets and signing pictures, etc. It just makes it so much fun.”

Joining Tillotson is Pat Boone, Sonny Turner of The Platters, Barbara Lewis, Little Peggy March and Leon Hughes and His Coasters.

“Pat is so good that there’s no one quite like him,” he said. “Sonny Turner is a guy who is very talented, and was Tony Williams’ replacement in The Platters.  Little Peggy, Barbara Lewis, everyone is just sounding great.”


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