Gary James' Interview With
Johnny Tillotson

When he was only sixteen, he had his own TV show and a recording contract with Cadence Records. He's charted fourteen Top 40 hits including "Poetry In Motion", "Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On", "Without You", and "Talk Back Trembling Lips". He's received the B.M.I. Million-Air Award for over one million air-plays on radio for "It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin'", which was recorded by Elvis.

His name is Johnny Tillotson...and the stories he has to tell!

Q - How fortunate you were to be involved in the music business in the late '50s. It must've been a great time!

A - The late '50s were a great time to get into the record business because the independents were just coming into the world. Of course, you had the majors like Columbia and R.C.A. But you also had all of the new labels like the Sun record label with Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. Even the label that I chose, Cadence Records was a small label. It was headed by a man named Archie Bleyer, who I watched on television for years. What I noticed about Archie Bleyer when he worked for Arthur Godfrey was there was so many musical acts and he would have to get songs that fit their voice and personality. So, when I had dreams of being on records, I already had in my mind consciously decided that I would rather be with a small company and a person who put the songs first, than a large company where you get lost and have more of a scheduled release date.

Q - You say "It's very important for me to say to young performers today that you must have in all stages of your creative life somebody who motivates you and you really look up to, whether it be mother, singer, producer or just a friend." What if you don't have that special person...are you doomed to failure then?

A - Well, I don't know that, but I can tell you where that answer came from. I believe that today. First of all, when you're very young and thinking about being a painter, a writer, a singer, a baseball player or a football player, a lot of these people have heroes and heroes right from the word go. For me it was people like Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, who I got to meet at a very early age because one of the mentors I had, Mae Axton lived in my home town. That was Hoyt Axton's mom. She was like a mom to everybody. Later on, she and my steel guitar player wrote "Heartbreak Hotel". The greatest thing about Mae was she encouraged you. She not only encouraged you, but sometimes would have a plan. In my case, she said "I've seen you on television." She watched me on my local television show. She said "I might be able to help you because we bring in those live packages. People like Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers. If you would like to be the opening act, it wouldn't pay any money but you would learn so much just from being around those people." So, that was kind of step one. If you get enough positive feedback from your parents, from your friends and from people in your school and hometown, there's no one there to give you the idea that you cannot make it. Everybody's so proud of you. And that just feeds on your passion to do this. There's certain performers that will really inspire you not only by their talent. You go up to somebody like the late Buddy Knox or Jimmy Bowen and you might ask them "How do I get on records?" Now some people might not answer you. They'll give you some answer that's not relevant. I'll never forget Jimmy Bowen, who would later become Sinatra's producer and also greatly involved with Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire and Sammy Davis. He and Buddy Knox both said, well, if you write, you should make a little tape and get around to some people. A disc jockey friend of mine, after I'd written some songs, entered it into a contest and I was one of the six winners flown up to Nashville. In the audience was a publisher, a lady by the name of Lee Rosenberg. She became one of these helping hands without me even knowing her. Backstage she said to me "Do you want to record?" Yes I do! "Do You Write?" I said yes. And she said "Do you have anything?" I reached in my pocket and there was this tape with the three songs. She said "Who do you have in mind?" I said I'd like to be with Archie Bleyer and Cadence Records. She said "They have a Country music department. That's going to be the Everly Brothers. I think a fiddler named Gordon Terry would like you. He's got his Pop department and of course that's The Chordettes, Andy Williams and Morton Downey." He liked Morton Downey and I became a great friend of Morton Downey. So, she got the tape to Mr. Bleyer. Mr. Bleyer took it home after an Everly Brothers recording date and just had it lying around his house. His daughter picked it up and said "You know, you ought to sign this guy! He sounds like half an Everly Brother." And that's how it started. Some of these people you don't pre-destine their influence in your career. Sometimes they're kind of like angels. They just kind of happen. But, you have to be prepared and sensitive to them being there and make it a very fun experience creatively.

Q - Was it easier to break into the business when you did as opposed to today?

A - I believe it was easier to break into the business because of all your small labels. Your Cameo - Parkways out of Philadelphia. These small labels opened their doors to the young acts. These labels were very competitive with majors like MGM, Warner Brothers and Columbia because the music was so fresh they would take a chance on it.

Q - You had twenty-three hit singles?

A - I think it's twenty-eight Top 100 hits, give or take a few. It doesn't matter. I'm so happy to not only have that many hits, but the loyal fans that we have around world.

Q - You've been quoted as saying "The best press agent is a hit record."

A - Right.

Q - Sometimes you need a press agent to get attention to your product so it will become a hit record. Wouldn't you agree?

A - A press agent is really helpful, but a press agent cannot deliver a hit record. Nothing can, except what is on that record, CD or whatever that communicates with the heart and soul of the listener on whatever level it is. It can be fun. I can be a novelty. It can be a happy song. It can be a sad song. But it's got to touch that person enough where that person wants to make that song part of their life. One of the reasons that someone like an Elvis Presley or The Beatles had such a tremendous effect and sell so much to day is because it was hit after hit after hit. As the person grew in their life, they would be attracted to certain songs like the early dating period, then maybe when they got married and when they got a little older. So you would try to put out songs that people liked. Now what the press people do for you is if you give them the ammunition to run with that's great. In other words, if you give them a great product and you're a good communicator and not a pain in the neck to anybody, and you're likeable and the press and the disc jockeys like you, then they can really work in your favor. But, you have to give the guy or the lady something to work with.

Q - What was it like to tour with Dick Clark's Cavalcade Of Stars?

A - Well, you have to start with Dick Clark. Dick Clark didn't make hit records, but he made a hit television show. That show impacted people on a daily basis. People would come home and turn that on because it was the only outlet for this new music. That doesn't mean people like Perry Como and Bing Crosby were not great artists. But, for the new kids on the block so to speak, he was the outlet. When people could see the words Dick Clark's Cavalcade Of Stars and because some of the artists were just getting started, and only had one or two records, you'd have to have a large show. The most important thing about Dick Clark is, he was on the bus with you. He was young and enthusiastic about everything he does. When the artists would get off the bus, they would usually go to the hotel and sleep because some of the jumps were pretty big jumps.

Q - Hundreds of miles I've been told.

A - But see, when you're in your twenties, it's your first time so you don't even know there's such a thing as closer date. If the road manager says the next date you're going to sleep on the bus all night, then you get into the hotel the next day and you sleep there and you get up and do the show and that's just fine. Everybody's doin' it. The only person that didn't do that would be Dick Clark. He was amazing. He would bound off the bus. He wore like a flight suit just like an Air Force flight suit. So, he always looked great. And then he'd just run his hands through his hair and he was all ready. He would immediately go out to the radio stations and say "Hey, Dick Clark. We're all in town, Gene Pitney, Johnny Tillotson, Chubby Checker, The Supremes and The Orlons. We'll all be here tonight." He fielded a few telephone calls. He made the rounds. And although everybody knew he was in town, just hearing his voice was very exciting. He always had a great sense of humor. He would take pictures of us...real candid pictures. Nothing embarrassing. Maybe sleeping on the bus or after the shows a different artist would perform for the rest of the artists on the bus. That was kind of cool. At the end of the tour he would have a little party and then present us with an album of photos from that tour. So, it was kind of like a family on wheels. The other thing that we did that was most unusual is, all the performers on the show would pick a name out of hat and whoever's name you would pick, you would dress like that person and you would do a show at that wrap party. You would be that person. If I'd pulled Dee Dee Sharp, I could have been Dee Dee Sharp. Or, I might've pulled the name of one of The Drifters. In my case, a couple of times for some reason I pulled Brian Hyland. So, that was pretty easy for me to do. So, that's what those days were like. A lot of fun. But, Dick Clark was the one that made it very special.

Q - Did "groupies" exist back then?

A - You gotta understand how young people were. There wasn't any time to. You couldn't even sign autographs. As soon as the show was over, you'd be on the bus taking off. There wasn't any social life due to the fact that the fans were so young and the artists were so young. You're talking about people who were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. It was a different time. It was just like the movies at the time. The closest relationship you had, and that's why it was so important, was between the beautiful girls in the audience. And all of them were beautiful. And on stage entertaining them and also making their boyfriends happy. The record hops were nice 'cause you got to actually meet the fans.

Q - In 1963, you were headlining the Copacabana and The Latin Quarter. That was a completely different scene for a Rock 'n' Roll singer wasn't it? Did you wear a tuxedo and tell jokes in between songs?

A - Well, I loved wearing the tuxedo. All of these things go in cycles. For the young teen artists, he had the Dick Clark Show to do. Paul Anka had put a show together where he was kind of like the Dick Clark. Paul Anka might've done one or two Dick Clark shows. Then he and his dad, Andy Anka saw how this thing worked. He realized that with his number of hit records he could have the Paul Anka Show and put acts on it. So, you didn't have a lot of outlets. Most people were doing the record hops and not just one hop, but three or four a night. You would just go with the biggest disc jockeys in the market. This was really terrific. The fans got a chance to see you, to hear the record and the disc jockey got a chance to meet you. It had a heart. That's what I'm trying to say. For the longest time if you weren't doing the record hops and the Clark Show, the only other place to perform were these big nightclubs and every town had one. An act like Connie Francis just took to that like a duck to water. She not only had hit records, but with her Italian heritage she knew wonderful Italian songs. Another great act was Bobby Darin, who was a great variety act. So, it was a stepping stone for Paul Anka, myself and Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avalon to go to these as far as furthering your career. What no one realized is, we came in on the latter stages of this supper club situation. It went great for a few years and then things switched into Las Vegas, Tahoe and Reno. So, you can never count on anything in show business. It's always changing. But, it was a great preparation 'cause it gave you experience in singing standards and understanding how great standards were. It's because of the nightclub act that I appreciated the work of Irving Berlin. I had a good appreciation of all kinds of music, but it definitely taught you how to communicate with a more sophisticated adult audience.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.