His first television appearance was as a guest on the Toby Dowdy Show, where his performances produced a steady stream of fan mail and resulted in a three year contract as a regular on the country oriented show. When the Toby Dowdy show went off the air, Johnny was given his own show, while still attending the University of Florida.
During his teens, Johnny began writing songs and in 1957, a local D.J. submitted a tape of Johnny's singing to the National Pet Milk Talent Contest. Johnny was chosen as one of the 6 national winners from this tape, which gave him the opportunity to perform on WSM radio in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was to receive his biggest break. Miss Lee Rosenberg, a Nashville music publisher, was so impressed with Johnny, she took his tape to Archie Bleyer, the owner of Cadence Records. Bleyer recorded Johnny singing his own composition, "Dreamy Eyes", which went to the top of the local Florida charts in 1958. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Journalism and Communications in 1959, Johnny moved to New York to pursue a full time music career.
Although his roots were in country music, he was encouraged to record the R&B ballads "Never Let Me Go", "Pledging My Love" and "Earth Angel", none of which met with much success. In 1960, Johnny recorded an up-tempo teen number called "Poetry In Motion", which caught on quickly and went to number 2 in the USA and number 1 in the UK. The b-side, "Princess, Princess", was popular in its own right and the equal of many of his later hits. Tillotson's follow-up, "Jimmy's Girl", was a flop, but his next effort would turn things back in the right direction. A self-penned country ballad called "It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin'" went to number 3 in the USA in May, 1962 and was nominated for a Grammy Award. The song has since been recorded by over 100 performers, including Elvis Presley.
Tillotson's baby-face and slight frame made him an ideal teen-idol for the early 60s, but his musical preference was country music. He had further success by reviving the country songs "Send Me The Pillow You Dream On" along with "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)" and "You Can Never Stop Me Loving You". A tour of duty in the U.S. Army put his career on hold, but when he was discharged, Johnny signed with MGM Records, determined to become a country performer.
"Talk Back Trembling Lips" was a Top 40 hit on both the pop and country charts, and was followed by another 8 Top 100 records including "Heartaches By The Number", which gave Johnny his second Grammy nomination for Best Vocal Performance. He also recorded the popular theme song for the TV show "Gidget", starring Sally Field.
In all, Tillotson chalked up 26 charted hits between 1958 and 1965. While his fortunes waned in the late 60's, Johnny continued to record for MGM for a couple of years before moving to California in 1968 to embark on an acting career in a variety of minor roles. During the 70s, he recorded for the Ampex, Buddah and United Artists Records and became a regular on the Las Vegas lounge circuit.
The year 2012 saw Tillotson still touring the United States.
Be sure to read Gary James' interview with Johnny Tillotson