As unlikely as it might seem to modern music fans — especially after listening to his decidedly odd singing style — there was a time that honky-tonk pioneer Floyd Tillman was described as a combination of Ernest Tubb and Frank Sinatra. But even if that now seems an odd idea, music historians still consider him to be one of the most important early influences on country music.
Born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas, Tillman was a Depression-era sharecropper’s son who took to music as a way out of the hardscrabble way of life he’d known while growing up. He began appearing professionally as a young teen in the late 1920s, and within a few years was leading his own musical group, the Blue Ridge Playboys.
During the 1930s Tillman really began to hit his stride, not only as a performer but also as a songwriter. Songs like “It Makes No Difference Now,” which became a hit for stars like Gene Autry and Bing Crosby, helped pioneer what would become a staple of country music – tearjerkin’ honky-tonk. It was a sound that Tillman would continue to revisit as he began cutting records of his own during the pre-war years. It was also during this period that he began to spend some time exploring jazz and pop music of the era, gaining a more diversified footing in his performances.
During the war years Tillman began breaking out with some best-selling records of his own, including his chart-topping “They Took the Stars Out of Heaven,” along with Top Ten hits “Each Night At Nine” and “G.I. Blues.” (Not the song Elvis performed in the movie of the same name.) In fact, his mournful songs were said to have been played by Tokyo Rose in her infamous propaganda broadcasts to homesick soldiers and sailors.
He continued to find success in post-war record sales, with tunes like “I Love You So Much It Hurts” and “Slippin’ Around” doing especially well, and as late as the 1960s was still cranking with “It Just Tears Me Up” and others hitting the charts. As time passed he slowed down somewhat, although he continued to appear from time to time for fans. When he died in 2003 he was 88.
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