Johnny is the son of Doris and Jack Tillotson, who owned a small service station on the corner of 6th and Pearl in Jacksonville, and acted as the station’s mechanic.
At the age of nine, Johnny was sent to Palatka, Florida to take care of his grandmother.
He returned to Jacksonville each summer to be with his parents when his brother Dan would go to his grandmother.
Johnny began to perform at local functions as a child, and by the time he was at Palatka Senior High School he had developed a reputation as a talented singer.
He became a regular on the Toby Dowdy regional TV show in Jacksonville, and then had his own TV show on WFGA-TV.
In 1957, while Tillotson was studying at the University of Florida, a local disc jockey, Bob Norris sent a tape of Johnny’s singing to the Pet Milk talent contest, and was chosen as one of six National finalists.
This gave Johnny the opportunity to perform in Nashville, Tennessee, on WSM the Grand Ole Opry, which led Lee Rosenberg, a Nashville publisher, to take a tape to Archie Bleyer, owner of the independent Cadence Records.
His first single in 1958, recorded while he was completing his BSc in Journalism and Communications, combined the teen ballad ‘Dreamy Eyes’ with the up-tempo ‘Well, I’m Your Man’.
Although his roots were in country music, he was encouraged to revive the R&B ballads ‘Never Let Me Go’, ‘Pledging My Love’ and ‘Earth Angel’.
In 1960 he released the classic teen-ballad ‘Poetry in Motion’, which 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 less successful but he went to number 3 in the USA with ‘It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’’, a self-penned country ballad. The song has been recorded by over 100 performers including Elvis Presley.
Early in 1962, Tillotson recorded a song he wrote, “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’,” inspired by the terminal illness of his father.
It became one of his biggest hits, reaching # 3 in the US pop chart and was the first of his records to make the country music charts, where it peaked at # 4.
It earned him his first Grammy nomination, for Best Country & Western Recording, and was covered by over 100 performers including Elvis Presley and Billy Joe Royal, whose version was a country hit in 1988.
Tillotson then recorded an album, It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’, on which he covered country standards including Hank Locklin’s “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On” and Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You),” which also became hit singles.
He continued to record country-flavored and pop songs in 1963, and “You Can Never Stop Me Loving You” and the follow-up, the Willie Nelson song “Funny How Time Slips Away,” both made the Hot 100.
He also appeared in the 1963 movie Just for Fun.