During his teens, Johnny began writing songs and in 1957, a local DJ submitted a tape of Johnny's singing to the National Pet Milk Talent Contest. Johnny was chosen as one of the six 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. Then, in 1960, Johnny recorded an up-tempo teen number called "Poetry In Motion", which caught on quickly and went to #2 in the USA and #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", stopped climbing at a disappointing #25 in early 1961, but his next effort would turn things back in the right direction. "Without You" went to #7 in the late Summer of 1961 and stayed in Billboard's Top 40 for eight weeks. Cadence Records then re-released "Dreamy Eyes", which brought Johnny a #35 in early 1962. A self-penned Country ballad called "It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin'" went to #3 in America in May, 1962 and was nominated for a Grammy Award. The song has since been recorded by over one hundred 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 old Hank Locklin song "Send Me The Pillow You Dream On", which reached #17. That was followed by "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)" (#24 in 1962), "Out Of My Mind" (#24 in 1963) and "You Can Never Stop Me Loving You" (#18 in 1963). A tour of duty in the U.S. Army put his career on hold for awhile, but when he was discharged, Johnny signed with MGM Records, determined to become a Country performer. He opted to record a cover version of Ernest Ashworth's "Talk Back Trembling Lips", which reached #7 on the Hot 100. It was followed by another eight Top 100 records including "Worried Guy" (#37), "I Rise, I Fall" (#36) and "She Understands Me" (#31), all in the face of the British Invasion in 1964. Tillotson's final appearance on the Billboard Top 40 was in late 1965 with "Heartaches By The Number", which gave Johnny his second Grammy nomination for Best Vocal Performance. That same year, he also recorded the popular theme song for the TV show Gidget, starring Sally Field.
In all, Tillotson chalked up twenty-six charted hits between 1958 and 1965. While his fortunes waned in the late '60s, 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. In the early 1980s Johnny charted again briefly with a song called "Lay Back In The Arms Of Someone". During that decade he toured Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, as well as Australia, New Zealand and Japan on a regular basis. In 1990 he signed with Atlantic records and again charted briefly with "Bim Bam Boom". Tragedy struck Johnny and his family in May, 1991 when his 22-year-old daughter Kelli was killed in a car accident.
Johnny went on to record several Christmas songs with Brian Hyland and Freddy Cannon for the Children's Miracle network. He also helped out on the sound track for the 1998 film Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer. After a decade-long absence from the music scene, Tillotson released a single called "Not Enough" in 2010, which was a tribute to members of the Police, Fire and American Armed Forces. It reached #1 on the indie country chart and the Top 25 on the New Music weekly chart. It was also a breakout single on the Music Row chart in Nashville. On March 23rd, 2011, Tillotson joined a list of only forty-eight others when he was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, the highest honor that the State bestows on an individual citizen. His plaque is on permanent display in the Florida State Capitol.
Tillotson remained active in the music business, touring Thailand with Brian Hyland in 2016 before returning to perform across America with others from his era, including Chubby Checker, The Flamingos and Chris Montez.
Be sure to read Gary James' interview with Johnny Tillotson