Singer, songwriter, guitarist, and a pioneering figure in the development of honky-tonk music, Floyd Tillman was born on December 8, 1914, in Ryan, Oklahoma. The son of a sharecropper, Tillman was only a few months old when he and his family relocated to Post, Texas. He attended grade school from 1923 to 1929. As a young man, he worked as a telegraph operator and got his start in music around 1931, when he learned guitar to play with his brothers at local dances.
During the 1930s Tillman began playing lead guitar with various western swing musicians throughout Texas. In 1933 he joined Adolph and Emil Hofner’s band and played at Gus’ Palm Garden in San Antonio. He joined Leon Selph’s Blue Ridge Playboys in 1935 and recorded with them on the Vocalion label, and in 1936 he played with the Mack Clark Orchestra. Tillman sold his 1938 song “It Makes No Difference Now,” to Jimmie Davis for $300. The song went on to become a huge hit and was recorded by Cliff Bruner in 1938, Bing Crosby in 1940, and others, including Gene Autry, Eddy Arnold, and Burl Ives. Tillman signed with Decca in the late 1930s as a solo artist after his hit established him as a successful songwriter.
During World War II Tillman joined the United States Army and served as a radio operator stationed near Houston, where he continued to write and record. Tillman also worked with such artists as Ted Daffan and Moon Mullican, who, by the 1940s were borrowing from western swing and more traditional country styles to forge a new sound that would come to be known as “honky-tonk.” He had his first Number 1 hit in 1944 with “They Took the Stars Out of Heaven” on Decca. Additional hits included “G. I. Blues,” “Each Night at Nine,” and “I Love You So Much It Hurts.” In 1949 he wrote the now classic “Slippin’ Around,” which epitomized both the new honky-tonk shuffle beat and what would become the common theme of infidelity in honky-tonk music. Ernest Tubb, Texas Jim Robertson, the duo of Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely, and numerous others performed and recorded “Slippin’ Around.” Tillman also penned the hit “This Cold War With You,” a play on words that reflected both the difficulties of married life and the escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the post-World War II era.
During the 1950s Tillman retired from the music business, citing the financial and physical difficulties of life on the road, though he scored a hit in 1960 with “It Just Tears Me Up.” In the 1970s he returned to playing music, but he limited his performances primarily to the Lone Star State. In 1970 Tillman was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 1984 his friend Willie Nelson was on hand to help induct Tillman into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was honored with induction into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1990. Floyd Tillman died at his home in Bacliff, Texas, on August 22, 2003. His final album, The Influence, was released in 2004 and featured Tillman in the studio in 2002 and 2003 with many of the musicians that he had inspired, including Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Ray Price, Hank Thompson, Justin Trevino, Mel Tillis, Johnny Bush, and George Jones.