Sunflower Co-Chairman, Melville Tillis, Passes Away

Melville Tillis, our longtime Sunflower co-chairman, who co-founded the gospel component of the festival has passed away. Services will be held at 1 p.m.Wednesday, March 6 at Haven United Methodist Church with Delta Burial in charge of arrangements.

Melville was the heart and soul of the Sunflower Festival. He also was one of our most successful fund-raisers. He was Clarksdale’s blues historian, a former musician, athlete, and educator.

Below is the letter nominating Melville for Citizen of the Year Honors for which he was selected.


For eight decades, Melville Tillis was an avid, positive, outspoken spokesperson for our hometown, vocally expressing his philosophy: “I am a Clarksdalian and believe in supporting anything that benefits Clarksdale and Coahoma County.”

Melville Tillis was named Clarksdale’s 2011-12 Citizen of the Year and honored at the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet.

Under the longtime chairmanship of Clarksdale community leader Melville Tillis, the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary Aug. 10-11-12, 2012, with a spectacular event as one of the world’s best music festivals.

“Melville Tillis was the heart and soul of the Sunflower,” commented attorney John Sherman, who served as co-chairman with him for years.

Not only has the festival been ranked by USA Weekend as one of America’s 10 Ten Places to hear authentic music, it was honored with a prestigious Heritage Blues Trail marker for its historical significance in the arts. For 26 years the festival has remained free and open to the public and is staged entirely by the bi-racial Sunflower River Blues Association that is 50 percent African-American and 50 percent Caucasian.

In his 83 years as a community leader, educator, businessman, athlete, coach, historian, and chairman of the Clarksdale Public Utilities Commission for 15 years, Melville Tillis has championed Clarksdale as an important and historic center for blues and gospel music and a city where the races work together for the betterment of all.

His abilities to work with both African American and Caucasian leaders on many levels and projects has contributed significantly to the success of numerous events and to Clarksdale’s reputation as one of Mississippi’s innovative communities.

Melville Tillis co-founded the Sunflower River Gospel Association with the late Julius Guy, and has personally known many music celebrities including Rabbit Foot Minstrel organizers, Bobby Rush, Little Milton Campbell, Clayton Love, and others who played often at his business, the Rivermount Club. He played trumpet with many of Clarksdale’s early musicians including Ike Turner’s first hometown band. When asked about the experience, he says with a smile, “Actually Ike played with us.”

Under his leadership, the Sunflower River Blues Association attracts a diverse membership that ranges from professionals including doctors and lawyers, educators, ministers, librarians, secretaries, journalists, musicians, cooks, road department workers, and a prison guard at Parchman.

During his longtime career heading the Sunflower River Blues Association, Melville Tillis never allowed health diversities including cancer surgery and most recently 2011 heart bypass surgery to slow down his duties. Returning quickly to his feet, Melville stayed on top of organizing and mailing sponsor packets to contributors.

The festival draws more than music fans from all sections of the United States and many international borders. He was an energetic festival fund-raiser with important professional contacts across the U.S. that made significant contributions to keeping the festival free and open to the public.

With legendary rock star Robert Plant headlining the 2012 Sunflower, the celebration drew Clarksdale’s largest crowd in history with CNN, Mississippi Educational Television and international journalists covering the event. From the main stage Melville Tillis was recognized and presented a plaque for his 25 years of contributions.

Melville Tillis taught school in Coahoma County for 35 years; coached Clarksdale Little League softball and refereed basketball games at the college and high school levels.

An alumnus of Alcorn State University where he was inducted into the Alcorn Hall of Fame, Melville Tillis is a 50-year member of the Alcorn Alumni Association.

He has been married to Jean C. Tillis for 47 years, and they are the parents of seven children. He is a member of Haven United Methodist Church and is the second oldest member of their congregation. He is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.

Surrounded by his wife and family, Melville is honored as Clarksdale’s 2011-12 Citizen of the Year at the Chamber of Commerce banquet