Charlie Tillman, who called Atlanta home for most of his career, was a pioneer composer, performer, and publisher of southern gospel music. During the almost 60 years that he was involved in the music business, he wrote some 100 songs, published 22 songbooks, and toured extensively as a song director with several evangelists, one of whom was his father.
Born in Tallassee, Alabama, in 1861, Charlie Davis Tillman exhibited early in life a better-than-average talent and inclination for music. His parents were evangelists, and he grew up traveling with them and taking an active role in the musical portion of their services. As he approached adulthood, Tillman began to yearn for a life outside the revival circuit and struck out on his own in search of a career as a secular entertainer. For fourteen years he worked odd jobs as a house painter, an organ salesman, a medicine show performer, and a minstrel show entrepreneur. Returning to the environment in which he had grown up, Tillman devoted the rest of his life to religious work, notably in the fields of songwriting and music publishing. He conducted his business out of his home, located in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood.
The best-known and most enduring of Tillman’s songs is “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” Written in 1890, this song remains a favorite among country music and bluegrass music performers. “Life’s Railway to Heaven” was a collaborative effort between Tillman, who wrote the music, and a Baptist minister in Atlanta named M. E. Abbey (or Abby), who supplied the lyrics.
While attending an African American camp meeting in South Carolina, Tillman heard the congregation singing a song called “My Old Time Religion.” He quickly wrote down the words and music, revised them later at home, introduced the song to white audiences, and published it in 1891 in one of his songbooks. “Gimme That Old Time Religion” soon became a standard in the canon of spiritual music.
In 1893 Tillman found a poem titled “A Dream” in a Salvation Army publication. He set it to music and published it in a songbook under the title “The Judgment.” Bearing the alternate title “The Great Judgment Morning,” the song subsequently was published extensively in southern gospel songbooks and recorded by numerous country music artists.
One of Tillman’s best-known songbooks was The Assembly Book, published in 1927. The book was adopted by the state school systems of Georgia and South Carolina for use in school assembly programs.
Tillman also performed on early radio broadcasts including Atlanta’s WSB station. In 1930 the National Broadcasting Company devoted an entire program to the performance of his songs. With one of his daughters accompanying him on piano, he recorded for the Columbia label.
Tillman died in 1943 and is buried in Atlanta’s Westview Cemetery beneath a monument engraved with the words and music of a line from “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” The Gospel Music Association, based in Nashville, Tennessee, inducted Tillman into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1993.