John Harrison Tolleson was born in Board Camp, Polk County, Arkansas, on July 29, 1937. His family moved to Greenwood, Mississippi, when he was eight.
Tolleson's mother taught him to play the piano when he was five years old. After high school he went to the University of Arkansas, where he played with the Bob Donathan Orchestra before creating his own band, John Tolleson and His Bunch, in 1957. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in music education in 1959.
Tolleson traveled to Canada in 1958 and 1959 to perform in Conway Twitty's opening act. He returned to Fayetteville for another degree, earning a Bachelor of Science in business administration in 1961. Tolleson then moved to Mason, Ohio, to work for Baldwin Piano & Organ Company, where he became vice president of sales. In 2001 Tolleson was appointed regional director of development at the University of Arkansas.
Tolleson passed away on October 6, 2020.