Looking back on the life of Mickey Gilley, who died May 7 in Branson, Mo., at the age of 86, one must consider the musician and the country music era he helped define.
The singer-pianist was a versatile stylist, an outstanding instrumentalist and one of country music’s most prolific hitmakers. He landed his first No. 1 country single, a version of George Morgan’s “Room Full of Roses,” in 1974 on Playboy Records. Six more Gilley chart-toppers followed on the label, and 10 more singles reached the top of the country chart during his long stint at Epic Records. It ranked among the top 25 country singles of the 1980s, according to charting authority Joel Whitburn.
But Gilley’s reach has expanded beyond vinyl and radio waves through his famous namesake club, Gilley’s, based in Pasadena, Texas, outside of Houston. The establishment, touted as one of the biggest honky tonks in the world, would introduce a whole new audience to country music with the hit movie that was shot under its roof, the 1980 hit “Urban Cowboy.”
Gilley became a club partner in the early 1970s, before he was a major hitmaker and before he knew if his career would last. Although he became synonymous with the film and the cultural moment it sparked, at his heart he was first and foremost a musician. All but two of his number 1 hits were released before the release of “Urban Cowboy” in June 1980.
Ultimately, Gilley earned his place as a bonafide country legend, whose extended family included trailblazer Jerry Lee Lewis and televangelist Jimmy Swaggert.
“I started playing the piano around the age of 13. My cousin Jerry Lee Lewis started around the age of 7 and his cousin Jimmy Swaggart followed him on the piano, playing gospel music,” Gilley told me in 2016. playing guitar. I found that the piano interested me a little more. I could look at my hands, and I couldn’t see my hands on the guitar, so I ended up at the piano. And with my cousin Jerry Lee playing “Whole Lotta Shakin” in the ’50s, I felt like at that point if he could do it, I could do it too.
Gilley began his recording career in 1959 in Houston, cutting his first single with another budding young musician, Kenny Rogers, on bass. However, it would be 15 years before Gilley landed his first big hit. “I haven’t had any success, as far as national attention goes,” he explained. “As far as my recording career goes, I didn’t think it would ever happen.”
Thus, in 1971, with his partner Sherwood Cryer, he opened the doors of the nightclub that bears his name. He developed a local profile and at Gilley he was able to sell his own records on the jukebox. “Room Full of Roses” became a local and then regional hit, and Nashville promoter Eddie Kilroy took the record to Playboy, where it took off nationally.
By the time director James Bridges turned his lens to modern Houston for “Urban Cowby,” the club had become nationally acclaimed as a haven for music and more. The film was based on an Esquire story about Gilley bosses’ mating rituals; John Travolta – who had achieved mega-stardom with 1977’s “Saturday Night Fever” – and Debra Winger played a rowdy working-class couple based on two Gilley regulars, Dew Westbrook and Betty Helmer.
Naturally, Travolta had the opportunity to strut, cowboy style, on Gilley’s hardwood floor. But many moviegoers walked away from “Urban Cowboy” with the image of Winger riding the club’s mechanical bull in their minds. Gilley was on the road when his business partner had the contraption installed, and he wasn’t amused when he first laid eyes on it. In fact, his initial reaction threatened to kill the film project before it was nailed down.
“I thought that was the biggest mistake anyone could ever make,” Gilley told Houston TV reporter Dave Ward in 2020. “The first thing I thought about was people hurt themselves, and of course they did. Next thing I know, a guy came down from New York and wrote an article about urban cowboy, and it was going to change my life. ”
Now contemplating what he called “Country Night Fever,” Gilley wisely held his tongue over his dislike of the article, which he said suppressed country music. VarietyThe film’s review noted that it “deftly captured the atmosphere of one of the most famous hangouts for chip kickers”.
Moviegoers were wowed by the warmth of its two lead actors (and supporting villainous Scott Glenn as the main fly in the romantic pomade), and a wall-to-wall soundtrack of contemporary country hits combined with the exotic fly on the wall watching country life in the big city turned “Urban Cowboy” into a box office and record-store hit, where it delivered on both the country and pop fronts.
The film spawned three No. 1 country singles: Gilley’s “Stand By Me” (a cover of Ben E. King’s R&B and pop hit), Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love” (Gilley’s house band leader ) and Anne Murray’s “Can I Have That Dance”, plus Kenny Rogers’ country entry #4, “Love the World Away”. All of these tracks, along with Box Scaggs’ “Look What You’ve Done to Me” and Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh’s “All Night Long,” made it into the pop top 40. The two-LP soundtrack album, produced by Irving Azoff and released by Asylum, was eventually certified for sales of 3 million copies.
Hard-country aficionados may have turned their noses up, but the film’s success has encouraged city-dwellers to dip their new Tony Lama boots into country music. Before long, line dancing videos became all the rage, and country bars became newly created hangouts in major northern cities.
Between 1974 and 1983 Gilley had an unbroken streak of 29 top 40 singles in the country; material ranged from honky tonk dance floor fillers to romantic ballads. Many of the songs, driven by his bluesy piano playing, had a rock edge to them. “I wasn’t really known as a country music performer,” he told me. “I was trying to keep up with Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee and Fats Domino and Little Richard. I was trying to be more like Elvis and those people back then. I didn’t consider myself a country actor.
After “Urban Cowboy,” Gilley turned his notoriety into a string of television and film roles in the ’80s, often appearing in series such as “Fantasy Island,” “The Fall Guy,” “Chips,” and “Murder, She Wrote”. .” And it continued to appear regularly with top 20 nationwide hits well into the late ’80s. Although the original Gilley’s burned down in 1990, it maintained an afterlife as a franchise operation, including one in Branson, where the musician has spent much of his time in recent years.
Gilley remained an eclectic performer who cast a wide net stylistically. He once told me that he considered his duet on a remake of Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me” with Ray Charles “the thrill of my career… just the pinnacle of my life.”
It is possible that the “Urban Cowboy” explosion survives its original owner. Thanks to decades of regular airings of the film on cable TV, Gilley’s nightclub may soon find a new lease of life in Hollywood. In February, Variety reported Paramount+ is developing a series remake of the film.
Forty years after his heyday, Mickey Gilley was still synonymous with a dynamic era for country music. Not a bad legacy for a honky-tonk hero.
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