the return of the original Urban Cowboy
Though he was born in Mississippi, it was Houston – or Pasadena, to be exact – where Mickey Gilley laid his musical foundation. And in 1971, his signature honky tonk became a global trendsetter — Gilley’s.
Gilley recorded over a dozen No. 1 hits on the country chart, with several crossing over to the pop charts, like “Bring It on Home to Me,” “Room Full of Roses,” “True Love Ways,” “That’s All That Matters,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Talk to Me,” “Fool for Your Love,” “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time” and the Ben E. King classic “Stand by Me.”
Now 75, the cousin of fellow piano-playing fireball Jerry Lee Lewis and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart nearly had his career taken from him when a fall three years ago briefly left him paralyzed from the neck down. Though he still can’t play the piano, extensive rehab has allowed Gilley to regain much of his strength and return to the stage.
Gilley will perform at Nutty Jerry’s in Winnie on Saturday, Feb. 11, with doors opening at 7 p.m. Tickets for the show are $65, $50, $35, $30 and can be purchased online at nuttyjerrys.com or by phone at (877) 643-7508. Opening for Gilley will be Dr. Hook featuring Ray Sawyer.
The Examiner spoke to Gilley over the phone while he was at his theater in Branson, Mo.
Why was Pasadena chosen as the spot for Gilley’s?
I had worked at a club down the street from where Gilley’s was located for about 10 years. I had a big following in that area, which included Pasadena and Baytown. People would come from Beaumont and whatnot to see me play because I would do a lot of my cousin’s (Jerry Lee Lewis) music. I was just a honky-tonk piano-playing singer who people loved to dance to. When I left that club, I met Sherwood Cryer, who owned Shelley’s, which was in the Gilley’s location at that time. He asked me if I would like to have my own club, and I didn’t know if this guy was BS-ing me or not. So I went out to look at the club and I wasn’t interested in it. It was an open-air old airplane hanger-type place. It was just a metal building, and it was not conducive for live music. He asked what it would take to make it work, and so I told him. He agreed to fix it up then asked me if I would mind if we called it Gilley’s. I thought about it for a second and said sure. I would love to see my name in neon lights.
So it opened in 1971, right?
That’s correct. It didn’t have a lot in it, but Sherwood knew I liked to play pool. I wanted a pool table in there, but he thought I would spend more time hustling pool than playing music. I convinced him to put a table in. Once he did and realized all the money he making, he put in another. After a while, we ended up with a ton of games because Sherwood owned a vending company and he would use some of the space for storage. The club quickly evolved. About six months after opening, I got a local television show at Gilley’s sponsored by Gulf Coast Furniture. You could see me every week on TV and I would invite people to come see me play.
‘Urban Cowboy’ brought the club’s popularity to new heights. How did the two sides hook up?
We had a public relations firm in Los Angeles called the Brokaw Company. A guy by the name of Aaron Latham, who went on to write the movie, from New York, kept hearing a bunch of hoopla about people riding a mechanical bull in this club. The mechanical bull is a rodeo-training device that was never meant to be put in a nightclub. Sherwood put the bull in when I was on the road touring with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. He wanted to get the crowds from the Pasadena Rodeo and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. So these cowboys would come in and want to ride the bull. Aaron actually wrote an article for Esquire called ‘The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy.’ Aaron and I were on a plane out to Los Angeles because I was going to be on a talk show. He knew I didn’t like the article because I thought he was poking fun at country music. Aaron asked me not to say anything bad about the article on the television show I was going to be on because he thought we could get a movie deal. I said what side of the bed did you fall off on? He said, ‘No, I’m serious, and we are looking at John Travolta to be the lead actor.’ I said from ‘Saturday Night Fever’ to ‘Country Night Fever.’ I never dreamed it would become a movie. We signed with Paramount Pictures and they suggested to actually film the movie on the location where it all started — Gilley’s. I remember watching a private screening in Los Angeles. There’s a part in the movie where Bud looks at Sissy and says, ‘Turn that up, it’s my favorite song.’ That song was Johnny Lee’s ‘Lookin’ for Love,’ and I thought, man, Johnny is going to have a smash record with that tune. And he did.
When was the last time you watched it?
They run it all the time on different channels, and I watch some clips here and there, but it’s been a while since I have sat down and watched the entire thing. I do have the DVD, though.
Why did you choose to cover the song ‘Stand by Me’?There was going to be a lot of music in the ‘Urban Cowboy’ film. The producer of the soundtrack came to me about doing this song to use a grudge dance in the movie. I listened to the arrangement and I just didn’t like it. We did that song over and over again until we finally got something we liked. Basically that song was built with different tracks. I recorded the song on one track and would record it another way on another track. I ended up working with him several more times on the songs ‘Fool for Your Love,’ ‘Put Your Dreams Away,’ ‘A Headache Tomorrow (Or a Heartache Tonight)’ and ‘Tears of the Lonely,’ which were all No. 1 songs for me.
Of all your hits, which one means the most to you?
Without a doubt, ‘Room Full of Roses.’ I struggled in the music industry for a long time before that song. I really accidentally recorded it. I went in to record ‘She Called Me Baby All Night Long’ for a lady who owned a bunch of jukeboxes. I told her you can get Harlan Howard’s version of it, but she said the record was out of print. I told her next time I’m in the studio, I’ll record it for you. So I recorded it, but back then, you had to have another song to put on the other side of the record. I grew up singing the old song ‘Room Full of Roses’ with my cousins Jimmy and Jerr,y and it was originally recorded by George Morgan, which was Lorrie Morgan’s father. We started to record it and after 45 seconds into the song, I stopped playing it and didn’t want to record it. My bass player asked why I stopped and I said because it’s going to sound like my cousin Jerry Lee Lewis. He said well what difference does it make? No one is going to hear it. So we laid it down and I went to the local radio stations and asked them when they promote the club, will you play one of these songs? I remember talking with a DJ named Dr. Bruce Nelson at the station KENR and he played ‘Room Full of Roses.’ Immediately it became popular and all the jukebox operators would buy the records and use them in the machines. I then took the song to Nashville, then ended up in Los Angeles with Playboy Records. It was the first No. 1 song I had. People used to accuse me of copying my cousin, but I wasn’t trying to copy, I was trying to be just like him. But I think one of the best song’s I had was ‘Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time’ and the best album I made was That’s All That Matters to Me.
How is your health now?
I’m walking a little bit better and my strength is slowly returning, but I am still unable to play the piano. I was really disappointed in Jerry Lee’s performance at Nutty Jerry’s. He didn’t perform as long as I thought he would and didn’t sing some of his hits. He has so many great songs, but why he sang some of the ones he did, I don’t know. People that come see Mickey Gilley are going to hear the hit songs. I’ve got a full band and two lovely girls that sing with me. One of the girl’s has sang on more hits than George Strait has had and the other lovely girl has worked with Engelbert Humperdinck in Vegas.
Did Nutty Jerry’s remind you any of Gilley’s?
First time I heard the name Nutty Jerry’s, I thought what in the devil is this all about? It did remind me some of Gilley’s.
What are your thoughts on country music today?
I love good music. It doesn’t matter what type it is, as long as it’s good. I saw Elton John in concert recently. I’m not a big Elton John fan, but he played his music. He played a song called ‘Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word’ and I decided to play it myself. I don’t know if I will perform it at Nutty Jerry’s or not. As far as the current country music scene, it’s difficult for me to say. I always thought George Strait would be the biggest thing in country music until Garth Brooks showed up. He blew by everybody like Secretariat did in the Triple Crown races. I just like a good song. I really like Toby Keith’s ‘Red Solo Cup.’ That type of song intrigues the devil out of me.