Eighty-three-year-old country music legend Mickey Gilley still knows how to work his mass-marketed Southern charm. On a recent early morning phone call from some highway outside Nashville, he opened the conversation with a few bars of Little Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly” in a melodious swamp drawl.
Gilley’s down-home hospitality put him on the map. He grew up in Ferriday, Louisiana, singing three-part Gospel harmony and playing boogie-woogie piano with his two equally famous cousins, the rock ’n’ roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis and preacher Jimmy Swaggart. In Pasadena, Texas, in 1971, he opened a juke joint called Gilley’s, which became perhaps the most storied club in country music history. The rootin’-tootin’ honky-tonk was an instant success, and Gilley forged his fame as more than just a host and opener for the country stars who played the club: He became one of them, charting a string of top-ten and number-one hits through the ’70s.
Urban Cowboy launched Gilley into the stratosphere. The blockbuster 1980 movie starring John Travolta and Debra Winger as Budweiser-swilling, two-stepping, mechanical-bull-riding, star-crossed “Gilley’s rats” ignited America’s inner cowboy. The film’s soundtrack dominated the airwaves, heralding a new era of country-lite AM gold. Gilley went on tour with its biggest hitmaker, Johnny Lee. (Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love” was the official song of Urban Cowboy’s Bud and Sissy. Gilley’s cover of “Stand by Me” was a close second.)
Nearly 40 years later, they’re back in action at Buffalo Thunder Casino on Saturday, April 6, on the Urban Cowboy Reunion Tour. Pasatiempo caught up with Gilley in advance of the western leg of the tour.
Pasatiempo: There’s been a lot of stuff written about you and Jerry Lee Lewis that says you came up in his shadow. Would you say that?
Mickey Gilley: Absolutely. I was doing construction work in Houston, Jerry Lee had gone to Memphis, and Jimmy went down to Baton Rouge to start his ministry. I was making a dollar and 25 cents an hour doing construction work. Jerry Lee came into town singing “Whole Lotta Shakin’.” And I saw how well he was doing in the music business and I’m thinking if he can do this, I can too. I thought I could go out on the road, play piano, and do the same thing. I’d just cut a record and I’d become a star. It didn’t happen, but I thought that at the time. Seventeen years later, I have a number-one song on the charts called “A Room Full of Roses.”
Pasa: How did the original Gilley’s come to be?
Gilley: I was working at a club on the Spencer Highway in Pasadena, Texas, and I worked there for 10 years. It was called the Nesadel. I played piano and organ and sang. I was like any Holiday Inn band that you see walking in. I was successful because I could do my cousin’s music, I could do “A Whole Lotta Shakin’,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “High School Confidential,” you know.
In 1971, 1970, I left that club and went across town. And the gentleman that owned the club down the street from where the Nesadel was at, Sherwood Cryer, he had a club called Shelley’s. He comes over and he asked me why I left the club, and I told him — for more money. Younger women, faster horses, and more whiskey, you know?
And he said, Would you be interested in bringing your group and coming to the club? And the reason why he wanted me at the club was because when he would book a big star down there at Shelley’s, I would always fill the Nesadel up because the star would come down to dance to the music I was performing. I was a local personality.
I made a demand I thought he was gonna turn down: I doubled my salary. I said, “If you can give me 400 a week and pay my band X amount of dollars, OK,” and he says, “You got it.” And I said, “Wait a minute, is the offer to own half the club?” And he says, “Absolutely,” he says, “I’ll make you a partner.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m interested.” He said, “What do you want to call the club?” I said, “You can call it anything you want to.” He said, “I want to call it Gilley’s.” And I’m thinkin’, Wow!
Pasa: Tell me about when an Esquire magazine writer came to the club in 1978 to write the article that became the basis for Urban Cowboy.
Gilley: So I’m on the road traveling, and my business partner, since I wasn’t there, decided that he would put the mechanical bull in Gilley’s. He was like the Al Capone of Pasadena. He’d run Pasadena. He went and made a deal with these people with this mechanical contraption who’d use it as a rodeo training device. It was never meant to be in a nightclub. And when I heard that he did it, I got upset. I said, “You’re crazy.”
So he puts a mechanical bull in and the word gets all the way to New York that they got something going on in Pasadena, Texas, that nobody’s ever heard of before. And this guy comes down from Esquire, Aaron Latham. And he’s the one who wrote the article.
Pasa: Why do you think Urban Cowboy blew up the way it did?
Gilley: It’s very simple. When John Travolta did the thing for the disco craze, he did Saturday Night Fever. And then what Urban Cowboy was, all it was, was a Country Night Fever. … We had a Gilley’s magazine, man. Back when the Urban Cowboy hit, we had everything that you could think of. From suspenders to Gilley’s panties.
And it was done in a joint. There wasn’t anything nice about that club — I mean, Gilley’s was a joint. But it worked because of what it represented … country music and the cowboy image.
I mean, I was in Nashville and I had this guy get on the elevator and he says, “Hey, Gilley, I want to thank you for what you did for country and western wear.” I says, “Me? It was John Travolta that did that, not Mickey Gilley.” But then I says, “It was all done in my club, though, and thank you very much!” ◀
▼ Urban Cowboy Reunion Tour with Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee
▼ 8 p.m. Saturday, April 6
▼ Tewa Grand Showroom, Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino, 20 Buffalo Thunder Trail
▼ Check for ticket availability, hiltonbuffalothunder.com