Country music legend Mickey Gilley is set to perform The Urban Cowboy Reunion with his friend Johnny Lee at 8 p.m. Sept. 15 and 3 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Mickey Gilley Grand Shanghai Theatre in Branson.
Gilley, 83, recently phoned the West Plains Daily Quill office to talk about his upcoming show and shared stories of his experiences and success in country music and growing up with famous cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart.
“Jerry was my inspiration,” said Gilley. “If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have ever been in the music industry. But once I got my taste of it, I fell in love with it.”
Gilley and Johnny Lee were featured in the 1980 film “Urban Cowboy” starring John Travolta and Debra Winger. Also featured in the film was the world-famous Gilley’s nightclub he built in 1971 in Pasadena, Texas.
The musician’s hits include, “City Lights,” “I Overlooked an Orchid” and “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time,” which all reached number one on the Billboard Country Charts. His performance of “Stand By Me,” featured in “Urban Cowboy” and on its soundtrack, went platinum and made him a household name. One of Johnny Lee’s top hits from that film is “Looking for Love.”
Gilley said he currently performs with a seven-piece band.
“We try to make the music sound as close to our recordings as we possibly can,” he said. “It’s been a great ride for me. I still enjoy the music and I have a great time with the audience.”
Gilley has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and has been honored with several awards, including the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Entertainer of the Year, Top Male Vocalist, Song of the Year, Single of the Year and Album of the Year. He is a member of the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.
He is also proud of his recently presented honor, the Pioneer Award, given by the Branson Area Chamber of Commerce for his animal activism. Gilley plays two shows per year where the admission is dog food that he donates to local animal shelters.
In his career, Gilley has guest-starred on numerous popular television series including, “Murder She Wrote,” “The Fall Guy,” “Fantasy Island” and “Dukes of Hazzard.” He also had appearances on “20/20,” “The Grammy Awards Show,” “The American Music Awards,” “Solid Gold” and “The Tonight Show.”
A LOOK BACK AT SUCCESSFUL CAREER
“Go out and be yourself,” Gilley advises aspiring career musicians. “Don’t try to be something you’re not.”
On March 9, 1936, Gilley was born in Natchez, Miss., and raised in Ferriday, La., along with his two famous cousins, Lewis and Swaggart. It was in Ferriday where his love and appreciation of music grew. He absorbed the haunting sounds of Louisiana rhythm and blues by sneaking up to the windows of the clubs at night.
“Jerry Lee started playing piano at a very early age, 6, 7, 8. He was an awesome piano player,” Gilley recalled. “I didn’t start playing piano until I was about 13, I started playing guitar first. And, of course, Jimmy was playing piano at church and we were singing in church.
“Jimmy went on to Baton Rouge to start his ministry, Jerry Lee went to Memphis to try to get a deal with Sam Phillips, which he did, and I went to Houston, Texas, to do construction work and got married at the early age of 17 years old.”
Gilley said he never thought he’d find success onstage. But with the encouragement of his famous piano-playing cousin Jerry Lee Lewis, Gilley took a shot at the big time.
“When Jerry came into the Houston area singing, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin,’ and I was working for $1.25 an hour doing construction work, and I’m thinking, if he can do this, I can, too,” Gilley said. “I threw my hat in the ring and I had my first recording in 1957.”
It turned out to be the right move for Gilley who went on to have 39 top-10 country hits, with 17 of those songs reaching the No. 1 spot on the country charts.
In 1957 Gilley recorded his first record, “Ooh Wee Baby.” The song would later by used in a commercial for Yoplait yogurt.
In 1959 Mickey had his first charted record, “Is it Wrong for Loving You?” in which Kenny Rogers played the bass. He continued playing in cities throughout the South but eventually settled into Pasadena where he began performing at the Nesadel Club.
There he developed into one of the city’s most popular acts, playing for more than 10 years. While at the Nesadel, Gilley had his second charted record, “Lonely Wine.”
In 1971, along with business partner, Sherwood Cryer, he opened Gilley’s nightclub, which was entered into the Guinness Record Book as the World’s Largest Honky-Tonk.
It was at the club that Mickey started experiencing his first success when he released, “Room Full of Roses.”
By the mid-1970s his songs were hitting the country charts with regularity.
As the ‘80s neared, Gilley’s was growing bigger with every day. Country music’s biggest stars used the club as a launching pad. A television show was developed which only added to the phenomenon.
But it was when Esquire Magazine caught wind of the excitement and featured an article called “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy” that caused Gilley’s to develop into an Urban Cowboy craze.
As the club rose in popularity, so did Gilley.
Gilley’s nightclub shut its doors in the late ‘80s and a fire later destroyed the building. The musician decided to take his show on the road, eventually settling into Branson.
In 1989 Gilley decided to build his own theater. In 1993 an electrical short in a neon sign outside of the building created a spark and the theater burned to the ground. Six people in the building all escaped unharmed. Gilley rebuilt and his career was blooming.
In 2009, Gilley tripped while helping his friends move a sofa and was paralyzed for three months. He could no longer play the piano, walking was difficult, but with his voice better than ever, family and fans encouraged him to continue performing.
Gilley has lived in Pasadena since the 1950s and has performed for 25 years in Branson where he also has a home.
For more information and tickets, call 417-336-0888.
Keep up with Gilley on Facebook, Twitter and visit his website gilleys.com.