Mickey Gilley, musician whose club inspired Travolta’s ‘Urban Cowboy,’ dies at 86
Mickey Gilley, a musician who scored more than three dozen top-10 country hits and whose honky-tonk club inspired the 1980 movie “Urban Cowboy” and the subsequent “cowboy chic” fashion trend, died on Saturday. He was 86 years old.
Gilley died “surrounded by loved ones,” according to a statement from Pasadena, Texas, Mayor Jeff Wagner, who added, “Our prayers for comfort and peace are with Mickey’s family, loved ones and fans.” . A cause of death was not given. He had toured recently and performed 10 shows in April, his reps said.
The Natchez, Miss., native, son of Arthur Fillmore Gilley and Irene (Lewis) Gilley, grew up in Ferriday, Louisiana, and his cousins included musician Jerry Lee Lewis and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. (Gilley would later joke that “my cousin Jimmy Lee makes more money than Jerry Lee and I combined.”)
“The only reason I got into the music business was because of Jerry Lee,” Gilley told The Times in 1994. “I saw what he was doing, and ever since I was playing the piano and was singing, I thought all I had to do was cut a record and I’m a star. How wrong I was! In the end, I saw how much Jerry Lee was earning, but I when even ended up working in construction for 75 cents an hour.
While working in construction, Gilley moonlighted as a singer in local clubs and began cutting singles in the late 1950s for independent Texas labels. His first national hit came in 1968 with “Now I Can Live Again”.
“The hits ‘Chains of Love’, ‘Honky Tonk Memories’, ‘She’s Pulling Me Back Again’ and ‘Here Comes the Hurt Again’ followed as his honky-tonk gave way to the more progressive countrypolitan”, a term for country music with a more pop sound that was growing in popularity at the time, Gilley’s representatives said in a statement on his verified Facebook page.
Gilley started his nightclub, Gilley’s, in Pasadena, Texas in the early 1970s, which became a go-to stop for country musicians and was made famous by an Esquire magazine article titled “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy”, which inspired and was featured in (along with Gilley himself) the 1980 film “Urban Cowboy” starring John Travolta and Debra Winger.
Gilley’s version of “Stand By Me” on the film’s soundtrack hit No. 1 on the Billboard country charts, and the “cowboy chic” fashion craze took off, along with Gilley’s music, which l maintained near the top of the charts with singles “You Don’t Know Me” and “True Love Ways”. Country clubs with mechanical bulls, a hallmark of Gilley, began to appear across the country.
“Everyone became a cowboy or a cowgirl,” Gilley recalled to The Times later. “It was like when the Beatles came along and everyone pushed their long hair out and shook their heads. … It was the first time you could walk into a casino in Las Vegas or Reno or Lake Tahoe or Atlantic City and see guys with cowboy hats.
The club closed in 1989 amid business disputes with partner Sherwood Cryer, and in 1990 Gilley moved his act to the burgeoning entertainment scene in Branson, Missouri, where the Mickey Gilley Grand Shanghai Theater still works today.
“Branson is the most amazing, exciting thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” Gilley told The Times in 1994. “Of course, ‘Urban Cowboy’ and [Gilley’s club] were important, but I had no control over those situations. In Branson, I own the theater and the restaurant – me and the bank, of course. I like what Branson has become. People go to the musical show, they go fishing; it is one of the most beautiful regions of the country.”
Representatives for Gilley said Gilley was predeceased by his wife Vivian, and his wife Cindy Loeb Gilley survived; his children, Kathy, Michael, Gregory and Keith Ray; four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.