You’d be hard pressed to find a man with a more interesting set of stories than Mickey Gilley. Whether it’s with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, 26 years as a Branson performer, mainstream fame via a certain John Travolta film, 17 country #1 hits or a childhood spent at the piano with cousins Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, Gilley is sure to engage.
He describes his current show as being something of a play but with him and his music as the central theme and the stories behind the songs as the main plot, brought to life by the seven-piece Urban Cowboy Band and the Urbanette singers.
“It’s a concert with a storyline, so to speak,” he said.
Gilley’s career began in the 1950s but he was a musical veteran before his first hit came along in 1974 with a cover of Room Full of Roses. By then, Gilley was already a noted club owner thanks to Gilley’s Club and its mechanical bull. His chart success and his status as a club owner would soon become intertwined.
“I struggled for 17 years to have a hit and then in 1974 Roomful of Roses hit and it’s #1 all across the nation,” Gilley explained. “We had Conway Twitty booked at Gilley’s Pasadena. He was coming down to play the club but he hadn’t put two and two together that Mickey and Gilley’s was one in the same.”
Gilley said when Twitty connected the dots he offered him a home at United Talent – an agency he co-owned with Loretta Lynn.
“And two weeks later I’m on the road with Conway and Loretta.”
Gilley continued to tour and raised the musical question Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time, arguably his signature song. Scientists researched the notion, dubbing it ‘the closing time effect’ while the general public rewarded him with a #1 on the country charts.
Meanwhile, Gilley’s Club was also getting its share of attention.
“My business partner, when I was out on the road in ’74, he installed this mechanical bull – which was this rodeo training device – in the club,” Gilley said. So when he put the bull in all the wannabe cowboys, so to speak, and rodeo people come out to try to ride this mechanical contraption. We got a lot of attention.”
The bull got enough attention, in fact, that Esquire Magazine sent a writer down to see what all the fuss was, leading to an article titled The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy.
“My business partner knew I didn’t care for the article,” Gilley said, “because I thought he was putting down country music but he told me ‘Don’t say anything bad about the article because we might get a film on this story’. And I said, ‘Who in the world would want to play a storyline like the Urban Cowboy?’ And he said ‘John Travolta’.
“And after that it came to me because John Travolta was hot off Saturday Night Fever… I thought if John Travolta does this film it’s going to be a Country Night Fever. So that’s what kicked in and that’s how it came about.”
The film, which appropriately enough was shot in Gilley’s Club, involved music from artists like Bonnie Raitt and Joe Walsh as well as country artists which gave Gilley a splash of crossover appeal, made country shift gears, and changed the mainstream view of country music.
“It’s country with a little different flair to it,” Gilley said of the music that followed Urban Cowboy. “Stand by Me was an old bluesy tune. I did that and it went #1 in the country charts. It was sort of intertwined. I think that’s what made the music fun, they were great songs with a country flair. It didn’t have the twang to it that old time country music had.”
Gilley officially wrapped the Branson, Missouri phase of his career last year following 26 years on the scene and today leases his theatre to the group Six. It was a move, Gilley said, based on his drive to get back out on the road and tour.
“It’s about the music,” Gilley said, “it’s not about the fame or money. It’s about the music.
That’s the reason I keep doing it, I enjoy performing.”
Mickey Gilley will be performing in Pictou at the deCoste Centre on Thursday, June 16.