THE URBAN COWBOY
Of the three famous cousins Ferriday, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Swaggart, and Mickey Gilley, Mickey Gilley was the youngest… and led a more normal life than his two cousins, free of scandal and addictions and self-imposed tragedies that marked the lives of the other two, free of the animosity many people had for the other two.
And in spite of all this, he had the shortest life, 86 years, and was the first to die, 5/7/2022.
Oh, I am not endorsing a life style like Jerry’s or Jimmy’s in order to have a longer life span. I am just stating a fact.
Mickey lived across the Mississippi River from Ferriday and his two cousins. But that did not stop him from coming under their influence. He often went with them at night to listen to the Blues at the Ferriday nightclub. He learned to play and the guitar from Jimmy, and the piano from Jerry. His family moved to Texas about the time he started high school. In Texas, traditional Country Western/Grand Ole Opry music prevailed, although he never forgot his roots in Jerry’s boogie-woogie and Jimmy’s gospel.
For someone whose drinking habits were modest, an occasional beer from a long necked bottle, Mickey Gilley was best known for selling beer. That is, he was co-owner in Gilley’s Club, the world’s largest honky-tonk saloon. Located in Pasadena, Texas, it seated 6,000, and was usually filled every night. It was the size of a football field and had tables for sitting at, tables to shoot pool at, tables to shoot the bull at while watching people getting bucked off the mechanical bull, and still have plenty room to line dancing. In short, it was a way of life for it’s regular beer drinking patrons.
Esquire Magazine did a feature on two of these regulars. James Bridges saw it as another Saturday Night Fever with C&W replacing disco. He sold the idea to a studio, wrote an adaption of the article, and directed the film.
John Travolta jumped at the chance to dance in another film. Debra Winger jumped at the chance to restart her stagnant movie career. Mickey’s partner jumped at the idea of Gilley’s as the film’s location. Mickey was noncommittal.
He saw it as an opportunity the club and himself, but…He had dislikes the magazine article and he hated the mechanical bull.
Gilley had been on tour when his partner bought and installed the mechanical bull without asking Mickey’s blessing,. Mickey hit the roof. He didn’t like the ugly piece of scrap metal and the loud excitement it created. He reasoned that somebody could get injured and sue them big time. But it was too late to remove it, it was standing room only with people, drinking a lot of long necked bottles of beer, waiting their turn to ride it and/or make a fool out of themselves. YIPPEE!!!
The movie had a talented cast, who had to compete with the other costars, namely, the mechanical bull, the Honky-Tonk saloon, C&W music, cowboy boots, cowboy hats, and domestic violence. The movie made Gilley’s an icon and a boon to the makers of cowboy boots and hats.
Surprisingly, the movie introduced Mickey Gilley to a host of people, but did little to enhance his record sales. Only two of his hits came after the movie. One from the soundtrack, a cover of the great Ben E, King song, Stand By Me.It did start him to establish a series of mini honky-tonks, all called Gilley’s. Then he opened up one of the first musical theaters in Branson, Missouri, helping it to become the entertainment mecca of middle America.
His cameo, playing himself in the movie, led to a minor career in TV acting.
As for the original Gilley’s, Mickey and his partner broke up shortly after the movie and they closed the place down. The vacant structure burned down a year later.
Good old southern boy, Mickey, married his first wife, Geraldine. when he was only 17. The marriage last 8 years and 3 children, who were raised by their mother. He married his 2nd wife, Vivian, a year after the divorce, and that marriage last until her death in 2019, and produced his 4th child.
His last marriage was to Cindy Loeb and lasted a shade under 2 years, ending with his death. She was a long time business manager for his night clubs and musical career Now she manages his estate.
Unlike his 2 cousins, Mickey never had a scandal that involved his wives and or other women.
Where else would a talented guitar and piano player living in Texas and listening to the endless C&W songs on the radio, go, but to Nashville, home of The Grand Ole Opry. He quickly found work as studio musician playing piano and or guitar.
Others in the group included Kenny Rogers, bass player and Glen Campbell, guitar player extraordinaire. This group of studio musicians played on most all of the songs cut in Nashville at the time, no matter who was doing the singing or what record company. It was steady work and good money for those musicians who were waiting for their chance to take the mic,
When his cousin, Jerry Lee, busted loose with A Whole Lot of Shaking, Mickey decided to make his move to signing. He cut his first single in 1959, Kenny Rogers on bass; but it was good he kept his day job.
His singing success was nil, just more cutting records that were never distributed. Only one of his recordings earned him some money. It was used in a TV ad selling baby food. But he kept trying.
Then 15 years from his first attempt, his singing career broke loose…and that was by accident.
Mickey was certain that the song She Called Me Baby would be a winner. He still needed one for the B Side of the record and chose, as a lark, to cover a hit from 1949, A Room Full Of Roses. When it was played back to him, he hated it. He complained that the steel guitar was too loud and that he had got lost in the piano solo, and… But the rep of the record said said enough is enough, it’s only a B Side fill- in; and the record company couldn’t afford to waste more money on Gilley..
Fill- in! That fill- in gave Mickey his first start as a C&W mainstay. Thanks to the B side, it was his first record to be distributed nationally. Mickey had egg on his face over his dismissal of the cut.. Kind of like his disapproval years later of the mechanical bull.
The record was one of the few hits for Playboy Records, a venture of Hugh Hefner to show case a girlfriend, Barbi Benton. More an attempt to impress a girl than to actually actually be a record producer, Hef sold the Playboy Records when Barbi moved out of the mansion.
Now at the age if 38, Gilley had the start of career in music that he dreamed for years.
Mickey followed through with a number of C&W hits in the traditional style of prevelent in Nashville during the 70’s.
There were other hotbeds of Country music besides Nashville. Memphis, thanks to Sun Records and it’s early stable of Elvis, Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. And in Austin, the Outlaw music of singer/songwriters Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson was coming on like a fast moving train. But Mickey stayed put in the Eddie Arnold/Grand Ole Opry scene in Nashville. That was the kind of man he was, loyal to the horse that brung him.
The 80’s saw a change in C&, even in staid old Nashville. Glen Campbell, Kenny Rodgers, and others were very successful in Country Pop, which crossed over into pop radio stations and introduced twang to a much larger audience.
Gilley never achieved the phenomenal success those two friends from the studio orchestra days achieved, but he did okay.
He had 39 Top Ten Country, singles, 17 of which hit #1 in the 15 years. But then in 1986, county music reverted back to it’s traditional roots with young talent like Clint Black, Randy Travis, and Reba McEntire racking up the hits. This time he didn’t follow the trend. He was content to ease into a life of semi-retirement.
He got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted along with his two famous cousins in the Delta Music Hall of Fame in Ferriday. The HOF is basically a museum dedicated to the three cousins. It’s not Graceland, but it draws a lot of visitors and keeps Ferriday on the map.
For 2 years he was The Academy of Country Music New Comer of the year, and in 1976 swept the honors as best entertainer along with best single and best album of the year, for the single and album, Don’t All The Girls Get Prettier At Closing Time,
He included some Gospel in his playlist, but never wore his religion on his sleeve like Cousin Swaggart. He did enjoy Cousin Jerry’s vocals and his piano style and played many duets, live and recorded, with The Killer over the years.
Mickey Gilley was popular, easy to talk t, good listener, and had a great many friends, in and out of the music scene. He never turned down a request to help a friend. In 2009, he was helping a friend move when a bench fell on him and broke his back. He went through extensive therapy but his back bothered him the rest of his life. It took a year but he did manage to get back to singing on stage, but he could never play the piano again.
This back problem was responsible for him taking a bad fall that resulted in brain surgery. His health deteriorated. His wife, Vivian, became more of a nurse than a wife, and preceded him in death by a few years.
Persuaded by his manager and soon-to-be-third wife, Cindy Loeb, he recorded an album, Kicking It Down The Road, a mix of some old, some new. This was in 2017. A year later he recorded another, Two Old Cats, all duets with his friend, Troy Payne. It was good therapy to help ease his pain.
. . . . . . .
I had worked Mickey on a few occasions, but had no direct contact with him. He came to the Minneapolis Auditorium in a package concert on in three concerts I worked. There was a Nashville promoter who would put several C&W B-List artists on one card and tour some big cities. He would bring a group to Minneapolis a couple times a year.
For the most part, the artists kept to themselves in a green room the promoter stocked with food and drink. The only one that spent any time backstage was Dottie West. She was friendly to the hands, especially Mark, the stage carpenter.
When Mickey became a name act, he performed at the Flame, a small C&W honky-tonk saloon, but never was booked in a big venue that the union worked.
Looking back now, I wish I had seen more of him. He rightfully earned a reputation as a talented, hard working professional, whose hat size never grew when he mad the big time.
Mickey never gave up
his chasing his dream
and finally caught it
Mickey Gilley passed away on 5/7/22.
His cousin, Jimmy Swaggart officiated at the funeral.
His other cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis was in a hospice
and would join Mickey 5 months later.
P.S. :The last of the three cousins coming up, next.
Now that’s a story well-told folks….the real world in the midst of CW and Rock music by talented musicians that made us all tap our feet and, as Don O reminds us of the lyrics to a song sung last: “Don’t All The Girls Get Prettier At Closing Time,” Rock and CW can make most anything happen 🙂
Thanks, Tom. Mickey’s song must have rung a lot of bells. The seekers eyeing the gals in the bar made the song record of the year.
“Rock ‘n Roll is here to stay!” As Shanana’s Bowser used to sing out before every performance. It sure is
Thank you for this other beautiful episode of music history.
I don’t know many of Mickey Gilley’s songs and I didn’t know anything about his life. So thank you very much for talking about this artist
You are most welcome, Luisa. Pretty tame compared to your fine posts on Emma and Nelson, but then 99.9% of all lives are tamer.
I would suggest to anyone reading this , would read your fantastic blog
Heartfelt thanks for your generous support, Don!
I must add that I too am fascinated by your posts
I knew the name but I did not know about the man. Thank you for sharing. It’s nice to hear a good stories about good man.
He was a ‘good man;’.
Another fascinating chapter. Looking to reading about the third cousin.
He takes his talent in anothe direction.
Hadn’t heard of him (nor seen the movie) but I do like Country Rock so there is that!
I always knew you were a County Rock, Fraggle.
Hehe yes indeeed!
Excellent read, Don. Filled in some blanks for me regarding his life. Well done.
Thanks. I glad you found out more about Mickey.
Thank you for the follow, Don!
I looked up some old video (he was introduced as Gillam, and then quickly corrected). He was quite a cutie, especially when he smiled into the camera. Now I realise I must have known some of his music without knowing who was behind it.
So glad he smiled at you, Gwen. After having his name butchered he still remained a nice guy.
I see where Amazon will soon be streaming a documentary, Bush Boy, about Lee Kernaghan, one of the top Country artists in Australia. Reading his bio, I think I would like him both as an artist and a fine person.
What do you think about him, Gwen?
He’s been around for decades, Don. Clean living, long marriage, down-to-earth bloke. Grew up in the Riverina, which I had connections with when I worked in the rice industry. It’s also wheat and wool country. One of his early pieces, Boys from the Bush is basically biographical of that life. He was also the 2018 Australian of the Year.
I hope you get to see the documentary. Meanwhile, see if this will play for you.
Lee Kernaghan – Boys From The Bush (Official Music Video) – Bing video https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=popular+lee+kernaghan+song&docid=603549046630125293&mid=7AF41FB6433CEFE1C0197AF41FB6433CEFE1C019&view=detail&FORM=VIRE
Thanks for the try, Gwen, but it won’t play/ I will look him up on U Tube. His giving back to his country is so warm.
I hope you find the official music video. It has some interesting scenes, even if the dress code is out of date. And I hope you understand the words! I can always translate, LOL
Don, She sure doesn’t look “garrulous to me….plus you hardly hear Gwendoline any more.
Oh, Tom, you are right. She doesn’t look ‘garrulous’ at all. In fact she’s a real sweetheart and my favorite Aussie Sheila.
Thanks Tom. 🙂 I’m named after my aunt who was born in 1914. It was her second name. Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Ernest. I think it was a popular name at the beginning of the 20th century. I couldn’t work out why so many people had maiden aunts with that name, until I realised a lot of them would have lost their sweethearts in WW1.
What’s in a name, hey?
I sure enjoyed “The Importance of Being Earnest” when it was plerformed when I was at the College of St. Thomas. It was well-done by our actors. When It comes to Gwendoline, unless asked otherwise, I’d probably call you “Gwen.”
It was a tragedy how many died in WW1 serving as “cannon fodder,” on both sides!
Most people do. I respond to anything except “Gwenny”. But for the blog post, the full name seemed to flow better.
Do Minnesotans use the expression, “call me anything – just don’t call me late for dinner”?
And Oscar Wilde was a brilliant wordsmith.
True that! And here it is “don’t call me late for dinner.”
I might have to take you up on the translation, Gwen. I’, familiar with Aussie speak like the barbie and Sheila and didgeridoo but not much more than that just G’day
The lyrics are pretty straightforward, but then I speak the lingo (language). I think the hardest might be about the “ute” (short for utility). I think you’d call it a pickup truck.
And a “shout” means buying a round of drinks. Usually taken in turns. So someone might get reminded – “your shout”. Roo is a kangaroo. Outback is the remote sparsely occupied country beyond major towns. (As in out back of beyond). Bush is a general term for wild country. Scrub is land covered in low vegetation, trees and shrubs, etc.
“Been shearing sheep, we been mustering stock
We been culling out roos, we been spraying the crops
We’ve been droving cattle up an old stock route
Now its Saturday night, we pile in the ute
We’re the boys from the bush and we’re back in town
Well the dogs in the back and the foot goes down
We’re life members of the outback club
We’re the boys from the bush come in from the scrub
Been out in the heat, we been loading the trucks
Been fixing fences, we been choking on dust
We curse the raaaaaaain we curse the drought
Now its Saturday night and we’re all in the shout.”
I was never a fan of C&W music, so thanks for filling in the many blanks for me. For the same reason, I have never watched ‘Urban Cowboy’, despite its popularity at the time.
Best wishes, Pete.
I saw the movie when it first came out, Never had an urge to see it again even free on TV. I enjoy classic Country music but most of the ‘Country’ played today isn’t country, It’s just bad pop.
‘His hat size never grew when he made the big time’ says it all. Thank you for telling us about Mickey. What a guy. I love the mechanical bull story. His pathway in music seemed to suit him just fine. I hope cousin Jerry Lee supported his music. I had never heard of a green room until I was on the Kelly Clarkson Show!
Cousin Jerry Lee often got together with Mickey and they did duets together. Cousin Swaggart did the same with Mickey.
I have been in a lot of greenrooms over the years and have yet to see one painted green.
And I have thousands of Break a Leg, the show biz phrase used in lieu of good luck, and have never seen anyone break a leg on stage. Thank goodness.
Good to know he sang with his cousins. Yes, the greenroom was not green, and I think most everyone says ‘break a leg’ for good luck- good thing no legs have actually been broken!