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.