Mickey Gilley - Biography
In comparison to his celebrated cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart, country music pianist-singer Mickey Gilley may have been a slow starter, but when his records finally started hitting in the mid-1970s, Gilley parlayed his success into a country music empire. Graced with the benefit of some incomparable musical DNA, Gilley’s soaring, declarative vocals and tangy, boogie-drenched piano style was eerily similar to that of Lewis and Swaggart, and carried the same naturally irresistible appeal which ultimately propelled each to the top of their respective fields—rock & roll and fire & brimstone evangelism—and in Gilley’s case, uncut honky-tonk.
Mickey Leroy Gilley was born March 9, 1936 in Natchez, Mississippi, just across the Mississippi River from Louisiana. Gilley grew up spending plenty of time with Lewis and Swaggart, going to Gene Autry shoot-’em-ups on Saturday and every Sunday, enjoying the crucial experience of singing gospel with them at Ferriday’s Assembly of God Church. He also liked to sneak out with Lewis to the area’s infamous black nightclub, Haney’s Big House, where he (like Lewis) was mesmerized by Big Sam, the in-house boogie and blues piano master. While Gilley himself was naturally proficient on the keys as a child—his mother bought a piano for him when he was ten—it wasn’t until after Lewis signed to Sun Records and began to storm the charts in the mid-1950s that Gilley actively pursued a musical career.
By 1958, Gilley, based in Houston, Texas, landed a one-off deal for a single at Dot Records, and the song “Call Me Shorty” enjoyed limited regional success. Gilley relocated to New Orleans, where he worked playing on sessions for Huey Meaux, the wily record man whose Crazy Cajun label also released several of Gilley’s 45s. Nothing too big resulted, and Gilley spent a couple years playing a lounge in Lake Charles before returning to Houston for an indefinite engagement (it lasted several years) at the Nesadel Club, where he became strong-drawing local favorite. Gilley did release several albums, but it wasn’t until 1968 that his “Now I Can Live Again” single drifted into the country chart’s Top 70.
As a well-liked entertainer with a shrewd business sense, Gilley accepted an offer from local club owner Sherwood Cryer to re-launch the shuttered Pasadena, Texas-based Sherry Club’s as Gilley’s. The massive dance hall also featured an adjacent rodeo arena, and was touted as “the world’s largest honky-tonk.” The doors first swung open in 1970, with Gilley frequently performing alongside big name guest stars. It wouldn’t be long before Gilley’s became a local country music landmark.
In 1974, things busted wide open for Gilley. Astor Records issued his atmospheric, very Jerry Lee-sounding version of “Room Full of Roses,” and the record quickly became a jukebox favorite. After Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Records released it, the distribution deal with Epic enabled the song to blast straight to #1 on the country chart, with a respectable crossover to the pop Top Fifty. Gilley’s next pair of singles—“I Overlooked an Orchid” and “City Lights”—also topped the country chart, earning him both the Academy of Country Music’s and Record World magazine’s Most Promising Male Vocalist awards.
Throughout 1975, Gilley’s songs continuously made the Top Ten, and Billboard named him “Top New Country Singles Artist.” The following year, Gilley waxed the liquored up and libidinous classic, “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time,” flexed his Lewis-esque rock & roll muscles on a cover of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” and went the soul route with Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me.” He also swept the ACM’s, taking Male Vocalist of the Year, Entertainer of the Year, Song of the Year (for “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time”) and Single of the Year (for “Bring it On Home”). After the motion picture Urban Cowboy was filmed at Gilley’s—prominently featuring Gilley’s own music—it ignited a national craze, and Gilley found himself atop the very lucrative crest of it all.
Gilley pumped out a steady string of Top Ten and Top Five country hits until the late 1980s, when he parted ways from Epic. At this time he also walked away from Gilley’s Club and—faced by the rise of Nashville’s New Traditionalists and the arrival of Garth Brooks—retreated to the Missouri hillbilly resort town Branson, where he was one of the first country stars to open his own theater. He happily remained there, packing them in nightly for years.
In July 2009, Gilley took a nasty spill, when he fell backward from a three-foot step, struck his head and back and lost all feeling in his extremities. After surgery and physical therapy, Gilley’s back to, as his press agent described it, “jumping around the stage, which is what he likes to do.” Now in his seventies, Gilley is still going strong.