Country performer Mickey Gilley was able to transcend comparisons to his cousin, rock and roll superstar Jerry Lee Lewis, to become a successful musician in his own right. Beginning on small record labels and building a huge local following at his nightclub—Gilley’s in Pasadena, Texas—he scored his first hit in 1974 with “Roomful of Roses.” Gilley became even more famous when his club served as the setting for the 1980 film Urban Cowboy, and he recorded a single, the hit “Stand By Me,” for the soundtrack album.
Gilley was bom in the late 1930s in Natchez, Louisiana, but while he was still very young, his family moved to nearby Ferriday. There he grew up in close contact with Lewis and another cousin who would later become famous—evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. All three boys were musically inclined and spent their time sneaking off to black boogie-woogie and blues joints and begging their parents to buy them pianos. Despite Mrs. Gilley’s low $18-a-week waitress salary, she managed to accumulate a savings and buy the instrument for her son when he was ten years old. He became quite proficient on it by the time he reached adolescence.
Unlike Lewis, though, Gilley did not count on his musical abilities to provide him with a career. He married and relocated to Houston, Texas, finding work in the parts department of an engineering firm. But in 1956, after hearing one of Lewis’s recordings, Gilley decided to follow a music career himself. He released a few singles on the Houston label Gold Star, but these efforts were dismissed as too similar in style to Jerry Lee’s hits. Gilley did, however, manage to obtain session work as a piano player at several Houston-area recording studios, and he began to perform in local clubs as well. Eventually the musician became popular enough to land gigs in clubs throughout the southern United States. Meanwhile, Gilley worked his way through several small labels before landing a contract with Dot Records; he subsequently released the single “Call Me Shorty,” which enjoyed moderate success.
But by 1959, Gilley returned to Houston discouraged. Despite scoring a local hit soon afterwards with “Is It Wrong?,” he moved his focus from the recording studio to club work. He made a successful living performing in the Houston area and continued to do so throughout the 1960s, particularly at the Nesadel Club. He also achieved another local chart-climber with “Lonely Wine” in 1964.
For the Record…
Born March 9, c. 1937, in Natchez, LA; married; wife’s name, Vivian; has at least one child.
Country singer and songwriter. Worked in parts department of an engineering firm in Houston, TX, during the mid-1950s; began recording on small labels during the late 1950s; played in clubs in the southern United States during the 1950s and 1960s. Co-owner of Gilley’s (a nightclub), Pasadena, TX, beginning in the early 1970s. Appeared in the motion picture Urban Cowboy, 1980. Author of Mickey Gilley’s Texas Cookbook, 1984.
Addresses: Home —Pasadena, TX. Record company —Epic Records, P.O. Box 4450, New York, NY 10101-4450.
In the early 1970s, Gilley teamed up with longtime friend Sherwood Cryer to open his own club in Pasadena called Gilley’s. Gilley himself, of course, sang and played piano for the house band, and the club quickly became an area favorite. Meanwhile, Gilley attempted to record again, this time cutting an album with GRT Records. In order to avoid duplicating the sound of his cousin Jerry Lee, he changed his style and even refused to play the piano at these recording sessions. The GRT album, however, did not gain Gilley the more widespread attention he sought.
Instead, the prolific segment of the musician’s recording career started by accident. A Gilley’s employee requested that the performer record one of her favorite songs, “She Calls Me Baby,” on a local label so that it could be stocked in the club’s jukebox. He agreed, recording a remake of a George Morgan song, “Room Full of Roses,” on the B side. Gilley was dissatisfied with the way the latter tune was recorded; he felt the engineer had mixed in the steel guitar too loudly. Nevertheless, “Room Full of Roses” became a huge hit in the Houston area, and with his hope renewed, Gilley traveled to Nashville to see if he could land a major record deal. He won a contract with Playboy Records, which released the single nationwide, and “Room Full of Roses” quickly became Gilley’s first Top Ten hit.
Once Gilley broke this barrier, he continued to release country smashes. He recorded a Number One hit in 1975, “City Lights,” and followed with other successful singles, including 1976’s “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time” and 1977’s “Honky Tonk Memories.” Though his newfound recording stardom sent him on concert tours throughout the United States, he still found time to perform at Gilley’s on a regular basis. The club remained a popular country hangout, and was selected as the setting for the 1980 film about the country nightclub scene, Urban Cowboy. Gilley and his band appeared in the film, and a country-flavored remake of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” that the singer recorded was featured on the film’s soundtrack. Gilley’s version of “Stand By Me” became one of his biggest hits, and he began touring more and appearing at larger concert venues.
Once Gilley began spending more time away from his beloved club—which, after the release of Urban Cowboy, became an increasingly popular tourist attraction—he began to hear a growing number of complaints about the bar’s quality. He asked Cryer to implement some improvements, and when Cryer refused, Gilley filed a lawsuit that was not settled until 1989. Gilley won damages, and the club kept his name while Cryer appealed the judgment.
In addition to releasing an album entitled Chasing Rainbows in 1989, Gilley hoped to start over again with a new club; the singer stated to John Morthland in Country Music, “I’m thinking already about doing another Gilley’s and this time doing it right. Only this time I’d get people who know how to do it. I don’t want to run a club myself, but I am interested in there still being a Gilley’s club.”
“Call Me Shorty,” Dot, c. 1958.
“Room Full of Roses,” Playboy, 1974.
“City Lights,” Playboy, 1975.
“Bouquet of Roses,” Playboy, 1975.
(With Barbi Benton) “Roll You Like a Wheel,” Playboy, 1975.
“Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time,” Playboy, 1976.
“Bring It on Home to Me,” Playboy, 1976.
“Honky Tonk Memories,” Playboy, 1977.
“Chains of Love,” Playboy, 1977.
“Here Comes the Hurt Again,” Playboy, 1978.
“The Song We Made Love To,” Playboy, 1978.
“Just Long Enough to Say Goodbye,” Epic, 1979.
“My Silver Lining,” Epic, 1979.
“A Little Getting Used To,” Epic, 1979.
“True Love Ways,” Epic, 1980.
“Stand By Me,” Asylum, 1980.
“That’s All That Matters To Me,” Epic, 1980.
“A Headache Tomorrow,” Epic, 1981.
“Lonely Nights,” Epic, 1981.
“You Don’t Know Me,” Epic, 1981.
City Lights, Playboy, 1975.
Overnight Sensation, Playboy, 1976.
First Class, Playboy, 1977, reissue, Epic, 1987.
Encore, Epic, c. 1980.
(With others) Urban Cowboy, Asylum, 1980.
That’s All That Matters to Me, Epic, 1980.
You Don’t Know Me, Epic, 1981.
Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, Epic, 1987.
Chasing Rainbows, Airborne, 1989.
Biggest Hits, Columbia.
Christmas at Gilley’s, Columbia.
Live at Gilley’s, Epic.
Ten Years of Hits, Epic.
With Love From Pasadena, Texas, Intermedia.
Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, Playboy.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1984.
Country Music, May/June 1985; May/June 1989.
High Fidelity, March 1982.
People, December 21, 1981; May 28, 1984; October 27, 1986.
Stereo Review, November 1980; May 1982; December 1982.
Variety, November 7, 1984.
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