Mickey Gilley has accomplished what most artists only dream of – a long and fulfilling career marked by loyal fans and financial success. One of the secrets behind Mickey’s longevity is his ability to balance the heart of an entertainer with the brain of a businessman. He hasn’t had to “reinvent” himself to stay in the game. He has stayed current with the times, but Mickey knows what not to change. He has treated his fans with the same respect throughout the years, maintained his consistent high-quality performances, selected classic songs that withstood the fickleness of trends and tapped into business opportunities with an uncanny foresight.
The landmark Texas nightclub he helped create in 1971, is the perfect case in point. Gilley’s Club was the sensation of the era: the “world’s largest honky-tonk.” It was a launching pad for some of country music’s biggest stars and the dominating force behind the “Urban Cowboy” craze that swept the country in the early ’80s, following the release of the John Travolta movie filmed in the Pasadena, Texas, nightclub.
Today, more than a decade after the club burned to the ground in 1989, Gilley’s – like its namesake – just keeps rising from the ashes to retain its legendary status. As the new century dawned, developers announced the rebirth of Gilley’s as “Gilley’s Dallas,” an entertainment complex that is part of the “South Side” development in the Texas metropolis. Bigger and better than ever, the new Gilley’s contains a 2,000-seat showroom featuring national headline acts.
“I knew we had done something extraordinary at the time, especially after Paramount filmed Urban Cowboy in the club,” Mickey says. “But I had no idea Gilley’s would outlast the millennium. This is really incredible.”
In addition to Gilley’s Dallas, there is a Gilley’s Club at The Treasure Island Hotel in Las Vegas. This gives Gilley’s a presence on the world-famous Las Vegas Strip. Urban Cowboy was mounted as a musical, which ran on Broadway for part of 2003. The Gilley’s Club logo was prominent on the Broadway stage. Two locations in Oklahoma soon opened, one in Pocola and another in Durant, adding another in Reno brings the total to five Gilley’s locations.
Even as he was helping to build the original Gilley’s Club into the landmark honky-tonk of the century, Mickey was also launching an incredible career as an entertainer and recording artist. He scored his first string of consecutive number-one hits in the mid-’70s – “Roomful of Roses,” “I Overlooked An Orchid,” “City Lights,” “Window Up Above,” “Don’t The Girls All Get Prettier At Closing Time” and “Bring It On Home To Me.” He performed traditional honky-tonk songs long before the style returned to favor in Nashville. In the ’80s, he became a smooth crooner of country love songs – “That’s All That Matters To Me,” “Headache Tomorrow, Heartache Tonight,” “I’m Just A Fool For Your Love,” “Lonely Nights,” “Put Your Dreams Away” and “Paradise Tonight” – and distinctive updates of such romantic classics as “Stand By Me,” “True Love Ways,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Talk To Me” and “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me.”
In all, Mickey has achieved a remarkable 39 Top-Ten country hits, with 17 of those songs reaching the No. 1 spot on the country charts. In 1976, he swept the ACM Awards, hauling home trophies for Entertainer of the Year, Top Male Vocalist, Song of the Year, Single of the Year and Album of the Year. He was ranked among the top-fifty country music hitmakers in the 1989 book written by record research historian Joel Whitburn. In 2015 Mickey was awarded with the prestigious triple crown award by the Academy of Country Music, an award only received by four other solo artists at the time.
Mickey also guest-starred on numerous popular television series, including Murder She Wrote, The Fall Guy, Fantasy Island and Dukes of Hazzard, as well as featured appearances on 20/20, The Grammy Awards Show, The American Music Awards, Solid Gold, The Tonight Show and several others. He is among a select-few country singers who have achieved the honor of being recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In addition, he was a featured attraction in Las Vegas, Reno and Atlantic City, which proves how universal his music is to American audiences.
And then there was Gilley’s Club. The forerunner of Hard Rock Cafe and other theme restaurants so popular today, it also helped elevate country music to new heights of popularity.
“Gilley’s wasn’t planned. It evolved into what it became,” Mickey says. “We started out seating 750 people, but because of a local television show I had in the Houston market, the crowds began to grow, and we started adding on to the club.” Esquire magazine caught wind of the excitement being created by the Pasadena nightclub and featured it in an article called “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy.” Intrigued by the piece, Paramount Pictures contracted to use Gilley’s as the centerpiece of a motion picture with Saturday Night Fever star John Travolta.
“I never really believed that Paramount was going to do a film based on that article and shoot it at Gilley’s,” Mickey shares. “I still didn’t believe it after we signed the contracts. Then one day I was in the recording studio that we had on the grounds, and the Paramount trucks started rolling in. I thought, ‘Wow, they’re really going to do it.'”
Opening his Branson theater in 1990, is another example of Mickey’s visionary business ability. Just as he was a pioneer in the area of country dance clubs, Mickey was among the first entertainers to recognize the potential of the Ozark music Mecca. When his first Branson theater burned down in 1993 (deja vu!), Mickey rebuilt on the same spot, updating the venue and the restaurant he had opened next door in 1992.
In 2016 with his own label Rok Entertainment behind Mickey went back into the studio for the first time in more than 20 years to record Kickin’ It Down The Road. He released the new CD with the title track along with previously unreleased songs as well as a few songs he remastered. Following soon after he released a CD titled Seventeen, a compilation of his 17 No. 1 hits in the chronological order that they were released.
Mickey’s first musical influence as a boy growing up in Ferriday, La., was his piano-pounding cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis. He grew up close to Jerry Lee and another famous cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, even as he snuck up to the windows of clubs to absorb the haunting sound of Louisiana rhythm-and-blues.
Jerry Lee was the inspiration for Mickey’s decision to entertain people for a living. At age 17, shortly before his cousin scored his first big hit, the youngster moved to Houston to work in construction. Mickey went to see Jerry Lee in concert in Houston and took him to the airport after the show. “He pulled out a big wad of hundred-dollar bills, and it made me decide right then that I was in the wrong business,” Mickey says with a laugh. “The problem was, I was trying to be a Jerry Lee clone. Then a guy named Jim Ed Norman [now CEO of Curb Music Group] came into my life. Jim Ed got me out of the shadow of Jerry Lee by giving me songs that appealed to a bigger audience. He helped me find my musical identity.”
Mickey began by performing in the Houston nightclubs. He recorded his first song in Memphis for Dot Records and later performed as a singer and pianist in cities throughout the South. Eventually, his trek returned him to the Pasadena area, where he took up residence at the Nesadel Club and quickly developed into one of the city’s most popular acts. He opened Gilley’s in 1971, and started hitting the pop and country charts with a bang in the mid-seventies.
Mickey the entertainer has also become Mickey the entrepreneur by continuing to build the Gilley’s brand. Along with the five locations across the country Mickey also has a food line which includes an award winning chili mix, marinades and Bar-B-Q rubs. Also Mickey brought back the Gilley’s beer to the Texas market by partnering with a local Houston Craft brewery. And a new location is currently in development and set to open on him birthday in 2018 which would not only bring the total to six but also bring the world famous honky-tonk back home to Southeast Texas in LaPorte, Texas.
“I enjoy performing and singing as much these days as I ever have,” Mickey says. “I joke that I’m semi-retired. Of course, I work just as hard as always. The thing about experience is, it helps you keep your priorities straight. I’m interested in quality now, not quantity. I make sure my business and my life are set up so I can get the most enjoyment out of the things I love. And the thing I love the most is getting on stage and performing a good show for people It’s not about the money and it’s not about the fame, it’s about the music.”
Admission fee: $19-49
Shipshewana Event Center
760 S Van Buren St, Shipshewana