Mickey Gilley, the smooth-voiced, piano-playing country crooner who helped propel the ’80s “Urban Cowboy” movement, died Saturday in Branson, Missouri.. He was 86. The publicist for Gilley revealed the singer’s passing.
Although Gilley had a string of triumph in the 1970s with songs like “Rooms Full of Roses” and “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time,” his second career in the 1980s – linked to Urban Cowboy, which became a blockbuster that year – made him a crossover star.
In the 1960s, Gilley began his professional career in Louisiana’s Natchez district as a disc jockey for WOWO-AM radio station. He then moved to Texas and established himself as a country music artist with his song “The Bull Rider.” In Pasadena, just outside of Houston, he opened Gilley’s nightclub. The location was enormous, having “the world’s largest honky-tonk,” an amphitheater with a capacity of 6,000 people and a rodeo arena as well as a mechanical bull for the courageous and inebriated. When Gilley’s restaurant opened in 1971, its namesake wasn’t yet a singing star. He began his career in 1974 by reaching the Number One spot on Billboard’s country music charts with “Room Full of Roses,” which he followed with cover versions of songs by George Jones (“The Window Up Above”), Bill Anderson (“City Lights”), and Sam Cooke (“‘Bring It On Home To Me'”).
Gilley was a showman, the cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis, who emanated charisma. He frequently wore a top hat with a feather band and sparkling accents in his initials. He turned an offensive-by-today’s-standards song called “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time” into a Number One hit in 1976, thanks to his charm, delivering raunchy lyrics about rating women on a scale of 1 to 10 with a sly grin. “When the next morning comes and I get a number one,” Gilley sang, “I swear I’ll never do it again.” In the late 1970s, he consistently charted within the country’s Top 10, but by the end of the decade, his success had begun to taper.
Enter John Travolta. In 1980, the movie heartthrob introduced country and western cosplay to America as the protagonist of Urban Cowboy, a film about an oil worker who lets off steam riding a mechanical bull at Gilley’s club. The film is based on a 1979 Esquire article about a man who grows obsessed with winning the affection of his childhood sweetheart. It became a pop-culture phenomenon, and its platinum soundtrack featured songs by Kenny Rogers, Charlie Daniels Band, and Johnny Lee, whose “Looking for Love” was virtually impossible to avoid at the time. The Soundtrack featured a new recording of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” which topped the country survey and hit Number 22 on the Hot 100. This was Gilley’s only time in any chart position; otherwise, he was largely forgotten.
With “Stand By Me” and his popularity as a Cowboy pushing him forward, Gilley continued to produce hits: 1981’s “A Headache Tomorrow (Or a Heartache Tonight),” 1982’s “Talk to Me,” and 1983’s “Fool for Your Love,” among them. The year was 1984, and just a few years after he had been discovered by the producers of CHiPs, another twist hit his life. He recorded several albums with modest success into the 1990s before retiring from recording in 2004. In 1990, he built the Mickey Gilley Theater in Branson, Missouri, where he frequently performed with his fellow Urban Cowboy crooner Johnny Lee.
“[Urban Cowboy] launched me into the stratosphere,” Gilley recalled to Rolling Stone in 2015. “The film and Travolta lit not only my career but also Western fashion on fire.” “I was in an elevator in Nashville during the 1980s. There was a guy on there who said, ‘I want to thank you for all you’ve done for Western apparel.’ “I’m not going to do that.” said the interviewee, “But you need to thank John Travolta for something. ‘You’re the one who made it visible,’ I was informed. ‘He’s the one who brought it to the forefront.’ Every evening when I go to bed, I thank John Travolta for keeping my career alive.”