The Lighter Side: Remembering Mickey Gilley

Joe Guilbeau

The recent death of country music legend Mickey Gilley brought back memories of the friendship that developed between us through the years.

Joe Guilbeau

I had the privilege of having a speaking relationship with Gilley. He was kind, friendly and easy to talk to. The Mickey you met on the street was the same one you saw on stage.

Gilley died May 7 in Branson, Mo. He was 86.

Known as country music’s “Urban Cowboy,” the piano-playing crooner had hits with “Stand by Me,” “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time,” “Room Full of Roses” and an appearance in John Travolta’s 1980 box-office smash about a mechanical bull.

The smooth-voiced Gilley had a run of success in the 1970s singing barroom piano country ballads. But it was his second act in the 1980s – tied to “Urban Cowboy” – that turned the Mississippi native into a crossover star.

Born in Natchez, Miss. March 9, 1936, and raised in nearly by Ferriday, Gilley became synonymous with the state of Texas when he opened his nightclub, Gilley’s, in Pasadena, a city just outside Houston.

The venue was massive – “The World’s Largest Honkytonk,” it boasted –with a capacity of 6,000, a rodeo arena and a mechanical bull for the brave and inebriated alike to ride.

But when Gilley’s opened in 1971, its namesake was still years away from becoming a singing star.

In 1974, he scored his first country music No. 1 with “Room Full of Roses,” and went on top of the charts with versions of songs by George Jones (“The Window Up Above”), Bill Anderson (“City Lights”) and Sam Cooke (“Bring It Home to Me”).

As a showman, Gilley – the cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis – exuded charisma. He wore a massive cowboy hat with a feather band and sparking rings and pendants, often in the shape of his initials.

In 1976, he turned out an “offensive by today’s standards” song entitled “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time” into a No. 1 on sheer charm, delivering outrageous lyrics about rating women on a scale of 1-10 with a sly wink.

“When tomorrow morning comes, and I wake up with a number-one,” Gilley sang, “I swear I’ll never do it anymore.”

In 1980, Travolta entered as a movie heartthrob and introduced Country & Western cosplay to America as the star of “Urban Cowboy,” a film about an oilfield worker who lets off steam riding the mechanical bull at Gilley’s.

The movie became a pop-culture sensation and spawned a smash soundtrack featuring songs by Kenny Rogers, the Charlie Daniels Band and Johnny Lee, whose “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places” was all but inescapable at the time.

Gilley also had a cut on the soundtrack – a version of Benny King’s “Stand by Me” – that topped the country music charts.

I last saw Gilley about 10 years ago. He was in a packed house. It’s common today for the big stars to close the curtains after a performance and you never see them again.

After a long 2 ½-hour show, Gilley stood on top of the stage and told the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, I will be sitting at this table on the floor, and I will sign anything you have.”

I was able to talk to him.