NEW YORK (AP) — Country star Mickey Gilley, whose Texas honky-tonk namesake inspired the 1980 movie “Urban Cowboy” and a nationwide wave of Western-themed nightclubs, has died. He was 86 years old.
Gilley died Saturday in Branson, Missouri, where he helped run the Mickey Gilley Grand Shanghai Theater. He had played as recently as last month but was in poor health over the past week.
“He passed away peacefully with family and close friends by his side,” according to a statement from Mickey Gilley Associates.
Gilley – cousin of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis – opened Gilley’s, “the world’s largest honky tonk”, in Pasadena, Texas in the early 1970s. By mid-decade he was a successful club owner and had his first commercial success with ‘Room Full of Roses’. He began churning out country hits regularly, including “Window Up Above,” “She’s Pulling Me Back Again,” and the honky-tonk anthem “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.”
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Overall, he had 39 Top 10 country hits and 17 No. 1 songs. She Wrote”, “The Fall Guy”, “Fantasy Island” and “The Dukes of Hazzard”.
“If I had one wish in life, I would wish for more time,” Gilley told The Associated Press in March 2001 as he celebrated his 65th birthday. Not that he would do anything differently, the singer said.
“I do exactly what I want to do. I play golf, fly my plane and perform in my theater in Branson, Missouri,” he said. “I like doing my show for people.”
Meanwhile, the giant nightclub’s attractions, including its famous mechanical bull, led to the 1980 film ‘Urban Cowboy’, starring John Travolta and Debra Winger and considered by many to be a country version of the disco hit. by Travolta in 1977, “Saturday Night Fever”. Gilley’s club-inspired film was based on an Esquire article by Aaron Latham about the relationship between two club regulars.
“I thank John Travolta every night before I go to bed for keeping my career alive,” Gilley told the AP in 2002. “It’s impossible to tell you how grateful I am for my involvement in ‘Urban Cowboy”. This film had a huge impact on my career, and still does.
The soundtrack included such hits as Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love”, Boz Scaggs’ “Look What You’ve Done for Me” and Gilley’s “Stand by Me”. The film transformed the Pasadena club into an overnight tourist attraction and popularized beaded snap shirts, longneck beers, steel guitar, and mechanical bulls across the country.
But the club closed in 1989 after Gilley and his business partner Sherwood Cryer argued over how to run the place. A fire destroyed it soon after.
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An upscale version of the former nightclub Gilley’s opened in Dallas in 2003. In recent years, Gilley has moved to Branson.
He has been married three times, most recently to Cindy Loeb Gilley. He had four children, three with his first wife, Geraldine Garrett, and one with his second, Vivian McDonald.
A native of Natchez, Mississippi, Gilley grew up in poverty, learning boogie-woogie piano in Ferriday, Louisiana, alongside Lewis and his cousin Jimmy Swaggart, the future evangelist. Like Lewis, he sneaked into the windows of Louisiana clubs to listen to rhythm and blues. He moved to Houston to work in construction, but played the local club scene at night and recorded and toured for years before coming to prominence in the 70s.
Gilley had suffered from health problems in recent years. He underwent brain surgery in August 2008 after specialists diagnosed him with hydrocephalus, a condition characterized by increased fluid in the skull. Gilley suffered from short-term memory loss and credited the operation with stopping the onset of dementia.
He underwent further surgery in 2009 after falling from a step, forcing him to cancel scheduled performances at Branson. In 2018, he fractured his ankle and right shoulder in a car accident.