NEW YORK — Country star Mickey Gilley, whose namesake Texas honky-tonk inspired the 1980 film “Urban Cowboy” and a nationwide spate of Western-themed nightspots, has passed away. He was 86.
Gilley died Saturday in Branson, Missouri, where he helped run the Mickey Gilley Grand Shanghai Theater. He had only performed last month, but had been in failing health for the past week.
“He passed away peacefully with his family and close friends by his side,” said a statement from Mickey Gilley Associates.
Gilley, cousin of rock and roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, opened Gilley’s, “the largest honky tonk in the world,” in Pasadena, Texas, in the early 1970s. By the middle of the decade he was a successful club owner and had achieved his first commercial success with ‘Room Full of Roses’. He began regularly releasing country hits, 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.”
Overall, he had 39 Top 10 country hits and 17 No. 1 songs. He has received six Academy of Country Music Awards and has also worked occasionally as an actor, appearing in ‘Murder 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 else, the singer said.
“I do exactly what I want to do. I play golf, fly my plane and perform at my theater in Branson, Missouri,” he said. “I love doing my show for the people.”
Meanwhile, the giant nightclub’s attractions, including the 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 Travolta’s 1977 disco hit, “Saturday.” Night Fever’. The film inspired by Gilley’s Club was based on an Esquire article by Aaron Latham about the relationship between two regulars at the club.
“I thank John Travolta every night before bed for keeping my career alive,” Gilley told the AP in 2002. “It’s impossible to tell you how grateful I am for being involved with ‘Urban Cowboy.’ That movie had a huge impact on my career, and still has.”
The soundtrack featured hits such as “Lookin’ for Love” by Johnny Lee, “Look What You’ve Done for Me” by Boz Scaggs and “Stand by Me” by Gilley. The film turned the Pasadena Club into an overnight tourist attraction, making pearl shirts, longneck beers, the steel guitar, and mechanical bulls popular across the country.
But the club closed down in 1989 after Gilley and his business partner Sherwood Cryer argued over how to run the business. A fire destroyed it shortly afterwards.
In 2003, an upscale version of the old Gilley’s nightclub opened in Dallas. In recent years, Gilley moved to Branson.
He was 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.
Born in Natchez, Mississippi, Gilley grew up poor and learned boogie-woogie piano in Ferriday, Louisiana, along with Lewis and fellow cousin Jimmy Swaggart, the future evangelist. Like Lewis, he snuck into the windows of Louisiana clubs to listen to rhythm and blues. He moved to Houston to work in construction but played in the local club scene at night and recorded and toured for years before catching on in the 1970s.
Gilley had had health problems in recent years. He underwent brain surgery in August 2008 after specialists diagnosed hydrocephalus, a condition characterized by an increase in fluid in the skull. Gilley suffered from short-term memory loss and attributed the surgery to halting the onset of dementia.
He underwent another surgery in 2009 after falling from a step, forcing him to cancel scheduled performances at Branson. In 2018, he suffered a broken ankle and a broken right shoulder in a car accident.