The Urban Cowboy Mickey Gilley Has Died

There are few artists more synonymous with a specific era in country music than Mickey Gilley was with the Urban Cowboy movement—the early 80s influence that brought country music out of the country and into industrialized urban areas where many rural residents flocked for blue collar jobs. The 1980 movie Urban Cowboy starring John Travolta popularized the era, but Mickey Gilly soundtracked it, and also offered the iconic setting for it with his legendary honky-tonk in Pasadena, Texas.

Mickey Gilley’s impact was felt so much more than in a single era though, spending over 60 years in the business, minting 16 #1 songs over his career, and stayed active well into his 80s. It’s all come to an end now though, with word coming down Mickey Gilley has died at the age of 86, and right after coming off the road where he played 10 shows in April, still going at it. He passed away surrounded by friends and family.

Mickey Gilly grew up in the shadow of his famous cousin Jerry Lee Lewis, and was also related to performer and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Born in Natchez, Mississippi on March 9, 1936, Gilley started his career first working in boogie-woogie and Gospel music. He released a few singles, but nothing really stuck. Then he he released the song “Room Full of Roses” just for fun and it shot to #1 in 1974. His next three singles would also hit #1, and his career was off to the races.

Mickey Gilley was not exactly favored by the purists of country music. By integrating more pop sounds into country, he helped open the door for crossover stars such as Kenny Rogers, during a time when artists outside of the genre such as Olivia Newton-John and John Denver were also finding favor in the country format.

When Urban Cowboy came out in 1980, Mickey Gilley found a whole new level of appreciation, with eight of the next nine singles hitting #1, making him one of the most popular artists in country. And though some of the country old-timers criticized Gilley, none of his big hits ever crossed over into pop, while today’s twang-starved audiences listen to some of Mickey Gilley’s biggest hits such as “True Love Ways”, “A Headache Tomorrow (Or a Heartache Tonight),” “You Don’t Know Me,” and “Lonely Nights,” and hear classic country gold.

But just as important as his contributions as a performer were Mickey Gilley’s contributions to country music as a venue owner. The layout of the mega honky-tonk, and the legacy of the mechanical bull are all in part the responsibility of Mickey Gilley. First opening Gilley’s Club in 1970 that soon became known as the “world’s biggest honky-tonk,” the concept became iconic through the Urban Cowboy film, and went on to be mimicked by many owners and promoters across the United States.

The club portion of Gilley’s burned down in 1990, and it illustrated the end of an era, as the Urban Cowboy period of country music came to a close in the throes of the “Class of ’89” with Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and others taking country in a different direction. The spirit of Gilley’s still lives on though, with a sister location opened in Dallas, and today’s “world biggest honky-tonk” Billy Bob’s Texas in Ft. Worth still goring strong.

Mickey Gilley was also known for his work movies, earned numerous accolades including six Academy of Country Music Awards, was one of only a handful of artists to receive the Academy of Country Music’s Triple Crown Award, and also earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Gilley also remained long-time friends with fellow performer Johnny Lee, whose legacy was also cemented through the Urban Cowboy film.

Mickey Gilley was preceded in death by his wife, Vivian, and is survived by his wife Cindy Loeb Gilley, his children Kathy, Michael, Gregory and Keith Ray, four grandchildren and nine great grandchildren, and his cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart.

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