Remembering the Late Mickey Gilley, 86: Pioneer of the ‘Urban Cowboy’ Movement, Country Radio Star & More

by Jim Casey
(Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Mickey Gilley, 86, died on May 7 in Branson, Missouri, surrounded by family and close friends. Born on March 9, 1936, in Natchez, Mississippi, Mickey left his musical mark in a variety of ways—from the radio charts and awards shows, to the big screen and big venues.

Mickey recorded 17 No. 1 hits, including “Room Full of Roses” (his first in 1974) and “You Don’t Know Me,” among others. The 1976 ACM Entertainer of the Year also was one of the first country stars to open his own theater in Branson in 1989, helping turn the sleepy town into a sonic destination. But Mickey’s biggest claim to fame was as co-owner of Gilley’s. The sprawling Texas club served as the centerpiece for the blockbuster movie Urban Cowboy.

Mickey’s remake of the country-soul standard “Stand By Me” topped the charts after being featured in the 1980 movie starring John Travolta and Debra Winger. The immensely popular film—who can forget the mechanical bull?—was instrumental in spurring Americans’ growing interest in country music. In addition to Mickey, the film featured memorable musical appearances from Johnny Lee, Bonnie Raitt, The Charlie Daniels Band, and more.

Cowboy Up

It’s not a stretch to say that Urban Cowboy had one of the most influential movie soundtracks of any generation. Certified 3X Platinum by the RIAA (for sales of 3 million units), the soundtrack helped create a new generation of country music fans. Folks who had discoed their way through the 1970s traded in their platform shoes and polyester suits for cowboy boots and blue jeans.

Three songs from the film—Mickey’s “Stand by Me,” Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love,” and Anne Murray’s “Could I Have This Dance”—reached No. 1, while Kenny Rogers scored a Top 5 hit with “Love the World Away.”

Electric guitars, keyboards, and horns found their way into country arrangements because of the Urban Cowboy Movement. And country hits frequently found their way onto pop radio. Of course, the sub-genre eventually gave way to the Neo-Traditionalists of the mid-1980s with George Strait, Randy Travis, and more.

Gilley’s Goes Big

Gilley’s was opened in the oil refinery town of Pasadena, Texas, in 1971, nine years before it served as the backdrop for the hit film. However, Urban Cowboy transformed Gilley’s into the hottest venue on the planet. It was known for its “We Doze But Never Close” motto. During its heyday before burning down in 1990, the 48,000-square-foot venue had a capacity of 6,000 and official certification by the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Largest Honky-Tonk.

The film also helped revitalize Mickey’s stalled career. After enjoying seven No. 1 singles, beginning with 1974’s “Room Full of Roses,” Mickey’s career had cooled by the decade’s end. Following the release of the film, “Stand By Me” reached the top of the country chart. Mickey eventually scored eight more No. 1 singles. The movie also turned Mickey’s opening act, Johnny Lee, into a headliner.

For the next few years, Mickey and Johnny were two of country music’s biggest stars.

“My heart will forever break over the loss of my dear friend Mickey Gilley,” said Johnny Lee. “He believed in me when no one else did. Losing Gilley feels like a bad dream and sadly it’s not. He loved his fans more than anything in the world and taught me everything I needed to know about country music.”

Mickey won six ACM Awards, including Entertainer of the Year in 1976. He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1984. And he was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011.