Have you ever heard the saying “the older the violin the sweeter the music?” Well, 17-time no. 1 hit-maker Mickey Gilley is that violin!
Ordinarily I wouldn’t mention someone’s age in a story,“How old are you?” is one of those don’t-go-there questions, but Gilley himself, with a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, confides to his audiences nightly that in March he will be 80 years old! And why shouldn’t he share that personal piece of information?
In an industry that chews talent up for breakfast and spits them out before dinner, Mickey Gilley is a seven decade survivor – and not just a survivor – he continues to be a leader, innovator, and is still one of the BEST entertainers I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of Mickey Gilley). I’ve been a Gilley fan long before America two-stepped her way across his dance floor during the “Urban Cowboy” era.
Although I’ve called Nashville home for 32 years, I grew up in a country music loving home in Louisiana where those three cousins raised in Ferriday – Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley – were household names.
My daddy worked for DuPont, and in the 1970s, he was sent to “start up” a new plant in La Porte, Texas B.U.C. (Before Urban Cowboy). Once there, he discovered this cavernous nightclub down the road in Pasadena that played country music—a honky-tonk on steroids. That club was called Gilley’s, co-owned by none other than his Louisiana brethren Mickey Gilley.
At that time, Gilley was riding high on his first No. 1 hit “Room Full of Roses,” and every time I visited my daddy in Texas, I’d accompany him and a group of DuPont shift workers to Gilley’s. I loved it! Gilley sang while I learned to dance the Texas two step, three step and waltz; I danced them all. I even rode the mechanical bull at Gilley’s, not with the same finesse as Debra Winger, but by golly I rode it before Winger even knew what a mechanical bull was – and I received just as many cat calls in the process.
When the movie “Urban Cowboy” did invade theaters in 1980, Gilley already had eight No. 1 hits under his belt including “Window Up Above” and “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.” But with the movie’s release, Gilley’s exploded with popularity and propelled the singer’s career into the stratosphere. Overnight, America embraced the cowboy way, and Gilley became the face of this Wrangler wearin’, cowboy hat tippin’, truck drivin’, country music lovin’ phenomenon.
Five years later, as an entertainment reporter for “The Nashville Network,” I found myself covering a country music themed cruise on “The Norway” (Tough job…I know.) This cruise was among the first of its kind and headlining the voyage were Gilley and Dottie West. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
I interviewed Gilley for the TNN show, “Wrap Around Nashville,” and we participated in a shipboard dance lesson. As the cameras began to roll, the music ironically changed to “Stand By Me” and there I was, polishing belt buckles in the middle of the dance floor with an ACM Entertainer of The Year winner. This time he wasn’t singing to U.S. presidents, Gilley was singing his No. 1 hit softly into MY ear as we slowly sashayed ’round the dance floor in the dim light – and that was the exact moment in time that I truly understood the meaning of the word “swoon,” because I forgot about the cameras and the 200 other people dancing around us. I only had three thoughts swirling in my head:
- I hope this song goes on forever
- I should send TNN a thank you note for this assignment
- Knees, don’t you buckle now!
Today, Gilley is still making the ladies swoon. About to complete his 80th trip around the sun, he hasn’t lost his dashing good looks and his blue eyes still twinkle with a mischievous love for life. On stage, Gilley exudes a charisma that embodies equal parts cocky swagger and an awe-shucks-thank-you-ma’am charm. The women love him and the men want to be him.
For the past 26 years, Gilley set up shop in music mecca Branson, Missouri and allowed the fans to come to him at his beautiful Mickey Gilley Theatre. My parents were two of those faithful fans that made that Missouri pilgrimage annually. They’d see different shows in Branson each year, but the one and only show that they saw every year was Gilley’s – and he was packing them in.
But Branson wasn’t entirely a room full of roses for Gilley. In 2009 while helping a friend move a sofa, Gilley fell. For three months, that fall left him paralyzed from the neck down. But like the champion he is, 10 months later, Gilley fought his way back to his feet and on to the stage he loves.
Ready for a change, Gilley said goodbye to Branson last month, but in doing so, he’s saying hello to the world. Gilley is hitting the road again! I caught Gilley’s show a couple of months ago in Franklin, Tennessee. The concert is a musical journey of Gilley’s career laced with humor and stories, centered around a big screen backdrop that showcases Gilley’s memorable times through short video clips. And while the accident from seven years ago still prevents him from playing his trademark piano, it hasn’t stopped him from performing a high energy show – singing hit after hit as the crowd spontaneously sings along; after all, you can’t help but sing along to the soundtrack of your life.
Now at a stage in life when most people would welcome an earned rest, there’s no resting on any laurels for Gilley. Always the entrepreneur, Gilley has a new beer available in Texas supermarkets, Gilley’s Texas Blonde Ale. On his website you can even buy his Wild Bull Chili Seasoning Mix or bar-b-que rubs, along with T-shirts and music soon that will include his “Definitive Hits Collection” —a 39 song, two CD set on Real Gone Music, available on March 11th. And though the original Gilley’s in Pasadena, Texas burned to the ground in 1990, there are other Gilley’s clubs in Nevada, Oklahoma and Texas.
The biggest news of all was announced on Mickey’s Facebook page recently. The city council in La Porte just gave their approval to begin construction on a new Gilley’s that will rival his original club in Pasadena in size, flavor and feel. The doors should swing open in the next 18 to 24 months.
Always one to understand the importance of the entertainer and fan relationship, Gilley has embraced social media. He checks his Facebook page daily and talks to his fans via short video clips, which is why he calls it “Mickey Gilley’s Personal Update Page.” Gilley doesn’t rely on others to share his news, he shares his own, and promotes upcoming concerts and simply talks to his fans. His hands-on approach has earned him nearly 200,000 followers. Gilley always did know how to draw a crowd…and how to keep one.
At the end of each concert, Gilley still takes the time to visit with the people who put him on the map and keep him there. It doesn’t matter if it takes him three hours after the show, Gilley doesn’t go home until the last autograph is signed and the last picture taken. When I saw his show at The Franklin Theatre recently, I waited in line for a picture too, remember, I’m still a forever fan, secretly hoping for one more dance. I’m so thankful that in this world of constant change, Mickey Gilley is still the hit of the party!
Check out his website for upcoming dates, and if Gilley takes his show anywhere near you this year, do yourself a favor and go!