Mickey Gilley

Born in 1936 in Natchez, Mississippi, Mickey Gilley became one of country music's leading artists from 1974 up to the late '80s, fashioning over thirty Top 10 singles and enjoying seventeen #1 hits during that period. Though many remember Gilley primarily for his involvement with the Pasadena, Texas club which bore his name - and which was featured prominently in the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy - he was a honky-tonk fixture on the rough and lively Texas-Louisiana Gulf coast club circuit from the late '50s onward. First cousin of both Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Jerry Lee Lewis and disgraced evangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart, Gilley was (and remains) a premier piano pounder.

Notes on the Recordings

Mickey Gilley came well prepared for these sessions with Huey Meaux which represent his earliest available recordings. As it's sometimes said, "this wasn't his first rodeo". In addition to being a popular fixture on the Houston club scene, Gilley had already recorded for several tiny local labels as well as Paula Records, a regional imprint operating in Shreveport.

It's fascinating to listen to Gilley display flashes of the later brilliance which flared from his mid-'70s discovery onward. "Love Fever", "Bring My Baby Back To Me", "Still Care About You", "I'm Living In A World of My Own" and "Lonely, Lonely Man" showcase a fine singer still honing his style, verging into the crooning territory he later mastered. Listeners will hear him exploring his upper reaches in a style he later abandoned for more mid range and lower register vocals.

Not much is known about the sessions and more questions than answers are available from the Crazy Cajun archives. It would be nice to know, for instance, who is backing Mickey and exactly when the sides were cut. Or why some of the tracks were recorded with just Mickey's piano and a drummer. And, though we know Mickey wrote at least one of the tunes, "Now That I Have You", we don't know how many of the others he penned. During his years of stardom Gilley relied exclusively on cover tunes or new songs written for him, thus the presence of his own compositions adds a new element to these historic cuts.
There's a snippet of studio chatter present just before "Now That I Have You", a moment in time which allows the listener to hear producer Huey Meaux chatting with Mickey, then formally announce the selection.

During his years of stardom Gilley's vocals snared the spotlight and drew attention from his extraordinary piano playing, developed in his early years from countless hours playing with his cousins. These early recordings restore the focus so you can better appreciate Mickey's keyboard skills, complete with Lewis-like flourishes on such items as "Love Fever", "Whole Lot of Twistin' Going On" and the alternate take of "Dreaming of You' which closes this set.

Gilley's undeniable ability shines through clearly on the cover songs here. He turns in perfectly credible versions of such past hits as "Fraulein", "I Miss You So" and "Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)", though the latter suffers from some tape distortion. This is balanced, however, by a truly wicked piano ride by Mickey. His homage to Jerry Lee, "Whole Lot of Twistin' Going On", is masterful, full of vocal licks and piano rips reminiscent of his famed cousin.

Most of the songs concern lost love, subject matter that fits into the classic country oeuvre and, in this respect, the songwriting is similar to the material found in Moe Bandy's Crazy Cajun recordings, also newly released by Edsel.

Some of the tunes, however, are poignant reminders of the simpler lives we all used to lead, times when we picked up pony-tailed girls at the drive-in movie and cried when we failed a grade in school. Now drive-ins have all but disappeared and any teacher who fails someone must first consider the probability of whether or not that student will return to school packing a pistol.

So, think happily of earlier, less complicated times as you enjoy these slices of sonic history, these eighteen trips back in time roughly thirty years. The Crazy Cajun recordings are a touchstone to understanding how Mickey Gilley developed the style which later brought him international renown.

~John Lomax III, September 1998

Mickey Gilley Bio

Born March 9, 1936 in Natchez, Mississippi, Mickey Gilley became one of country music's leading artists from 1974 up to the late '80s, fashioning over thirty Top 10 singles and enjoying seventeen #1 hits during that period. Though many remember Gilley primarily for his involvement with the Pasadena, Texas club which bore his name -- and which was featured prominently in the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy -- he was a honky-tonk fixture on the rough and lively Texas-Louisiana Gulf coast club circuit from the late '50s onward. 

First cousin of both Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Jerry Lee Lewis and disgraced evangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart, Gilley was (and remains) a premier piano pounder, nearly Lewis' equal in keyboard dexterity. Of the three first cousins who all grew up in Ferriday, Louisiana, just across the Mississippi river from Natchez, Gilley has been the most stable and the least flamboyant. He tallied more country hits than Lewis, kept his religious feelings to himself, was never busted for drugs and has been married to the same woman for over forty years. 

He ran away from home to get married around 1954, and settled in Houston where he began work as an "oiler", laying sanitary sewer lines, with no thought of pursuing a musical career. Two years later cousin Jerry Lee snagged his first minor hit, "Crazy Arms"/"End of the Road", his debut Sun Records release. Though this effort fell short of the national charts it earned enough regional airplay to place Lewis on touring package shows and set the stage for his two 1957 blockbusters, "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On" and "Great Balls of Fire". 

Those records -- and the cash he saw Jerry Lee flashing -- convinced Gilley he could also have a future in music. The stuff Jerry Lee was playing was very similar to the sort of things he, Jerry and Jimmy had played in their formative years. (Like his cousins, Mickey grew up playing gospel music at home for his mother but rockin' out with "boogie-woogie" when she wasn't present). Gilley cut his first record ("Tell Me Why") for the aptly-named Minor label in 1959 and then started playing dances in Houston. The next seventeen years are beautifully summarized by the late Bob Claypool, longtime Houston newspaperman and author of Saturday Night at Gilley's, published in 1980, the best single source of information about the club and the subsequent movie: 

"That was the beginning of one of the longest honky-tonk apprenticeships ever racked up by an artist before achieving national fame -- nearly twenty years of grinding out other people's hits in a succession of busthead skull orchards, twenty years of having his own records (on a succession of small labels such as Potomac, Lynn, Sabra and Princess) consistently flop while he watched other, lesser talents score big on their first time out of the chute. 
"Worst of all, and most demeaning, was that Gilley was trapped in the shadow of his more famous cousin throughout all those years. Twenty years of having doors slam in his face convinced Gilley that there was room for only one Jerry Lee Lewis in the music business, and soundalikes -- including relatives that shared the same musical roots -- were strictly unwanted". 

He bounced to Biloxi, Mississippi, New Orleans and Lake Charles, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama, before returning to Houston and finding steady employment at The Nesadel Club, a few miles to the southeast of "Big H", on Spencer highway in Pasadena, home of numerous petrochemical refineries, an area derisively called "Stinkadena" by the locals. The Nesadel became his home for ten years, a time when Gilley essayed numerous singles for other small labels like Paula and his own Astro Records. He tallied exactly one chart record during this period, "Now I Can Live Again" and it stalled at #68. And he had a near-miss on a major label when he released a great rockabilly track, "Call Me Shorty". But it stiffed, like everything else he released until 1974. If there was ever an artist who needed a break -- and who deserved a break -- it was Mickey Gilley. 

His break came in the person of Sherwood Cryer, a tough-as-nails businessman who had moved to the area from the east Texas "piney woods" country near Diboll. Cryer, by dint of hard work, a steel will and near obsessive frugality, had sequed from petrochemical plant worker into Spencer highway businessman. At the time he met Gilley, Cryer was already running a successful club called "Shelly's", owned property up and down Spencer Highway and operated several liquor stores. By then Gilley had left the Nesadel and started a new club, The Bel Aire Ballroom, over in Houston. This enterprise had a shaky start and went downhill fast, so it didn't take a lot of convincing for Cryer to talk Gilley into returning to his Pasadena stomping grounds, especially when he offered to make extensive renovations and change the club's name from Shelly's to "Gilley's". 

From this point on, most country fans know the story: in the summer of 1974 Mickey finally got his artist breakthrough on, of all places, Playboy Records, with an remake of an old George Morgan hit, "Room Full of Roses". Then everything grew like a Texas brushfire. Mickey's career flourished as he tallied six more #1's by 1977. Playboy departed the music business in 1978 but Gilley seamlessly sequed to Epic Records where he posted over two dozen additional hits, including ten more #1's. 
And Gilley's grew right along with him to become for a time "the world's biggest honky-tonk", a structure made of cement block walls flocked on the inside with grey insulation foam. There was a low ceiling with the "Gilley's" logo on most of the ceiling tiles while slides of previous nights’ performers and crowd revelry were projected in several spots. Gilley's could accommodate at least 3,500 nightly, all paying a cash cover charge even when there wasn't a band! Some came to hang out, some to dance, some to drink, some to pick fights, many to pick each other up for the night but plenty came to do battle with the mechanical bull that Cryer installed to try to minimize fist fights among the patrons. The sexual overtones of women riding the lurching, twisting "bull" were not lost on the patrons. 

The scene attracted national attention via an Aaron Latham story in Esquire and plenty of relentless promotion by Sherwood and his publicist. Latham's piece ultimately spawned the movie starring John Travolta and Debra Winger. However, the real stars were the club itself and the mechanical bull, a device unknown to the American public at the time. That film spawned one of the biggest country-based soundtrack albums ever, ignited the brief fame of Gilley's replacement as house band leader, Johnny Lee ("Lookin' For Love") and delivered a great song to Anne Murray ("Could I Have This Dance"). 

Soon a recording studio was built in front of the club, and concerts, 4th of July picnics and rodeos were staged in a tin-roofed arena Cryer erected out back. Guided tours were added during the daytime, to further accommodate the tourists who came in the wake of the movie. 

Sadly, the empire came crashing down in the late-80s. Like all artists do sooner or later, Mickey fell out of favor with radio programmers, scoring his last Top-10 in 1986. By 1988 he was no longer with Epic but on tiny Airborne Records, where he posted four more minor chart records. But his fading career with radio wasn't even the most serious problem he was facing. In 1989 Gilley successfully sued Cryer for seventeen million dollars in misappropriated funds, little of which he ever collected after his victory in court. By then Billy Bob's Texas, up in Ft. Worth, had built an even bigger honky-tonk and, with the western craze and urban cowboys passe, Hollywood looked elsewhere for film script inspiration. Sometime in the early '90s a mysterious fire swept the club, marking the end of a colorful and tumultuous era. In 1998 it was announced that a small, replica Gilley's of a paltry 12,000 square feet would be built inside a major Las Vegas hotel, featuring a barbecue restaurant and a dance floor, but, alas, sans mechanical bull. 

Mickey Gilley continues, at age 62, to perform regularly, primarily in Branson, where he was one of the first to establish a club bearing his name. He is still making music and his latest material can be found on Nashville-based Intersound Records. He plays a lot of golf, enjoys flying his private plane and is involved in many charitable activities. Mickey Gilley has earned a life of relative leisure, he worked long enough and hard enough for his first taste of fame, may he savor the full helping his talent and persistence finally earned for him! 
~John Lomax III, September 1998