Part of the fun of interviewing Mickey Gilley is knowing what you’re getting. A veteran showman, always conscious of his public. A fast talker. A jokester who’s always on and walks a crowd-pleasing line between self-deprecation and tooting his own horn. A 78-year-old entertainer who opens on the phone with the quip, “Old age is not for sissies anymore.”
Gilley has just gotten back to touring after recovering from a partially-paralyzing injury in 2009. He cracked four vertebrae after a sofa fell on him while he was helping a friend move. Following years of physical therapy, he’s now taking to the road with a retrospective show called Down Memory Lane With Mickey Gilley that he’s been staging in his theater in Branson, Mo.
CMT Edge: You build up a lot of muscle memory in half century of performing. What was it like getting back onstage after your accident and not knowing how your body would respond?
Gilley: When I first went back out there and tried to perform, of course, I started in my theater in Branson. The thing that really got me going really, really hot and heavy was because when I went out for my comeback night at the theater, who was sitting in the audience? Andy Williams. If that don’t motivate you to get on your feet, nothing is gonna motivate you. Here was a superstar come to see an old country boy like me to come back after my fall.
Now I’ve graduated from the roll-around office chair I was sitting in to the stool, and I’m walking around the stage a little bit. I can’t walk and stand up for the full set. I sit and I tell the storyline. I talk to ‘em about my life in music — some of the trivia that a lot of people don’t realize. My first chart record back in 1959, Kenny Rogers played the bass on it. I betcha you didn’t know that, either.
Actually I’d read that somewhere.
Did you? Anyway, his brother Leland was the one that took me to the recording studio. I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was ACA Recording. It was on Fanning Street, right here in Houston, Texas. I walk in, and Kenny Rogers is on the bass on the session. …
Then I tell ‘em about when the guy approached me about doing the club. He says, “You’ve been successful in the Houston market and the Pasadena area all this time. How would you feel about having a club of your own?” I said, “Oh, sure. It’d be nice if I had the money to do one, but I don’t.” And he says, “Well, I’ve got a club down the street. … I wanna call it Gilley’s.” I said, “I like it!” And that’s how [Gilley’s] was born in 1971.
Another thing you do to engage your fans is post update videos on Facebook, like the ones you posted when you first got back out on the golf course, and when you relaunched Gilley beer. How have you seen that affect your relationship with your fans?
A lot of people are not beer drinkers. But it’s been a fun thing for me to get involved with doing something I was so proud of back in the ‘80s when we did the film Urban Cowboy and we had the Gilley beer. Of course, it wasn’t that good.
You mean the beer wasn’t that good back then?
It was terrible. But this [new] beer’s pretty good. What happened was, I did the [History Channel show] American Pickers. Did you see me on there?
Can you believe I lived long enough to make the History Channel? What happened was, I sold [the pickers] that Gilley beer sign, and I got a call from an old boy in St. Louis. … He says, “You sold ‘em that beer sign kinda cheap, didn’t you? … I’d have paid a thousand.” I said, “Well, I’ll manufacture some more.”
Back in your early years of honky-tonking, did you aim your performances toward getting people on the dance floor?
Oh, absolutely. My thoughts behind the music industry was, “Look, you get ‘em out to slow dance — play about two, three slow songs — then you give ‘em an up-tempo tune to jitterbug by. That way you can keep ‘em on the dance floor longer.”
If I did four or five fast songs in a row, the dance floor would empty out. But when you’re playing slow music, the good country music slow songs like “You Win Again,” “Window Up Above,” “City Lights,” they can get out there and dance slow and do the two-step.
The guys are hustlin’ the girls, and the girls are hustlin’ the guys. They wanna dance and talk sweet somethings in their ear. That’s what it was all about. Then you can drop a fast tune in there to liven things up, and then go back to the slow music again. That’s what I used to do.
Was that why you incorporated so many R&B tunes, like “Bring It on Home to Me”?
I had four No. 1 songs right in a row, and they were remakes of tunes that had been previously recorded by other artists. “Room Full of Roses” was recorded by George Morgan. … “I Overlooked an Orchid” was Carl Smith and “The Window Up Above,” of course, was George Jones, and “City Lights” was Ray Price, written by Bill Anderson. …
Eddie Kilroy, [the producer] I was working with there in Nashville, said, “I know you’ve got some other old songs that you did back at the clubs. You had a lot of success with the first four, those remakes. Maybe we oughta revisit some of the old tunes.”
I said, “There’s an old tune called ‘Bring It on Home’ that Sam Cooke had out,” and I sat down and played it for him. … And all the sudden, it becomes record of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 1977.
So it came out of your club repertoire.
Right. But the thing that really turned my career around was when I met [producer] Jim Ed Norman and we did “Stand by Me” in the soundtrack to the film Urban Cowboy. He identified me with a different perspective, as far as music was concerned, and gave me more of an identity and took me away from my cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis, and gave me the identity of Mickey Gilley.
You played clubs for years before Urban Cowboy. How did you see things change on the dance floor when the movie hit and after? Was there more line-dancing after that?
Well, before the Urban Cowboy, most of the dancing that I witnessed on the dance floor was the two-step, and they did what they call the Cotton-Eyed Joe. They lined up and went around in a circle, you know? That was the biggest thing that we had going at that time. Now, of course, I’d have given anything in the world if we’d have had “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.” They were still two-stepping, but then later, we had the line-dancing come on board.
Obviously, Saturday Night Fever came right before Urban Cowboy. Did you see disco fever make any impact down in Texas?
When they told me John Travolta was gonna do the film Urban Cowboy, it dawned on me that it was gonna be … Country Night Fever. That’s what it amounted to. I mean, he introduced a different style of country music to the world. And if it was cool for John Travolta, it was cool for the younger set, and that’s the reason why it kicked in.