Mickey Gilley, country star whose club inspired ‘Urban Cowboy’, dies at 86

Mickey Leroy Gilley was born March 9, 1936 in Natchez, Mississippi, to Irene (Lewis) and Arthur Gilley. Raised in Ferriday, Louisiana, he grew up singing gospel harmonies with his cousins, Mr. Swaggart and Mr. Lewis, and sneaking into local juke joints with them to listen to blues and honky-tonk music.

Mr Gilley’s mother bought him a piano when he was 10, shortly before he fell under the boogie-woogie inspired tutelage of his cousin Jerry. Mr. Gilley would not start playing professionally, however, until he was in his twenties, several years after moving to Houston to work in the construction industry.

He released his first single, “Ooh Wee Baby”, in 1957, only to wait 55 years before he found an audience: he starred in a TV commercial for Yoplait yogurt in 2012. His first recording to hit the charts, ” Is It Wrong (For Loving You)” (1959), featured future star Kenny Rogers on bass guitar.

Moving to Pasadena in the early 1960s, Mr. Gilley began performing regularly at the Nesadel Club, a brutal honky-tonk owned by his future business partner, Mr. Cryer. His recording career, however, did not gain momentum until 1974, when Hugh Hefner’s Playboy label reissued his version of “Room Full of Roses”, which had been a No. 2 pop hit in 1949 for Sammy Kaye and his orchestra. Mr. Gilley’s iteration became a No. 1 country single.

Mr. Gilley then enjoyed a decade at or near the top of the country charts. At the height of the urban cowboy boom, he had six straight No. 1 hits.

As the movement Gilley had spawned gave way to the back-to-basics neo-traditionalism of mid-’80s country music, Mr. Gilley increasingly turned his attention to his nightclub, where a protracted conflict with Mr Cryer, who died in 2009, previously got the men to dissolve their partnership. Mr. Gilley closed the honky-tonk in 1989, a year before a fire destroyed much of the building.

About Roy B. Westling

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