Born on March 9, 1936, in Natchez, Mississippi, Mickey Leroy Gilley learned how to play the piano from his cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis. Lewis lived on the other side of the Mississippi River. In addition to teaching Gilley to play the piano his way, Lewis also taught another cousin, Jimmy Swaggart. Gilley also happens to be a cousin to Carl McVoy. For Gilley and Swaggart, the two often performed boogie-woogie and gospel music before going embarking on professional singing careers after Lewis became a success in the 1950s. Where Jerry Lee Lewis dominated on the pop charts, Gilley took to the country music genre. Although he was successful enough in his own right, Gilley was overshadowed by the highly enigmatic Jerry Lee Lewis that always drew headline attention everywhere he went.
During the 1960s, Mickey Gilley performed at bars and clubs that eventually saw him open up his own establishment, Gilley’s Club, in 1970. Out of Pasadena, Texas, it soon became the world’s biggest honky tonk and was featured in the 1980 box office hit, Urban Cowboy, thanks to its mechanical bull. It would be from this club Gilley performed a country version to Ben E. King’s 1960 cult classic, “Stand By Me.” The song was featured in the movie, which played an instrumental role in Gilley’s big comeback on the music scene.
Throughout the 1970s he was a chart-topping recording artist, putting out honky tonk hits before contemporary country music brought forth by a new wave of artists gave him cause to adapt to the sign of the times. This he did well until George Strait-style traditional country replaced the contemporary honky tonk. Once this happened, Gilley’s career as a top-notched recording artist cooled off. In addition to Gilley’s star fading to make way for a new wave of world-class country artists, financial difficulties caused him to sell his club. In 1990, a fire burned down much of the building before it was completely razed in 2004 in order to build a new school.
Mickey Gilley Legacy
Mickey Gilley has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, thanks to his contribution to the recording industry. On March 2, 2002, he and his cousins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart, were inducted into the Delta Music Museum Hall of Fame in Ferriday, Louisiana. In 2009, The Mickey Gilley Golf Classic began by a group of urban cowboys who were big fans of the countrypolitan star. The love of golf, country music, and rhinestone outfits began in Branson, Missouri as an annual event that ultimately led it to Old Kinderhoork Resort, Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, as of 2014.
As for the discographic portfolio Mickey Gilley has to his name, he has recorded and released twenty-seven studio albums and eight compilation albums. Out of the forty-one singles he released, twenty of them became number one hits. In 1974, he won Top New Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music Awards, followed by a series of awards from the same awards organization for Top Male Vocalist, as well as Album of the Year for Gilley’s Smoking, which produced two award-winning singles, “Bring It Home to Me” and “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.” He was also awarded Entertainer of the Year.
Top 10 Mickey Gilley Songs
#10 – City Lights
Originally, “City Lights” was a 1957 Bill Anderson song that didn’t get much attention. Then Ray Price recorded it in 1958 and it became a number one hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. In 1975, Mickey Gilley did the same with his own cover version. For him, it also became a number two hit on the RPM Canadian Country Tracks chart. The awestruck-style of the narrator taking in the big “City Lights” saw Gilley put an urbanized country spin on what has become a favorite classic among rhinestone-happy fans that still enjoy the carefree attitude of the song.
#9 – Window Up Above
For George Jones, the 1960 “Window Up Above” became that one song in his career that threw Jones into a new realm of success he hadn’t realized before. As for Mickey Gilley, his 1975 coverage of the song was equally stellar. For him, it peaked at number one on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and on the RPM Canadian Country Tracks chart. The classic country-style tale of the insecurities that come with infidelities was beautifully spun out as an emotional hit that struck in the hearts of all listeners, regardless if it was Jones’ original or Gilley’s cover.
#8 – A Headache Tomorrow (Or a Heartache Tonight)
Released in January 1981, the second single from the album, That’s All That Matters to Me, became another one of many number one hits for Mickey Gilley on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and on the RPM Canadian Country Tracks chart. Nothing like a classic ballad of which is better, “A Headache Tomorrow (Or a Heartache Tonight),” between a headache of drinking sorrows away or the heartache of news from a loved one he didn’t care to hear.
#7 – Lonely Nights
In 1981, from the album, You Don’t Know Me, “Lonely Nights” became the second number one hit in a row on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and the RPM Canadian Country Tracks chart. Overall, it was Gilley’s thirteenth number one country hit, which marked that he still earned his right to shine bright as a major crossover hit artist. This ballad was beautifully performed by an artist that knows how to tug at the heart strings just as much as his toe-tapping classics. Among fans who can relate, “Lonely Nights” have been known to be harder to take than lonely days.
#6 – Stand by Me
Ben E. King’s all-time 1961 classic, “Stand by Me,” rightfully earned its place in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for its culturally, historically, and aesthetically significance. The inspiration of this song came from the gospel hymn of the same title that earned its inspiration from the Biblical Book of Psalms. For Mickey Gilley, his 1980 urbanized country version was featured on the film, Urban Cowboy, which wound up becoming a chart-topping favorite on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it peaked as high as number twenty-two, and it was a number three hit on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and on the RPM Canadian Country Tracks chart.
#5 – You Don’t Know Me
In 1981, “You Don’t Know Me” was a cover song Mickey Gilley performed that was first released by Eddy Arnold in 1956. While Ray Charles made it a popular classic in 1962, Gilley’s version also made an impression on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart at number one as well as on the RPM Canadian Country Tracks chart. It was also a number twelve hit on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and a number fifty-five hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. The inspiration behind the song came from a song title suggestion made by Eddy Arnold to his songwriter, Cindy Walker. In a quip exchange of “You Don’t Know Me,” the inspired Walker admitted the song itself developed a life of its own as she wrote it.
#4 – True Love Ways
“True Love Ways” was the first hit in the 1980 for Mickey Gilley. This is a Buddy Holly original that was recorded in 1958, then released in 1960. Since then, a number of artists have covered this song. However, it was Gilley’s version that saw it become a number one hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and on the RPM Canadian Country Tracks chart. It was also a crossover hit, peaking at number forty on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and at number sixty-six on the US Billboard Hot 100. For Buddy Holly, “True Love Ways” was his final recording session before he boarded the fateful flight that crashed and claimed his life on February 3,1959.
#3 – Bring It On Home to Me
In 1976, “Bring It On Home to Me” earned Mickey Gilley the Single of the Year win with the Academy of Country Music Awards. The 1962 Sam Cooke original saw his R&B version take on a honky tonk meaning, thanks to Gilley’s performance. As a song, it has become a pop standard that was covered by many artists, including Gilley. Gilley’s version not only made it an award-winning success, but top the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and the RPM Canadian Country Tracks chart.
#2 – Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier At Closing Time
“Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time” became a number one hit for Mickey Gilley in 1975 on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and on the RPM Canadian Country Tracks chart. In 1976, it won Song of the Year by the Academy of Country Music Awards. In the honky tonk, bar-like style Gilley is best known for, his desperate performance as a man at a bar looking for love saw least likely female candidates for romance now becoming favorable options as the bar’s hours neared to a close.
#1 – Room Full of Roses
At first, Gilley had zero intention to release “Room Full of Roses” as a hit single as he felt the song was terrible. For him, the annoyance of the steel guitar and piano play took away what he thought served up a quality song. The echo in it also gave him reason to believe the song wouldn’t extend beyond the Houston, Texas area. However, when Playboy Records got ahold of the single due to its local appeal and popularity, it became a national hit.
Now the awkward song didn’t seem so bad. It actually became Gilley’s signature song as it not only served as his big breakthrough when it topped the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, but even reached the nation of Australia as it became a number nine hit on its Kent Music Report. “Room Full of Roses” also charted at number fifty on the US Billboard Hot 100 and was a number six hit on the RPM Canadian Country Tracks chart.
Feature Photo: Republic Country Club, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Top 10 Mickey Gilley Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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