Mickey Gilley, Country Music Star Whose Club Inspired ‘Urban Cowboy,’ Dies at 86


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

Mr. Gilley’s mother bought him a piano when he was 10, shortly before he came under the boogie-woogie-inspired tutelage of his cousin Jerry. Mr. Gilley would not begin playing professionally, though, until he was in his 20s, several years after he had moved to Houston to work in the construction industry.

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

Settling in Pasadena in the early ’60s, Mr. Gilley began performing regularly at the Nesadel Club, a rough-and-tumble honky-tonk owned by his future business partner, Mr. Cryer. His recording career, however, did not gain traction until 1974, when Hugh Hefner’s Playboy label rereleased his version of “Room Full of Roses,” which had been a No. 2 pop hit in 1949 for the singer Sammy Kaye. Mr. Gilley’s iteration became a No. 1 country single.

Mr. Gilley enjoyed a decade at or near the top of the country charts. At the height of the Urban Cowboy boom, he had six consecutive No. 1 hits.

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


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