remembering mickey gilley

Country music icon and Gilley's co-founder Mickey Gilley passes away at 86

Country music icon and Gilley's co-founder Mickey Gilley passes away

Mickey Gilley
Country music star Mickey Gilley was well known for his music and eponymous club. Gilleys.com

A country music icon has passed away. Mickey Gilley, the singer-songwriter whose career spanned more than 50 years, died Saturday, May 7 surrounded by his family, according to Pasadena, Texas mayor Jeff Wagner. He was 86.

Born in 1936 in Natchez, Mississippi to a famed family that included iconic cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart, Gilley cut his teeth at small clubs, eventually charting 39 Top 10 hits and 17 No. 1 singles.

In 1970, he opened his now-famed, eponymous Gilley’s honky-tonk in Pasadena, which would eventually be known as the “world’s biggest honky-tonk.”

The club — and its legendary mechanical bull — would eventually create a memorable setting in the 1980 John Travolta smash hit, Urban Cowboy. An over-the-top movie premiere at the club in 1980 saw the likes of Lynn Wyatt, Andy Warhol, and Diane von Furstenberg.

Gilley not only starred in the blockbuster, but his cover of “Stand by Me” became a pop and adult contemporary hit that year, marking a resurgence for the singer. (He later recounted that magical era with TV legend Dave Ward.) 

With Urban Cowboy putting him back in the spotlight, Gilley moved to television in the 1980s, appearing in popular series such as Murder She Wrote, The Fall Guy, Fantasy Island, and Dukes of Hazzard.

His Gilley's club no longer operates in Pasadena (a store is located nearby), as it shuttered in 1989 due to dispute between Gilley and one-time partner Sherwood Cryer. In 1990, the honky tonk burned down; the fire was ruled as arson by local investigators.

Gilley sold the naming rights to Dallas-based developer Matthews Southwest, and Gilley's Dallas opened in 2003. It's currently owned by Don Nelson. There are also locations in Las Vegas and Oklahoma.

He has a connection to Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth, too. A history snippet on Billy Bob's website recalls, "Mickey owned his own honky tonk place that was called Gilley’s and he was upset when Billy Bob’s opened that we called ourselves the world's largest honky tonk. Well eventually when we got Mickey Gilley to play here, we sold T-Shirts that said 'Gilley plays Billy’s.'”

A longtime Pasadena resident, Gilley boasts a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, six Academy of Country Music Awards, and a place in the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. Fittingly, a street in Pasadena is named for the star: Mickey Gilley Boulevard.

“Pasadena has lost a true legend,” Wagner said in a social media post, adding that “his talent and larger-than-life personality helped ignite a new interest in country music as he introduced the world to Pasadena through his dance hall and Urban Cowboy in 1980. We were so honored to have Mickey perform at our State of the City in February, 2020. Our prayers for comfort and peace are with Mickey’s family, his loved ones and his fans.”