Mickey Leroy Gilley was born on 9 March 1936 in Natchez to Irene and Arthur Gilley. He grew up across the Mississippi River in Ferriday, Louisiana, where his father operated a grocery, a taxi service, and restaurants and his mother worked in a café. As a boy Gilley learned to sing and to play guitar and piano, and he was reared in the Pentecostal faith of the Assembly of God church. With his cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart, he absorbed hillbilly, blues, and boogie-woogie music on the radio and in the clubs of Ferriday and Natchez. In 1953 he married Geraldine Garrett and moved to the booming city of Houston, Texas, working in construction and in the parts department of an engineering company. Three years later, watching Lewis’s musical career take off at Sun Records, Gilley tried to record his own music on a variety of labels but met with little success. He struggled, traveling and playing clubs in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and he and Geraldine divorced.
In 1959 Gilley scored a regional hit with “Is It Wrong?,” a rockabilly number on Dot Records. This success launched him into work as a full-time musician in the clubs along Spencer Highway in Pasadena, a working-class suburb of Houston. He spent ten years performing at the Nesadel Club, where he met Vivian McDonald, who in 1962 became his second wife. In 1971 Gilley and local bar owner Sherwood Cryer transformed a decrepit dance hall into Gilley’s Club. Advertised as the “biggest honky-tonk in the world,” the club quickly became a major success and expanded to a floor area of almost four acres and a holding capacity of five thousand.
In 1974 Gilley recorded a song for the club jukebox, and its B-side, “Room Full of Roses,” became an unexpected radio hit. Picked up for national distribution by Playboy Records, it reached No. 1 on the country charts. The style on “Room Full of Roses” was not rockabilly, like his earlier work, but rather honky-tonk, a country music form that had originated in the mid-1930s in the oil towns of Texas. With electrified instruments and a steady dance beat, honky-tonk songs dwelt on lyrical themes of romantic trouble, mistreatment, and the brief release provided by alcohol and festivity in the club. Gilley continued to record songs in this vein and scored a string of No. 1 hits, among them “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time” and “A Headache Tomorrow (Or a Heartache Tonight).” These commercial successes led to opportunities for Gilley to tour the country, and singer and guitarist Johnny Lee became house bandleader at Gilley’s Club.
The club received wide publicity through a 1978 Esquire cover story and the 1980 film Urban Cowboy, boosting the sales of Gilley’s and Lee’s new records and inspiring a brief national craze for cowboy boots, country dancing, and mechanical bull riding. After the fad waned in the mid-1980s, Gilley scored fewer hits. He eventually severed business relations with Cryer, and in 1989 the club burned to the ground. By the next year, Gilley had slowed touring and recording and had moved to Branson, Missouri, where his Mickey Gilley Theatre and Gilley’s Texas Café became popular draws for a predominantly older crowd of vacationers. Thus, though Gilley grew up in the rich cotton-producing region of Natchez-Ferriday, his sound and public image have been tied not to agricultural Mississippi but rather to the honky-tonk culture of Sunbelt Texas.
- Ken Burke, Country Music Changed My Life: Tales of Tough Times and Triumphs from Country’s Legends (2004)
- Elaine Dundy, Ferriday, Louisiana (1991)
- Peter Guralnick, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians (1999)
- Joel Whitburn, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Country Hits (1996)