Music icon

Country music icon and ‘Urban Cowboy’ inspiration Mickey Gilley dies at 86

Mickey Gilley – the country music star who “brought the world to Pasadena”, Texas – has died aged 86.

Gilley had just come off the road, “his favorite place, having played 10 shows in April”, according to his publicist.

“He passed away peacefully with his family and close friends by his side,” a statement read. Gilley married his third wife, Cindy Loeb, in June 2020. He had four children from previous marriages.

The Mississippi native was a young country singer when he moved to Pasadena in 1971 and opened Gilley’s, his honky-tonk namesake. He inspired the movie “Urban Cowboy” and propelled country music to new heights of popularity. He played himself in the 1980 film starring John Travolta and Debra Winger.

His music was originally inspired by Louisiana rhythm and blues, but much of it had a polished, countrypolitan sound. Among his biggest hits are “Is It Wrong For Loving You”, “City Lights” and “She’s Pulling Me Back Again”.

Gilley, despite his advanced age and share of incidents, continued to make appearances. He was due to perform in September at Dosey Doe at The Woodlands.

“I had heart surgery, brain surgery, broke my back, had two plane crashes and drove a car twice,” Gilley told the writer of the Andrew Dansby Chronicle in 2020. “I lost the use of my hands when I fell, and I like that I broke my neck, so I can’t play the piano anymore.

He tested positive for coronavirus that year but said he was “lucky and still here”.

Jeff Wagner, Mayor of Pasadena, wrote on Facebook that “Pasadena has lost a true legend.” In 2020, part of a street in Pasadena was renamed Mickey Gilley Boulevard.

“It was a great honor to know this man for most of my life,” Wagner wrote. “His talent and larger-than-life personality helped spark a new interest in country music as he introduced Pasadena to the world through his dance hall and ‘Urban Cowboy’ in 1980.”

The film helped boost both Gilley’s and Travolta’s careers, while establishing Houston as a short film mecca. Andy Warhol, Jerry Hall and Diane von Furstenberg were among the celebrities who attended the Houston premiere. The soundtrack featuring Gilley sold 3 million copies and the phrase “urban cowboy” was used to describe the country-pop sound that dominated the 80s.

Gilley has earned numerous honors throughout her career, including six ACM Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and induction into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. Gilley’s latest album, “Two Old Cats,” was released in 2018. He paired it with Houston native Troy Payne, country singer and lifelong fan, for a run through several country classics.

“Mickey was a great artist, a great friend, and a great guy in every way. I will cherish my memories and the time spent with him forever,” Payne said.

LOOKING BACK: Gilley spoke to the Chronicle about her life and career in November 2020.

Payne was 11 when he started collecting Gilley’s early recordings from before his first big hit. They met several times, and the country icon was “baffled” by Payne’s vast collection. Gilley then invited Payne on the road with him. A conversation about recording a few songs just for fun eventually became the “Two Old Cats” album.

“I was in heaven,” Payne said. “Few people meet their idol, and even fewer sing, share the stage or record with them. I loved him very much and he will be missed.

A cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart, Gilley experimented with boogie-woogie and gospel music early in his career. Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart is also his cousin. He eventually found his footing in country music, and Gilley’s popularity made him a superstar.

1979 – Country singer Mickey Gilley at the entrance to Gilley’s Club, 4500 Spencer HighwayJohn Van Beekum/Houston Chronicle

“I felt like every night it got bigger,” Gilley said of the Pasadena nightclub. “And that makes sense to me. I think we all have a bit of a cowboy in us, anyway.”

Irene Morales moved from California to Houston when country dancing was at its peak. She and her spouse quickly took two-step classes, and Morales recalls being impressed the first time she walked into Gilley’s. They quickly became regulars.

“I had never seen anything like it. Everyone was dressed to their nines in western clothes, including us,” Morales says.

“When ‘Orange Blossom Special’ came on the loudspeakers, one of my neighbors escorted me to the dance floor. There were no fans. All I remember is is that it was the race of my life.

Mickey Gilley, left, was handling vocals and Sherwood Cryer was running Gilley's when this photo was taken at the Pasadena club in 1980.

Mickey Gilley, left, was handling vocals and Sherwood Cryer was running Gilley’s when this photo was taken at the Pasadena club in 1980.

Joel Draut/Houston Chronicle

Within a few years, Gilley’s music was in heavy rotation. His first No. 1 country single was “Room Full of Roses” in 1974. He followed it with 16 more throughout his career.

Fans, friends and family immediately reacted to his death on social media. Local singer Mary Sarah, who opened shows for Gilley, said he was a “class actor” whose “music will live on forever”.

“I am at a loss for words. The world has lost a brilliant musician and a hell of a man. Mickey, my accomplice. My best friend. My musical counterpart. I love and miss you forever bro,” wrote Johnny Lee , frequent tour companion.

Kim Padgett, a public relations expert from Houston, befriended Mickey Gilley.

Kim Padgett, a public relations expert from Houston, befriended Mickey Gilley.

Kim Padget

Kim Padgett, a local public relations expert who helped honor Gilley at two galas in Houston, says she “hit it off right away” with the country legend.

“The stories he could tell — crazy stories,” Padgett said. They became friends and met for sushi in Pasadena.

“It’s just a cut. He made me laugh nonstop,” she recalled. “We had such a wonderful time together. There are some (celebrities) who are just jerks. And then you meet others who are so nice, so down to earth. I loved him.”

Earlier this year, Paramount+ announced it was adapting “Urban Cowboy” into a limited series that chronicled “the rise and fall of the music icon’s football-field-sized Texas honky tonk.” country Mickey Gilley,” according to Deadline. The producers described it as a mix of “Walk The Line” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”. A release date has not been set.

Andrew Dansby and Marissa Luck contributed to this story.