Before Gilley's, the only people who wore cowboy hats were, well, cowboys. Before Gilley's, the only people who listened to country music were country people. If the shrine of country music might rightly be claimed by the Grand Ole Opry, then Gilley's was surely its honky-tonk halfway house.
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After Gilley's, country music joined the mainstream. To this day, Gilley's is remembered as the most famous country nightclub in the world. For its weekly national radio show which ran from 1977 to 1989, every act that played there was recorded --- and if you were anybody who was anybody in country, you had to play at Gilley's. A list of those who did reads like a Who's Who of Country Music. The tapes of those shows, several hundred hours worth, were the greatest collection of live country music ever recorded that had never been available on an album. Until now. But those performances were nearly lost forever and Live at Gilley's almost never happened.
"We recorded everybody by patching them into our recording studio next door," explains Mickey Gilley, of the 24-track, state-of-the-art, Nashville-quality studio.
All the tapes were stored there, too. Then, tragically, sometime after the club closed in 1989, the entire complex burned down and Gilley's was only a memory. But what happened to those taped performances by the greats of country music from the legendary stage at Gilley's? What had happened to classic concerts by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, Roy Orbison, The Judds, Hank Williams, Jr., Oak Ridge Boys, Mel Tillis, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Randy Ravis, Ricky Skaggs, Waylon Jennings, Rosanne Cash, Ernest Tubb, Bellamy Brothers, David Allen Coe, Freddy Fender, Tanya Tucker, Dottie West, Don Williams, Johnny Rivers, Brenda Lee, B.J. Thomas, Bobby Bare, Charlie Daniels, George Strait, Johnny Lee, Gilley himself, and on and on? "Fortunately," says Gilley, who has won a legal judgment against his former business partner a couple of years earlier and was no longer involved with the club when it was destroyed, "I had gone down there and I took all the tapes. If I hadn't, they'd be gone forever."
At the very moment country music was building a bridge to the rock generation, the moment when country became pop, and would never be the same again, Gilley's was where it happened. Its heyday was captured by the hour-long syndicated radio show "Live From Gilley's," the only nationwide country radio series, broadcast over some 500 stations, an enormous number for the medium.
Thanks to Armed Forces Radio, "Live From Gilley's" was also heard around the globe. At its zenith, some 20 million folks each week listened to the music coming out of the Pasadena, Texas honky-tonk certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest nightclub.
"Gilley's was very important to country music, no doubt," says Jim Duncan, the renowned country disc jockey who hosted and produced "Live From Gilley's" beginning in 1981, when Westwood One started its syndication of the program. "At Gilley's, country took on a modern feel and inspired the crossover country artist. Gilley's was where that new music was heard and showcased. That club was the midwife for the birth of where country music is today. What happened probably could have happened elsewhere but it did happen at Gilley's --- and I think there won't ever again be a place like it."
Still, looking back on when its swinging doors first flew open, Gilley says, "I never dreamed it would go on to become what it became." For more than 10 years, the original joint on a main drag in a blue-collar suburb of Houston was an open-air beer shack called Shelley's, owned and operated by Sherwood Cryer. Gilley, meanwhile, had established himself as a popular journeyman entertainer (his first cousin is Jerry Lee Lewis) by playing clubs up and down the same street, Spencer Highway. Cryer proposed a deal; he'd renovate Shelley's if Mickey would become its headliner. The piano-playing singer agreed and the two became business partners.
"We wanted a down-home place where you could go and have a good time, playing music people could listen to or dance to," recalls Gilley. When the club re-opened in 1971, the marquee read "Gilley's." "I was just happy to have a job," remembers Gilley, who performed six nights a week there for quite some time. But his growing popularity, and exposure on his own local TV show, "Gilley's Place," soon found him selling out the club, which then seated just 750 people. As he began to score number-one country hits in the mid-70s, such as "Room Full of Roses," "Window Up Above" and the classic honky-tonk anthem "Don't The Girls All Get Prettier At Closing Time," Cryer and Gilley kept expanding the club. Eventually, it would increase in size to an incredible 48,000 square feet, capable of holding 6,000 people, more than half of them seated. "Getting them all in was no problem," says Gilley. "The problem was being able to breathe."
There was a Texas-size bar and a Texas-size dance floor. "GIlley's was so big that you could not see from one end of the club to the other," adds Sandy Brokaw, who instigated the creation of "Live From Gilley's," "and everywhere there was some different way to have fun."
Open seven nights a week, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. ("We Doze But We Never Close" was one motto; "Only In Texas, Only At Gilley's" was another), the club boasted pool tables (40 of them), pinball machines, punching bags, a strong-arm machine and a mechanical bull. (Eventually there were three mechanical bulls, plus a mechanical horse, and even a mechanical calf you could rope). Gilley's had staged everything from Dolly Parton look-alike contests to tricycle races: "These big old boys would get on and try to ride them around but mostly they'd bust them and fall off," says Gilley with a laugh. But it was the mechanical bull, normally used as a training tool for cowboys, that would change country music. "I thought it was a mistake at the time," says Gilley. "I thought there'd be too many lawsuits because of injuries." A nearby sign read: Ride At Your Own Risk! "But suddenly all these guys would come down and get on to impress their girls. It'd throw them off and they'd get back on and yell, 'Turn it up!' Women would ride it, too. It's the bull that made that guy come down to see what all the hoopla was about."
That guy was Aaron Latham, who subsequently wrote a cover story for Esquire magazine titled "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America's Search for True Grit" for its September 1978 issue. Almost immediately, plans for a movie based on the article took shape. The stars would be John Travolta and Debra Winger, and Urban Cowboy would in fact be filmed on location at Gilley's, where many of its music artists performed in the film. An enormous box-office hit in 1980, Urban Cowboy spurred on men and women everywhere to pull on cowboy boots, don Stetson hats, dance the Texas two-step and maybe find themselves a mechanical bull to ride. The film's soundtrack album, which featured Gilley and Johnny Lee (previously the leader of the house band The Bayou City Beats) was also a hit; Lee topped the country charts with "Looking' For Love" and Gilley with "Stand By Me."
"Travolta coming down was what did it," says Gilley. "A guy who had made a disco movie, Saturday Night Fever, was now wearing a cowboy hat --- I always say that Urban Cowboy was Country Night Fever. After that, we were playing to people who might have ignored country music before. That movie was one of the best things to ever happen to country, and it opened the doors for many future stars. People didn't look down their noses anymore because you liked country music. And you know what, I doubt if there would have been an Urban Cowboy if there hadn't been a Gilley's."
Urban Cowboy not only broadened the country audience and country music but set off lifestyle, dance and fashion trends all over the world; honky-tonks with or without mechanical bulls sprang up from Los Angeles to New York, and line dancing enjoyed its first renaissance. As for Gilley's, the club became Houston's number-one attraction, with more visitors than the Astrodome. So many wanted to visit, with lines to get in at night stretching two football fields long down the street, that there were daytime tours --- and if any of them wanted to take home a souvenir bearing the Gilley's logo, there were plenty for sale, from baseball caps to denim jackets and shirts, jeans to socks, mugs to umbrellas, shoelaces to thimbles, Wild Bull Chili to bull-riding gloves, women's panties to lace garters. There was even a Gilley's brand of beer. "You name it, we had 'Gilley's' on it. At one time, you couldn't drive through Houston without seeing a Gilley's bumper sticker," adds Gilley. Fans who preferred a more original, and free, memento, would steal tiles from the acoustical dropped ceiling, because they were stamped with the club's logo. After Urban Cowboy, Gilley's expanded in another direction by building an indoor rodeo adjacent to the club. When the largest-drawing artists would come to perform, a stage would be set up in the rodeo arena, with the sound piped into the club for the other patrons.
One of those major acts was Mickey Gilley himself, among whose 17 number-one hits was another honky-tonk classic, "A Headache Tomorrow (Or A Heartache Tonight)." Once or twice a month, he'd fly back from a concert tour to play his club. Some artists who had first played Gilley's as unknowns also returned to town as big-time stars, including Randy Travis and George Strait. "The first time he was here, I said, 'Who in hell is George Strait?'" says Gilley. "The next time he came through town, he was playing the Astrodome." Before Gilley's, a successful album for a country artist would sell 200,000 copies. After Gilley's, country music albums were selling 500,000 copies, the threshold for a gold-certified album.
Though it's gone, Gilley's still lives on in the memories for those who were there and in Urban Cowboy. People often come up to Mickey Gilley after a show at his theatre in Branson, Missouri, and tell him, "I had a great time at Gilley's." Yes, Gilley's was about music, but it was mostly about people. Gilley's was a small town in a big city. It was a place to lose yourself, or find a partner. Gilley's was about lookin' for love and not caring if it was the wrong place. For country music, Gilley's was the right place at the right time.
- Sal Manna
Academy of Country Music Album of the Year 1976
Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year 1976
Academy of Country Music Single of the Year 1976
Academy of Country Music Song of the Year 1976
Academy of Country Music Top Male Vocalist 1976
Music City News Country Most Promising Male Artist of the Year 1976
Academy of Country Music Top New Male Vocalist 1974
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