Pasadena mayor Jeff Wagner posted yesterday that Houston country music icon Mickey Gilley passed away at age 86. When I heard the news of Gilley’s passing, I started pondering what (if anything) this meant to me. I’m not a country music fan, which is a second-degree felony in certain circles in these parts, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. Joking aside, country music is a big deal in Texas, and it always has been.
Mickey Gilley was already a star of some stature by the time the late 1970s – early 1980s rolled around. It was an interesting time to grow up in Houston, and it was an interesting time to be in Houston, period. The price of a barrel of crude oil had burst upwards, from roughly $3 per barrel at the start of the 1970s to pushing $40 per barrel by 1980. Culturally, it was also the age of the Houston Oilers Luv Ya Blue era. Even soap opera television got into the Texas vibe by launching Dallas, with Larry Hagman portraying the villainous J.R. Ewing.
Amidst all of this came the premiere of the film Urban Cowboy, with its portrait of, well, urban cowboy life in Pasadena Texas. John Travolta and Debra Winger were both hot commodities around that time, and the story fit right in with the romance of a small-town young man who moves to the big city to make some money and maybe meet someone. Mickey Gilley’s own Gilley’s, a giant honkey tonk country and western club, played a prominent role in the movie, and suddenly Mickey Gilley was everywhere! In the aftermath of Urban Cowboy, Gilley’s became one of those must-see places to go, right up there with NASA, Galveston, the battleship Texas, and the San Jacinto Monument, if you happened to have any out-of-towners staying with you as guests and who wanted to see Houston. Sadly, Mickey Gilley ran into financial problems, and in 1990 the club was scarred by a massive fire which occurred under mysterious circumstances.
All the same, none of this put a dent into the ongoing fame and stardom of Mickey Gilley. Despite his medical problems and whatever family issues he may have had, Mickey Gilley remained Mickey Gilley. With his deep voice and piano skills, Gilley kept trucking, and with hits like All the Girls Get Prettier At Closing Time and She’s Pulling Me Back Again, Gilley was assured to have a repertoire that would keep him performing until near the end of his life.
Mickey Gilley, you will be missed, even by this faux Urban Cowboy. Whether I wanted to admit it or not, you were a big part of Houston and the culture. Rest in Peace.