Mickey Gilley sat on the edge of the living room chair, in his suite at the Choctaw Casino hotel, surrounded by several travelers to help him manage his busy day. Gilley was there to open the newest facility named for him, Gilley’s Durant. He was on a schedule of interviews, videoing, and band rehearsal that was, to use a Texism, tight as a tick. When asked how Mickey liked the new Gilley’s, he said he hadn’t seen it yet, that he was whisked to the suite straight from the car.
The first Gilley’s was in Pasadena and made famous as the world’s largest dance hall, thanks to Mickey being at the helm and to its use in the 1980 movie “Urban Cowboy.” That facility burned down, and hasn’t been rebuilt. Instead, Gilley said, he has opened one in Dallas and another in Las Vegas. He doesn’t put his name on these venues without a lot of thought, direct input, and pride.
About not having seen the Durant facility yet, Gilley said he just keeps continuing to work to make sure the name is out there, and that it represents good country. His slow easy smile came out for the first time in the interview when told that the John David Kent band, which played a soft opening the previous weekend, would have made him proud. He said he was glad to hear that the band lived up to the Gilley’s legacy.
One of those in the Gilley entourage was fellow Branson performer, Dalena Ditto, there with a video camera creating a documentary, and filming the interview. Her young son played in the room, and later in front of the stage, with a set of drumsticks, tapping out rhythms on just about anything he could reach. Another was a cousin, distant cousin and performer in her own right, Penny Gilley, who jumped on stage later to be by his side. His son was traveling with him, too, taking care of logistics so that Gilley didn’t have to.
Mickey asked for a Diet Coke, and then asked for two glasses, and shared it during the interview. He held his glass gingerly in both hands, the hands that have played piano for about 60 years, and which are now still recovering from an injury he talked about.
“I fell two and a half years ago, and damaged my back.” It happened, he said, when he was helping a friend move a couch, and he fell down, backwards. ”I was paralyzed from the neck down, injuring C4, C5, 6, and 7. I’m 76 now, and don’t recover like I used to.” He said he was bedridden and then in rehab for months. “I weighed 186 when I fell and got down to 148, but I’m gaining it back, too. I can do a lot of things for myself without any help. I can take a bath, I can shave, I can wash my hair, I can dress myself. I can’t button my shirts, but I can drive my car. I’m not back 100%, but I’m back.”
The major injury, though, was to his hands, and he said the doctors hold out little hope that he will ever play the piano again. When asked how he released the passion those fingers which, for decades, drove onto keyboards, he answered, “The only way I have left — through my voice!”
The interview then went to the questions which his fans has submitted to this reporter ahead of time. Some serious, some not quite so much so. But first, this reporter had to pass on one attaboy: “Tell him I still have my napkin from the original dance hall in Pasidena Texas. Will pass it on to my red-neck granddaughter one day. Had fun dancing there!!” That slow smile spread across the wrinkled face.
When another comment was presented, “He’s my father-law’s cousin, Jack Gilley, Jeff’s dad. We went to see him in Branson twice, what a performer, love him!!,” Gilley commented only that he has a lot of relatives, cousins included. Two of those include Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart, who he said were very close to him in age and with whom he shared childhoods.
Question: “What is his favorite childhood memory (with cousins Swaggart and Lewis)?” Gilley said he wished he’d kept better notes during those years that the three of them played together so much, especially after all of them grew up and became so different. But one memory was a “stupid game we made up, called ‘Conquer and Unconquer. If one of us did something, the others had to do it, too, or we were conquered. But when Jerry Lee walked the Mississippi bridge and the water was 100 feet down, I just said I was conquered.”
He also said the other strong memory was going to church together. “I sang with my Mom and Jerry Lee would sing and all of us did sometimes. We were a poor family and we did the normal childhood things to have fun.”
Question: “Did he ever ride the mechanical bull in Pasadena? Mickey answered, “I don’t mind getting up on something. I rode it for a commercial, did a picture session. I rode it slow. It’s not my cup of tea, not my saddle.”
L.B. Blanton asked: How much has the honky tonk world changed in 30 years?” Gilley said he hasn’t played a honky tonk in the last 30 years, that he’s been busy touring and with his show and club, now, in Branson. He’s been inside a few over time , and hasn’t seen a lot of changes in clubs, lounges, bars, dance halls. “Different states have different laws, and that makes a bit of a difference there, but a club is a club. They are all designed different and with different atmospheres, but still there for the fun of it.”
Double questions: “I would really like to know, what his biggest influence is, and the best hangover cure.”
Gilley answered the second part quickly, and solemnly, saying simply, “The best cure for a hangover is don’t drink.” Then, he got into part A of the question, saying, “Of course, my influence was my cousins. I started out wanted to be a rock star, then heard Conway Twitty. Conway was country and his style influenced me. I basically consider myself as country rock, but don’t really think of it. But it was Jerry Lee on the piano… he picked it up by ear, and I followed him. The guys of the 50s were all trying to make it into rock and roll, and I didn’t want to do that.”
Mickey said he was never a good songwriter, and he depended on his management to find him good songs. They must have done good jobs, because Gilley has had strings of charted hits, many which topped off at No. 1.
He talked about the changes in country music then, having lived through it all from the 1950s until today. He adapted his style through the changes and managed to keep himself viable in the industry. No one-hit wonder there!
“Any good song, whether you classify it as country, rock, whatever, if it says something in 3.5 or 3 minutes and it has a storyline, well, it’s a good song. As an example, I did “You Don’t Know Me,” and it did good for me. I tried to do it middle-of-the-road classic country. Ray Charles had the best version, and then I heard Cindy Walker and Eddie Arnold do it, they wrote it you know, and it was completely different. And if you let George Jones record it, it would be more country, and it would still be a good song.
Later in the day, Mickey Gilley sat on a chair on the new Gilley’s Durant stage, with the Chris Rivers band backing him up, and singing those songs that brought him to where he is today. Whether he sits or can eventually stand up again to perform is not a major concern, he said. He’s just happy to perform.
Mickey Gilley has garnered so many awards — Entertainer of the Year several times, Album and Single of the Year, Top Male Vocalist, and so many more. Here’s one more for him: Interview-ee of the Year.