Born Mickey Leroy Gilley, 9 March 1936, Natchez, Mississippi
Unlike the name of one his songs, "Overnight Sensation", pianist / vocalist Mickey Gilley had to travel a long road on the rock 'n' roll and honky tonk circuit before he reached star status. For most of his career, Gilley lived in the shadow of his cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis. They both learned to play the same old Starck upright piano in Ferriday, Louisiana, where Mickey grew up. But in 1952, at the age of 16, he left his family and his music in Ferriday, moved to Houston and became a construction worker. It wasn't until Lewis had a monster hit with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" in 1957 that Mickey thought he could do that too, and decided that he wanted to pursue a musical career.
In August 1957 he went to Houston's Gold Star studio and cut "Tell Me Why"/"Ooh Wee Baby" for the aptly named Minor label. Undeterred by its poor sales, Gilley tried his luck at the Sun studio in Memphis, where he sang four songs at an audition (eventually released in the 1980s). Sam Phillips didn't need a Jerry Lee Lewis imitator when he had the real thing under contract. Early in 1958, Mickey hooked up with Charles 'Red' Matthews, writer of the hit song "White Silver Sands". Matthews produced the single "Call Me Shorty"/"Come On Baby" (two exuberant rockers), which was placed with Dot and sold well regionally. Over the next few years, Gilley recorded for a wide variety of independent labels : Khoury (1959), Rex (1959), Potomac (1960), Lynn, Paula, Sabra, Princess, Supreme, San, Astro (his own label) and many more. Most of these recordings were rock 'n' roll in Jerry Lee's style, with an occasional country number thrown in for good measure, for instance "Is It Wrong" and "Lonely Wine", both of which sold well in the South in 1964-65. Meanwhile Mickey played a never-ending series of bars and clubs. Throughout the 1960s Gilley had his dreams, but little else.
In 1971, a millionnaire ex-welder named Sherwood Cryer talked him into becoming business partners in a nightclub they called Gilley's, in Pasadena, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Mickey performed there six nights a week and soon the club was packed every night. When some customers complained of the lack of Mickey Gilley records on the club's jukebox, he went back into the studio in 1973, still recording for his own Astro label. A club's favourite was chosen with Charlie Rich's "She Called Me Baby". In urgent need of a B-side, Gilley remembered a song called "Room Full Of Roses", a 1949 hit for George Morgan. When the Houston DJs started to turn the record over, he took it to Nashville and got a national release on Playboy Records. "Room Full Of Roses" was his first chart entry and went all the way to # 1 (country, # 50 pop) in 1974, followed by a staggering sixteen further number one country hits, first on Playboy and, after that label folded in 1978, on Epic. Mickey picked up the "Most Promising Male Vocalist" award from the Academy of Country Music in 1974 and several other awards, including album of the year (for "Gilley's Smokin'", 1976). His biggest pop success was "Stand By Me" (yes, the Ben E. King number), which peaked at # 22 in mid-1980.
In the late 1970s to early 1980s, Gilley's nightclub was a symbol of country music's growing popularity. Extensive expansion followed and for a while Gilley's was the world's largest honky tonk, encompassing more than 48,000 square feet. Attractions not only included Mickey Gilley himself and other country stars, but also a shooting gallery, pool tables, a sledgehammer strength test and a mechanical bull. A success- ful movie ("Urban Cowboy") was released in 1980, filmed largely in and around Gilley's, and starring John Travolta and Debra Winger. Gilley was now a country superstar. But it couldn't last. When the Urban Cowboy fad predictably ended by the mid-eighties, the business failed, Gilley's closed (1989), acrimonious lawsuits followed, and the building mysteriously burned down. In 1990 Mickey opened the Mickey Gilley Theater in Branson, Missouri, which became a success. He still works there three days a week. But he didn't have any country hits after 1988.
Gilley's early R&R recordings are well worth seeking out and display the same confidence and powerful piano playing as his famous cousin. The JLL influence is less present in the 1970s and beyond, with the accent on remakes of old country and pop ballads. Of its kind not bad at all, and generally very melodic, but they lack the excitement of his earlier records.
More info : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mickey_Gilley
Acknowledgements : Leon Beck, Don Rhodes, anonymous liner notes for the Sparkletone CD.
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