Mickey Gilley Interview
He's ranked among the Top Fifty country music hit-makers according to record
research historian Joel Whitburn.
He's charted 39 Top Ten country hits, with 17 of those songs reaching the Number
One spot on the country charts.
He's appeared extensively on television as both an entertainer and an actor.
He is among a select few country singers who have achieved the honor of being
recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He also has long been
a fea¬tured attraction in Las Vegas, Reno, and Atlantic City.
His cousins are Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Lee Swaggart.
These days most of his time is taken up with his own theatre in Branson, Missouri.
By now, you must know we're talking about Mr. Urban Cowboy himself—Mickey
Q. I believe there's a Syracuse connection in your band. Didnt
you have a fiddle player from Syracuse in your Urban Cowboy Band?
A. You're absolutely correct. Ron Levine. He was very difficult to work with.
Q. Sorry to hear that.
A. He worked with me for a while, but then got dissatisfied and left.
Q. Didn't he get a Grammy?
A. Yeah. We got a Grammy for the Orange Blossom Special. The Urban Cowboy Band.
He played fiddle on it. I played the piano. It was part of two bands put
together, and Irving Azhoff called it the Urban Cowboy Band. I picked it
up and continued on with it. So, at the present -time my group is called
the Urban Cowboy Sand.
Q. Where's Ron Levine today?
A. The last time I saw him he was in Nashville.
Q. You're quite busy these days. Besides your theater in Branson,
what else are you involved in?
A. We just built a restaurant in Myrtle Beach. It's Broadway at the Beach.
We're right down from the Hard Rock Cafe. And they're now fixin' to do a Planet
Hollywood there. So, we're right in the middle of 'em.
Q. How are there enough hours in the day for you to do everything
you have to do?
A. Well, I got people that help me with the restaurant. I don't have to be
at the restaurant 24 hours a day. All I have to concentrate on is my performing.
Starting in '96, I'm doing six shows a week, at my theatre in Branson which
seats about 990. We're gonna try to fill every seat so when I walk out onstage
I've got 990 people to see a performance. This year (1995) we've done quite
well. We didn't pack it every show but a lot of days I did 2 shows. My schedule
is I do a Saturday night, a Sunday night, a Monday night, a Tuesday night,
a Wednesday night, and a Thursday afternoon. That's six shows. Now the reason
why I do an afternoon show is because in Branson there's a lot of people that
book matinees. So I'm trying to spread myself to the point to where I can do
the night shows and not have to worry about the matinees, and do one or two
matinees down through the year. Getting into September and October, I'm gonna'
be doing a Wednesday matinee and a Thursday matinee. So, 111 be doing seven
shows when I do that. It's just a scheduling type situation where you have
sort of a life. When I go to Branson, if I'm doing two shows a day, at 2 and
8,1 got no life. So you're looking at 12 shows a week. It just wears you out
to do those things. I tried to outsmart everybody and bring another act in
with me. Im giving the other act the afternoon show.
Q. Who's the other act.?
A. Moe Bandy.
Q. How did you arrive at the 990 seat figure?
A. Well, I tried to get it under 1,000 because of the licensing fees to B.M.I,
and ASCAP. I was restricted also by my parking. I'm right on the strip there
in Branson and the city would not give me permits to build a theatre that
would seat more than what I could park. As it was, I still had to get them
to give me a Variance so that I could build it, because we were a little
lax on some of the seating. But, I convinced them that the restaurant (also
owned by Mickey Gilley) next to the theater would not be full at the same
time. Otherwise I’d be in trouble.
Q. What is there about performing that you still enjoy?
A. We’re almost doing stage show It’s almost like a Vegas performance.
We do skits I do some skits with one of the guys onstage, the steel guitar
player. It's entertaining. You get the people to laugh. They know it's a put-on,
but we act it out like it's a play. The people in the Ozarks that come to that
particular classification of a show, want to be entertained a little bit.
Q. Do you still go out on the road?
A. I did, up until this past year.
Q. Have you ever performed in Syracuse?
A. Is that where you have a State Fair?
A. I played it.
Q. At present time do you have a recording contract?
A. No, and don’t want one.
Q. Why would that be, Mr. Gilley?
A. 'Cause I can make more money going in and doing my recordings and selling
them through my entities that I have, rather than going to a record co. and
them release a record and pay me 5 percent of what they make off it. If I
cut an album now and sell it for ten bucks, I can put seven dollars and fifty
cents in my pocket.
Q. If that thinking really takes off with musicians, they'll
be no record companies left.
A. A record co. is just a vehicle for public appearances. I never made any
money off of my records. It gave me the name across the country so that I could
do some of the things in my personal appearances. All my money was made doing
the dates and selling products when I was out there on the road. At the present
time I got a couple of gift shops. I got a gift shop in Myrtle Beach. I'd be
a fool to sign with a record co. I can go into Nashville, hire the musicians,
find the right songs, produce the recordings, and cut my record. Then I’ll
put it in my entities and my mailing list and own the thing out right. You
don't have these middle people I got a co. that wants to record me in February.
But if I do the recording, there’s not gonna’ be any strings attached
to it. I’ll just go in to see if I can make a deal with ‘em to
end up with the masters. That’s what I’ve done in the past.
Q. How is it that you can make money on personal appearances?
Most singers, musicians can't.
A. Well, see I hit back in 1974, when I had the old nightclub in Pasadena (Texas),
01116/8, and we had everything in house. We were doing everything. When a record
co. finds a guy now, they want to own everything. They want to own the rights
to market that person's particular name. They want a piece of the action all
the way through. When I hit back in 1974, the only thing the record co. had
on me, was the masters. As far as the t-shirts and all the other paraphernalia
that we were selling with Gilley's on it, that all came to us, so I made money
Q. How did you come to the attention of your first record
A. Oh, that was back in 1958 when I was struggling to get a hit. I went to
every co. you could think of.
Q. Why did Dot say yes?
A. I went into Memphis and a guy by the name of Matthews had some kind of dealings
with Randy Wood who owned Dot Records at the time. That's how I ended up
on it. I only had one record with 'em. Back then I thought if you cut a record,
you were automatically a star. You'd end up on American Bandstand, and the
first thing you know the money would be rolling in. I was so far out in toft
field I couldn't see the bleachers. If s vary difficult to get a break in
the music industry unless you sell your soul. That's the bottom line. If
you're not on a major label today, you're not gonna get played. They've got
the market sewed up. I you get a record played and you start making some
noise then you can happen, and you can happen big and you can make a lot
of money fast. If you got the talent, you can stay. But. back then, every
now and then somebody would hit with one record and be a big star. The next
year they'd ask what happened to 'em. That happened time and time again.
It was like the Gold Rush in California. It's like Branson. When I went to
Branson there was only 4 acts in there. Now, you can't count 'em. There's
so many theatres now, that only the strong will survive.
Q. Why didn’t you become a rock 'n' roll singer? What
was there about country that appealed to you?
A. I started trying in 1958 to have a hit record. The bottom line was I sounded
too much like my cousin Jerry Lee. Everybody accused me of trying to copy Jerry.
Of course, I grew up with him. I was just thrilled to be part of a family that
had done something in Show Business 'cause it was very exciting at the time.
I wasn't really trying to copy him, but there was no way that I could beat
him. To me he was one of the finest musicians I had ever known in my hie. So
I just tried to work on my career and get better and better. I ended up in
nightclubs and I was successful in nightclubs because I could play his music.
Then I started playing my own thing. When I was in the clubs playing dance
music I was playing piano and organ at the same time.
Q. You still see Jerry Lee often?
A. I still see him now and then.
Q. What would happen if you and your cousin Jerry Lee walked
into the Motor Vehicle Dept. to get your license renewed, would you disrupt
the whole operation?
A. I don't know if that's ever happened. I go just about anywhere I want to
go. A lost of people recognize me and maybe will ask for an autograph, but
it's nothing like if Elvis would've done something like that, 'cause he's so
popular, or maybe The Beatles 'cause they stirred up a lot of action.
Q. There is no more Gilley's Club in Pasadena, Texas?
A. No. It burned down.
Q. Never re-built?
A. No. I got a court order to close it, and I closed it. It got to be a seedy
joint and there was so many people getting hurt out there from fights that
I finally got the judge, the courts and the jury, well, I got it closed before
I went to trial. It was a very interesting period in my life. I helped create
all that, with a gentleman I had to continue on without. I trusted him. He
was my friend I thought. He was like a father to me. When the whole thing
started to come to an end I went to him and said, "Look, we've accumulated
a lot of properties, Things are going down. It's not gonna work anymore.
I'm gonna assume that you want to keep Gilley's. You and I built it, but
I'll walk away from it, just give me fifty percent of what I've earned." We
had a recording studio, Gilley's, a piece of property in Nashville, we had
all the product, we owned a lot of masters in the studio, we owned some property
together. He didn't want to split it fifty, fifty. He wanted it all. He wanted
to give me the two buses, the eighteen wheeler, the airplane, and say Til
see you.' I said, 'It doesn't work like that. I worked just as hard as you
did to make this thing happen.' We owned the rights to the mechanical bull.
We had everything going in the right direction. But, he had a flaw. He was
greedy. You can't be greedy in the type of business we're in and expect to
hold it together. You gotta have people that are in the business who respect
you, especially artists. If they're talented enough to be successful, you
gotta take care of those people. You can't just keep 'em hungry all the time.
His theory was if you had nothing, you'd be a better writer, and you'd be
a better performer. He made all the money, but I tore him up in the courtroom.
Q. What's the best thing about being famous?
A. (Laughs.) I guess the nicest thing about being, I won't say famous but being
popular is a more proper word for me to use would be that if you've got a
recognizable name, a lot of times you can get people to do things for you
ordinarily that you wouldn't get done. Like, for instance if you go to a
restaurant and say I'm in the back of the line and I want to get seated,
usually you send somebody up and say, 'Look, we got Mickey Gilley in the
back of the line. Have you got a table for him? He don’t want to stand
in line, and wait out there for a long time.' Sometimes if the person is
a country music fan that recognizes the name, they'll say, 'Let me talk to
Mr. Gilley' They want to make sure it's you. When they do that, you're in.
That happens in places like Vegas, if you want to go in and see a show. Sometimes,
they'll even comp. you. Sometimes they'll make you pay. I don't ever ask
for a comp. If I want to see something, I'm willing to pay for it, but I
really don't want to stand in line, if I don't have to. So, that's the best
part about being known. And the other thing is, I enjoy meeting people. It's
fun when somebody walks up to you and says, You look like somebody I know.'
I'll say, "Well, I'm Mickey Gilley""No.' yeah.' "No"." Yeah I am"' "Let me
see your driver's license.' (Laughs.)
© Gary James All Rights Reserved