The Comeback Cowboy
Perhaps no musician screams "Houston" more than original urban cowboy Mickey Gilley, who will forever be identified with the Pasadena club named after him and the movie Urban Cowboy, which was filmed there. A cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Gilley took a fall a few years back that paralyzed him from the neck down. After some intense rehab, Gilley returned to the stage in 2010 and hasn't missed a date since. For a 76-year-old man who was almost completely paralyzed three years ago, Gilley was loquacious and exuberant about his career and future when we spoke to him at his theater in Branson as he was preparing for a tour.
Houston Press: According to our last report, since your paralyzing fall you'd been able to resume walking and singing, but you hadn't gotten back the hand coordination needed to play the piano.
Mickey Gilley: No, my hands haven't come back yet. I can walk a quarter mile without any help, and I can sing just fine, but I'm still working on my hands. I'm still doing the exercises and haven't given up hope that I'll be able to play again.
HP: What exactly happened? And why were you moving furniture anyway?
MG: It was just so crazy. I'd just come in from playing 18 holes of golf, and I'd probably had five or six beers during the round. Anyway, just as I got home, my neighbor asked me if I could help him move a love seat from his living room to his garage. I was backing up and I missed the sidewalk, and my foot went into the flower bed, which was soft. So I lost my balance and fell backwards and the love seat fell on me. It crushed four vertebrae.
HP: Being paralyzed from the neck down had to be very depressing. How did you overcome that?
MG: A lot of pain and effort. And a lot of great people at TIRR [The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research] in Houston. I'll tell you, there was a lot of crying, a lot of intense pain both physically and mentally. I'm just a very, very lucky man to be where I am today.
HP: What does a Mickey Gilley show look like today?
MG: I'm doing at least four dates per week at my theater in Branson with a nine-piece ensemble, if you count the two female backup singers. For the most part, I go out and play the hits — I had 17 number ones and 39 songs that charted. I think that's what the people come to hear, the hits, and they come to be entertained. I learned a long time ago you have to judge an audience and know which audience is there to be entertained, and which audience is there for a true concert-type experience. I stress being an entertainer. I was at Nutty Jerry's when my cousin Jerry Lee [Lewis] played there, and I was a little bit disappointed that he didn't play the big hits, which is what I think people were there for.
HP: You and your partner in Gilley's, Sherwood Cryer, had a great thing at one time, but then you had to sue him. How do you look back on all that today?
MG: My deal with Sherwood was that he'd put up the money and I would run the music end of the club, and we would split the profits 50-50. Of course, I never got my half, although Sherwood took care of me as far as my having money. But there was never any accounting to me, I never saw the books myself. So I eventually had to sue him to keep any further damage being done to my career, and I was awarded a judgment of $18 million. Of course, I never saw a penny of that. And I've let any hard feelings about it go over the years. It doesn't do me any good to dwell on that stuff.
HP: What was the final ruling on the fire that destroyed Gilley's?
MG: It was ruled an arson, but the whodunit part was never really solved.
HP: Did insurance cover the loss, or how did that all eventually work out financially?
MG: We didn't have any insurance. I actually had to spend $25,000 out of my pocket to get the mess cleaned up. Eventually, I signed that property over to the city of Pasadena just to get loose from it and move on.
HP: Other than getting back to the piano, what else are you working towards at age 76?
MG: I love golf, and by this spring I hope to have improved my hands enough to be able to play again. The other big goal I have is to open a new Gilley's in Pasadena.
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