Born March 9, 1936, Mickey Gilley won the hearts of country fans in the 1970s before becoming a crossover success in the '80s. He learned to play music at a young age alongside his cousin, influential rock 'n' roll hitmaker Jerry Lee Lewis.
It wasn't until the 1960s, years after Lewis' own career had skyrocked, that Gilley began seriously pursuing music. He found a following in the Texas honky-tonk circuit, which led Gilley to partner with a Pasadena, Texas, club owner for a new endeavor. They opened Gilley's Club, a honky-tonk bar that drew country fans and major artists like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, George Jones and many others.
In the mid-1970s, he gained the attention of the country music industry with his rendition of "Room Full of Roses," a track previously made famous by George Morgan. The success of that recording marked the beginning of a string of major hits for Gilley, including his cover of Bill Anderson's "City Lights," as well as original tunes "Honky Tonk Memories" and "Here Comes the Hurt Again."
The beginning of the 1980s marked a new chapter for Gilley, thanks in part to the massive success of the film Urban Cowboy. The movie, which was largely set at Gilley's Club, included cameos from the man himself, Charlie Daniels, Johnny Lee and Bonnie Raitt. It sparked a new global interest in country music and put a new spotlight on Gilley, his music and his beloved honky-tonk. Sadly, the original Gilley's Club closed in 1989 after questions over profits led Gilley and the club's co-owner into a court battle, though a few other locations remain.
As the neo-traditionalist movement of the 1990s crept in, Gilley's music career started to slow. He put down roots in Branson, Mo., and built his own theater, which found major success as country music-themed tourist attractions popped up in droves. Although he never found the same success on the country charts as he did in the '70s and '80s, the country star continued to record music through the 2000s.
Gilley died on May 7, 2022, at the age of 86, but his music and contributions to the country music industry will continue to live on. Let's take a look back at 10 of Mickey Gilley's most iconic and impactful songs.
Mickey Gilley was known for putting his own spin on modern hits from the era. In 1976, his version of Sam Cooke's 1962 hit made it all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
"Paradise Tonight"with Charly McClain
This romantic collaboration with fellow country artist Charly McClain hit No. 1 in 1983 and sparked a lasting creative friendship between the pair. Later that year, they released a full duets album called It Takes Believers, which spawned multiple hit singles for the duo.
"She's Pulling Me Back Again"
Released in 1977, "She's Pulling Me Back Again" served as the lead single from Gilley's record First Class. Written by Jerry Foster and Bill Rice, the song became Gilley's seventh No. 1 hit of his career.
"A Headache Tomorrow (Or a Heartache Tonight)"
Penned by Chick Rains, "A Headache Tomorrow (Or a Heartache Tonight)" hit the top spot on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1981.
Gilley's rendition of "Room Full of Roses," which George Morgan cemented as an early country radio hit in 1949, catapulted Mickey's own country music career. It became a No. 1 hit on country radio, but also charted in the Top 50 on the pop charts, giving an early signal of Gilley's major cross-genre success that would come in the 1980s.
Gilley took "I Overlooked an Orchid," which Carl Smith originally recorded and released in 1950, all the way to No. 1 on the country charts in 1974.
"True Love Ways" was one of the last songs Buddy Holly recorded before his tragic death in 1959. Two decades later, in 1980, Mickey Gilley became the first artist to take the track all the way to the top of the U.S. country chart. The song was also ranked at No. 7 on Billboard's year-end country chart and became a lasting fan favorite.
Gilley hit the top of the charts for the sixteenth time in 1983 with "Fool for Your Love." Written by Don Singleton, the song was the lead single and title track from Gilley's seventeenth career studio album.
"Don't the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time"
"Don't the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time" served as the first single from his 1976 record, Gilley's Smokin. Powered by his energizing piano accompaniment, the cheeky song became another No. 1 hit for the country star.
The massive success of Urban Cowboy and its accompanying soundtrack helped catapult Gilley's rendition of this soul classic to the top of the country chart in 1980. The track also marked the peak of his crossover success, earning impressive positions on both the adult contemporary and pop charts.