Mickey Gilley looks back as ‘Urban Cowboy’ turns 40
A Times Special Feature Mickey Gilley owes a lot of his success in country music to a mechanical bull and John Travolta.
In June 1980, the movie “Urban Cowboy” was released in movie theaters and became a cultural phenomenon that made country music cool to listen to again, ignited a fashion movement where everyone was dressing in western attire, and shot Mickey Gilley back up the country charts.
The movie, which was filmed at Gilley’s legendary honky tonk club in Pasadena, Texas, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year with the Paramount Home Entertainment release on Blu-ray for the first time ever.
Gilley, the cousin of rock n’ roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis, said in a telephone interview that he had no idea at the time just how massive the movie would become.
“I never dreamed that it would have the impact that it would have,” Gilley said. “It’s just been unbelievable. I still can not believe what an impact it had on my life. But 40 years later it is still out there.”
“Urban Cowboy” tells the story of county boy Bud (John Travolta) who moves to Pasadena to work in the refineries and begins hanging out at a local honkytonk where her meets and falls in love with cowgirl Sissy, played by Debra Winger. The movie was inspired by a 1978 Esquire Magazine story title “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy” about a beer joint bull rider “Dew” Westbrook and his real-life marriage to Betty Jo Helmer who he met at Gilley’s when they were both 18.
Gilley was co-owner of the famous club and was the headline act that attracted workers from the nearby refineries and locals who came to the club after work to dance, kick back a few beers, and ride the mechanical bull. “I was against the mechanical bull,” Gilley said. “I was out on tour with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn and my business partner had put in a mechanical bull. When I got back I said ‘oh my God. We’re going to get sued.’ Sure enough, we got sued. But boy did it turn my life around.”
Gilley had a string of country hits in the 1970s but had seen his career cool off before “Urban Cowboy” came out. The club caught the attention of Hollywood after the article came out and the producers of “Urban Cowboy” decided to feature it prominently in the film.
“When they told me John Travolta was going to do the part I said ‘wow!”
Gilley said. “He had just come off “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever.”
This was like “County Night Fever.”
“Urban Cowboy” became a box office smash, earning $53 million on a budget of only $11.2 million,and set off a fashion revolution that saw everyone trade in their disco duds for cowboy boots, pearl snap shirts, cowboy hats, and silver belt buckles.
“Before that movie, I didn’t even own a cowboy hat,” Gilley said. “But after that film came out, I got me a cowboy hat. And they’re still wearing cowboy hats today – Garth Brooks, George Strait, Kenny Chesney. That’s where it came from on account of John Travolta.”
The movie’s soundtrack, which featured Gilley singing “Stand By Me,” and helped propel singers like Charlie Daniels, Anne Murray, Bob Segar, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Buffett, Kenny Rogers and others to crossover fame, also became a smash, garnering five top-10 country hits and four No. 1 singles including Johnny Lee’s “Looking for Love,” and made Gilley, who was 44 at the time, a country star.
“For the first time in my life in country music, all the showrooms in Las Vegas, Reno, Tahoe and Atlantic City opened up to me,” Gilley said. “I got to go to Europe and travel the world. I got to play for two presidents. They gave me a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And they invited me to come to Hollywood to do some acting. This old country boy had never done anything but sit at the piano and play honky-tonk music. It was unbelievable.”
Gilley has been on the road with Johnny Lee for the last three years performing an “Urban Cowboy” reunion show and will be at his theater in Branson, Missouri in September with the show. The two stars close with a 25 minute medley of songs from the movie.
Gilley said he is still shocked when he looks out at the audience and sees a whole new generation of fans singing and dancing to the songs from “Urban Cowboy.”
“I’m 84 and Johnny Lee is 73,” Gilley said. “So it’s been a great ride for us both. When we started doing this medley and I saw all these young people out there dancing, I looked at Johnny Lee and I said ‘Johnny, think of this.
Those people who are dancing to this music weren’t even around when we made those songs.’ And they’re having a great time. It was an awesome time to participate in something that I had no idea was going to be as big as it became at the time. “Urban Cowboy” has been a round a long time and people still enjoy it.”