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Mickey Gilley, the country singer whose club inspired 'Urban Cowboy,' dies at 86

Singer Mickey Gilley in 2015 at the 50th Academy of Country Music Awards.
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Singer Mickey Gilley in 2015 at the 50th Academy of Country Music Awards.

Updated May 8, 2022 at 12:42 PM ET

Mickey Gilley, the country music star whose Texas nightclub served as the inspiration for the 1980 film Urban Cowboy, died on Saturday in Branson, Mo.

His death was confirmed to NPR by his publicist Zach Farnum.

"Gilley was 86 and had just come off of the road, his favorite place, having played ten shows in April," according to Farnum's statement. "He passed peacefully with his family and close friends by his side."

No cause of death was given.

Across his career as a singer, Gilley garnered 17 No. 1 singles between the late 1960s and 1980s, including his 1974 cover of "Room Full of Roses." His soulful renditions of early rock and roll hits and soul songs cemented him as a country artist who was able to cross genres.

The face of a famous Texas honky-tonk

Born in Mississippi and raised in Louisiana, Gilley's family included artist Jerry Lee Lewis and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart as cousins. He learned to play piano as a child and began his professional music career in the 1950s when he recorded his first single, "Ooh Wee Baby."

In addition to his singing career, he was also famous for being the face of the country music honky-tonk Gilley's, which pushed Texas cowboy culture into a global spotlight. The nightclub opened as Gilley's in Pasadena, Texas, in the early 1970s after previously being named Shelly's by proprietor Sherwood Cryer. Cryer had hired Gilley, then a local country music singer, to be in-house talent.

"It was halfway decent," Gilley said of the club's opening in a 1999 Austin Chronicle article. "It was a little bit better than a joint, but as time moved on, after we did the film [Urban Cowboy] it turned into a joint."

The venue featured performances from country music stars like Loretta Lynn and Johnny Lee. The club included an adjacent recording studio, a massive dancefloor and a notorious mechanical bull, attracting Hollywood's attention when it was featured in an Esquire story "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America's Search for True Grit." The article was the basis for the 1980 film Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta and Debra Winger.

The film, which featured Gilley's hit cover of "Stand By Me" on the soundtrack, helped popularize the club nationwide and the music it celebrated, as pop-leaning country music became dubbed "Urban Cowboy country."

"It was kind of a cultural phenomenon that got discovered," Gilley told The Las Vegas Sun in 1998 of the post-movie fame. "It was a big subculture that spread all across the nation."

Gilley's would win the Academy of Country Music's "Nightclub of the Year" award four times in the 1980s. It closed in 1989 and was destroyed in a fire in 1990.

In later years, Gilley continued to perform, most recently with dates planned with artist Johnny Lee.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hazel Cills is an editor at NPR Music, where she edits breaking music news, reviews, essays and interviews. Before coming to NPR in 2021, Hazel was a culture reporter at Jezebel, where she wrote about music and popular culture. She was also a writer for MTV News and a founding staff writer for the teen publication Rookie magazine.