Be ready for a hot time at the Ramona Bowl
■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
All you guys and gals mark it on your calendar. The one and only Mickey Gilley will be appearing at the Ramona Bowl Amphitheater on Saturday night, Sept. 2. There is no better way that I can think of to enjoy the end of summer than listening to a concert put on by one of the greatest (and I might add in my opinion, underrated) country- western singers of our time.
With 17 No. 1 hit songs, Mickey stands tall among his peers, and comes by it naturally. He comes from a family that also produced Jerry Lee Lewis, Jim Gilley, Carl McVoy and Jimmy Swaggart. There is probably no other family in the country with more musical talent.
Mickey was no overnight sensation; he paid his dues. It was during the ‘50s and early ‘60s that he kicked around, not sure he would have a music career. After Jerry Lee made the charts, Mickey recorded a few also-rans, then in 1958 he recorded “Call Me Shorty” on the Dot label, which had reasonable sales and brought him some serious notice.
In 1970, after recording his first album, he opened his first nightclub in Pasadena, Texas, a hop and a skip from Houston. Eventually known as “the biggest honky tonk” in the world, it came to the notice of Hollywood, with its mechanical bull that shared billing with John Travolta in the hit movie, “Urban Cowboy,” where Mickey’s club was the site for much of the film. Mickey and Gilley’s soon became household words. (For those of you who are either living in the dark or have short-circuited memories.)
This past week I had the pleasure of visiting with Mickey on the phone and it turned out to be a conversation that was just plain old down home. He is the real deal. I’ve interviewed, over the years, dozens of celebrities without one ounce of his talent who lead you to believe they are giants in their right, and they were not. Talking with Mickey was like calling home at Christmas and getting a chance to say hello to the whole family.
That he is able to join us is somewhat miraculous. In July 2009, Mickey was helping a neighbor move some heavy furniture when it fell on him and crushed four vertebrae, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. He has fought back and surely is evidence that Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” could well have been written for Gilley.
“I’m up here in Montana,” he tells me, “where I just got through taking stem cell therapy. My doctor tells me that in five or six weeks I’ll be playing golf again. If that happens, I’ll be on the top of the mountains shouting ‘Stem cells! Stem cells!’”
Why did he sell his theater and restaurant and other entertainment interests in Branson, Missouri, a place famous for all kinds of music and theaters, especially country-western?
“I just wanted to be back on the road, to travel and bring my live music to the rest of the country,” said Gilley. “I also wanted to get away from the business world. I’m a musician and I want to play music for the people.”
Gilley has been playing to packed houses. He fronts a seven piece band with two female singers and a keyboard man, “who plays the piano and he’s as close to me and my style as anybody has ever played. We have just been kickin’ butt and takin’ names.”
He has the attitude of a teenager out to set the world on fire and so far he is burning up the trail.
“I’ve been doing all right, but in Hemet I’ll be playing in an amphitheater,” he said. “That’s a lot bigger place.”
I assured him that we got lots of country and western fans in our valley.
“Well, I’ve had 17 No. 1 songs in my career and I’ve got enough material to entertain people that come out to hear the old man perform. If the people come to see the show, I guarantee they’ll have a good time.”
His life, he says, is told in his music, and he has plenty of proof, with national and international awards to prove it:
1974 – Academy of Country Music: New Male Vocalist
1976 – Music City News: Most Promising Male Artist of the Year
1976 – Academy of Country Music: Top Male Vocalist; Song of the Year; Album of the Year; Most Promising Male Artist of the Year; and Entertainer of the Year.
Do people sometime confuse his “Room Full of Roses,” with Eddie Arnold’s “Big Bouquet of Roses?”
I don’t know, but I recorded them both. “Room Full of Roses” was recorded as the “B” side of “She Calls Me Baby All Night Long,” which was expected to be the hit. Nobody, especially me, thought it was going to skyrocket. It didn’t take me long to catch on that flowers were good and the ladies liked flower songs. So I recorded every flower title I could find, except “Tip Toe Through the Tulips.” I guess he figured Tiny Tim owned that one, but flower songs have been good to Mickey.
Mickey admits that some of his own fans thought that it was Jerry Lee Lewis who recorded that song.
Some people think he is a Nashville guy. Not totally true. “Ever since ‘Roses’ went big I’ve done all my recording in Nashville.
How does he feel about his talented and well known cousins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart?
“I meet up to with Jerry Lee every other year or so, but I haven’t seen Jimmy since the mid-eighties.”
How does he feel about the success of Jerry Lee and Jimmy?
“Hey, Jerry Lee and me do alright, but Jimmy makes twice as much as the two of us. He’s had a very successful career in ministry, but I am not a big fan of the Reverend Swaggart. I don’t envy him his wealth.” Mickey seems to have a thing about taking contributions of money from folks who are on fixed incomes. People shouldn’t profit from playing on the emotions of folks who better need the money for life necessities.”
I’m sure a lot of us would say amen to that.
Mickey is married with four kids, three boys and a daughter. “I’m very fortunate to have all my kids with me and even luckier to be here with them. I’ve survived all kinds of life-threatening surgeries and plane crashes and I’m still here.”
At 81, and still doing his thing, does it ever bother him when people say things like, “At your age…”
“Not really. They can preach to high heaven. I don’t do a lot of things I used to. When I was younger I did whatever I felt like doing. Today, when I walk down the steps, I hold onto the rail.”