Country Music's Original Urban Cowboy
Growing up in rural Mississippi, Mickey Gilley began playing piano at a very early age. Along with his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis the two boys loved playing music with family and friends. For Lewis success came in the late 1950s with Rock & Roll/ Country hits including “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” According to Gilley, watching his cousin’s emergence only fueled his own desire and confidence to also make it big in the music business. By the 1960s Mickey was a regular musician amongst the local bar scene in Pasadena, Texas. It was in this city, just outside of Houston, where he started to build a faithful following of his own- so much so that he struck a deal with another local club owner – Sherwood Cryer. Together the two would re-cast Cryer’s rival bar, (then named Shelley’s Club) with Mickey as the headlining talent. Gilley’s Club, named after its budding musician and co-owner, opened in 1971 with great success. Considered at that time to be the world’s largest honky-tonk it boasted a shooting gallery, a rodeo arena, mechanical bulls, pool tables and capacity for 6,000 live music fans. Thousands came nightly to enjoy the first waves of what would later be known as the “Urban Cowboy” phenomenon. More than forty years and thirty-nine country music hits later the grand opening of the newest Gilley’s at Choctaw Casino in Durant, Oklahoma proves the phenomenon – and Mickey, are still going strong.
Mickey’s First Hits
Despite his cousin’s early achievements, fame and fortune didn’t happen overnight for Mickey but he kept working hard. “If he (Jerry Lee Lewis) could do it, I could too,” said Mickey of his cousin’s chart topping records. He thoroughly enjoyed performing and singing and eventually became a big draw within the local Houston market. Buckling down and making regular appearances at local clubs he understood being able to support himself and his family through music was in its own right, quite an accomplishment. For several years he did just that until the very first Gilley’s opened its doors. Mickey recalls, “We opened Gilley’s in Pasadena and that’s when things really started to turn around for me.”
In the early going, the success of Gilley’s opened up many opportunities for Mickey including a job as host for a locally based television show. Coupled with his musical act the two bolstered his burgeoning celebrity status amongst the hard working, hard partying set of Houston’s petroleum industry. Mickey’s popularity then led to commercial work for a well-known area furniture store to which he jokes, “I had a hit commercial before I had a hit record.”
For Mickey, the “next first hit” came about in 1973 when the owner of a jukebox territory asked him if he would record “She Called Me Baby”- a song made popular through his television show, for her 300 or so area jukeboxes. Telling him, “It’ll be good for you in the night clubs,” Mickey decided to record it for a 45 record on his own label Astro Records. After laying it down in the studio, his band’s guitar player asked what the plan was for the flip side of the record. Having slightly overlooked the idea Mickey chose “Room Full of Roses”, a song first recorded in 1949 by George Morgan, and one he often performed with his cousin. Mickey’s cover of “Room Full of Roses” gained national notoriety and in 1974 became Mickey’s first of seventeen number one hits on the country charts and to this day hails as the “classic tune of his career”.
Hollywood Honkey Tonk
“Gilley’s wasn’t planned,” Mickey admits, “it evolved over the years, because of the local television show. Crowds began to grow, and we added on to the club.” By 1978 word of the club made its way to Esquire journalist Aaron Latham who featured it in an article called “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy.” Fascinated by the piece, Paramount Pictures contracted to use the honky-tonk as the setting for their next movie starring John Travolta who was then at the top of his fame after starring in Saturday Night Fever. “The greatest thing I can think of was when the Paramount trucks pulled into the parking lot,” says Mickey, “when I saw that happen I realized they really were really going to do the film.” In 1980 Paramount released Urban Cowboy co-starring Debra Winger as “Sissy” alongside Travolta’s “Bud”. The movie not only helped solidify Travolta as a box-office star it put Gilley’s on the national spotlight as they all played integral parts in transforming the music industry.
A Gilley’s by any other name…
After nearly two decades of prominence Gilley’s burned to the ground and ceased operations in 1989. In 2003, the club was reopened on Lamar Street in Dallas where it stands today as a popular South Dallas attraction. Gilley’s Dallas makes the original blush with more than 90,000 square-foot including a music hall, a Jack Daniels Saloon, and plenty of space for small parties or larger corporate outings. But if you’re going to see the famous Gilley Girls you may want to visit Gilley’s Las Vegas. In 2010 the Gilley’s name also joined the lights of the Vegas Strip when it debuted its second club inside of the resort Treasure Island. Now in 2012 Gilley’s has taken another giant-sized two-step opening its third location inside the Choctaw Casino in Durant. At its June 1st grand opening, Mickey and the Original Gilley’s Band took their rightful place on stage in a special performance to kick off yet another in what seems to be an endless line-dance of successful nightclubs. Professional bull riders and even some of the famed Gilley Girls took to the iconic mechanical bull as live music and dancing filled the distinctly southern 8,900 square-foot honky-tonk.
Thanks to a $2.5 million makeover Gilley’s Durant, located in the old Diamondback Lounge, now features a 500-square-foot performance stage and surrounding dance floor that will shine the spotlight on local and national country artists like: Clint Black, Two Tons of Steel, The Jason Eady Band, TJ McFarland, and more. Once visitors set foot inside the 25-feet-wide and 15 feet-tall Belt Buckle-framed entryway they better have their dancing boots on.
“I’m proud to have the Gilley’s name in Dallas, Las Vegas and now Oklahoma,” says Mickey who hopes to one-day resurrect the original back in Pasadena. But for now, he relishes the fact that the addition of his namesake club adds yet another reason to visit the Choctaw Casino Resort.
Choctaw Casino Resort
A little more than an hour and a half from Southlake north up route 75 the Choctaw Casino Resort hails as one of the most comprehensive gaming and entertainment destinations in the area. Choctaw Casino Resort is more than 100,000 square-foot of gaming set amongst lavish Vegas-style accommodations. A well-equipped 30-table poker room sits above a full compliment of 4,100 slot machines and popular table games like Blackjack, and Let it Ride. Choctaw’s own card-based versions of craps and roulette and its signature High Limit area give the most diverse range of games within a short drive from the Dallas.
In addition to world-class gambling and the famed music and downhome Texas food from Gilley’s Durant, the resort boasts nine other diverse restaurants ranging from the 1950’s diner inspired Blue Moon Café and the all-you can-eat Butterfields Buffet to the dimly lit decadence of 1832 Steakhouse. With such a variety of options you’ll be able to find everything you are looking for whether you are there for the evening or an overnight guest.
Its AAA-Rated Four Diamond Grand Tower includes 330 luxurious rooms and suites, a refreshing natatorium complete with jetted spas, poolside cabanas and a swim up bar. The resort’s Oka Spa is an inviting place to relax your mind and renew your spirit. With a full menu of naturally inspired treatments including the 80-minute signature Oka Aromatherapy Massage comes complete with a customized blend of aromatic oils that will balance your mind and body.
When the call of Vegas comes yet time won’t allow, it’s nice to know that Choctaw Casino and Resort is close to home.