Urban Cowboy was one of those rare films where every facet of the project clicked and it became a box office smash. From the actors to the soundtrack, to the hottest Houston nightspot as a backdrop and the mechanical bull that sparked challenge and controversy, suddenly Americans everywhere were indulging their inner cowboy.
The 1980 film stirred up a lot more than sawdust on a dance floor when it hit theaters, creating a phenomenon and an aftershock that is still felt today. A whole new country music audience was born and the Urban Cowboy movement was on.
Filmed at Gilley's famous nightclub in Houston, the story centered around "Bud" (John Travolta), "Sissy" (Debra Winger), the music they fell in love to, and that mechanical bull that ignited their turbulent relationship. If it weren't for Gilley's, the centerpiece for the entire concept, there wouldn't have been a story. The nightclub made history in ways even Mickey Gilley never expected.
Gilley also was part of the magical musical portion of the story, along with a newcomer and frequent performer of the club by the name of Johnny Lee. Gilley's "Stand By Me," and Lee's "Lookin' for Love," were pivotal songs in the film and became No. 1 mega-hits. The soundtrack album spawned numerous Top 10 Billboard Country singles in addition to those performed by Gilley and Lee.
The success of the “Urban Cowboy” film and movement started long before it took its first breath as an idea. It all began back in the early '70s, with what became the marketing and branding of an up-and-coming Louisiana musician, and a crappy Texas outdoor bar on a dirt lot.
Mickey Gilley was a struggling musical artist working in Houston and businessman Sherwood Cryer owned the bar. The two found success working together and it was the creativity of the public relations team of Sandy Brokaw and his twin brother, David, who brought their story to the world.
"Gilley and Sherwood — it really was a rags to riches story," Sandy Brokaw said. "Gilley was playing different places in Houston and doing pretty good — not great — but he was making a living and Sherwood had this place at 4500 Spencer Highway called Shelly's," Brokaw said. "This place didn't have walls, it was an open air bar and because it didn’t have sides to it, he got rained out one night. So he went down the street and saw Gilley perform that night.
"He went up to him and said, ‘Why don't you come work with me?' Gilley saw the place and told Sherwood, 'you ought to just get a bulldozer and knock it down.' Sherwood then asked what it would take for Gilley to change venues, so Gilley gave him a list of things that needed to happen.
"Sherwood built it exactly the way Gilley wanted it and now they were partners," Brokaw added. "Cryer was the business manager and Gilley was the entertainment."
"My brother and I jumped on board and it was a fun team," Brokaw said. "We spent all of our time ferrying out ideas — what can we do to make Mickey Gilley and Gilley's club bigger and bigger? And we did everything. David and I came up with the idea of Gilley Beer. We got him a deal for Mickey Gilley's Wild Bull Chili, we had Gilley jeans, and Sherwood got the idea to put the Gilley's logo on the tiles in the ceiling.
"I got Gilley on Merv Griffin one night and he asked Gilley about the ceiling tiles and why they did it. 'Well, we did it so if somebody passes out and they wake up, they know where they are,' Gilley told him.
"Then Sherwood gets this idea to put in a mechanical bull, and Gilley didn't like it. But we were always thinking of things we could do and we threw it into the pot and it worked. The mechanical bull was the lynch-pin that really turned it into what it was.
"At the time, the editor of Esquire magazine was a guy by the name of Clay Felker, who knew how to come up with story ideas that would make for good articles in the magazine. He got the idea about the mythology of the cowboy and the American West.
"So Clay contacts a writer named Aaron Latham and says, 'go down to Gilley's and see if you can get this story.' So Sherwood calls me one day and says, 'there's some Yankee here from Esquire magazine. He's not all that interested in talking to Gilley, he just wants to hang out.' So I said, roll out the red carpet for him, whatever he wants.'
"Latham found there were people in Houston that would work at the paper mills, the factories, the oil refineries, or maybe they were in downtown Houston working at a law firm or insurance agency, but when the night rolled around, they would put on their cowboy boots and jeans and big belt buckles and cowboy hats and come out and play at Gilley's club. They would act out that part of their cowboy thing — and a lot of them would do it by riding the mechanical bull. So that's where it all came from," Brokaw explained. "The article came out Sept. 12, 1978 — the story inspired the movie. Latham also co-wrote the script."
And the rest is history.
Gilley and Lee reunited last year for the Urban Cowboy Reunion Tour, which included a stop at the Riverside Resort. Because of the show's popularity, this year Gilley and Lee bring the show back for another run Wednesday-Sunday, April 10-14 in Don's Celebrity Theatre.
Between Gilley and Lee, they have 38 chart singles with 20 No. 1 hits to their credit, including Gilley's "Room Full of Roses," "Don't the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time," and "Stand By Me," and Lee's "Cherokee Fiddle" and "Lookin' for Love."
With these two sharing 10 years of their musical careers together, expect a fun night reliving that time when dancing the two-step and drinking Lonestar beer was the way to unwind from a crazy work day.
Gilley handles whatever life throws at him and he has a good sense of humor about all of it. His colorful life has included successful business ventures, plane wrecks and freak accidents. He has fought his way through paralysis from the neck down to pull himself back up. Along the way he also managed to have a string of hit records despite the fact the spotlight was first on his controversial and often unruly cousins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart.
Lee had begun a 10-year working relationship with Gilley in 1968, working in his club. He was asked to perform in the Urban Cowboy film as was Gilley. "Lookin' for Love" became Lee's first gold record. The song spent three weeks as No. 1 on the Billboard Country Music Charts and later it became one of the Top 100 Best Country Songs of all Time.
When he's not traveling and performing Lee can be seen on many celebrity hunting and fishing shows, and he's a regular on RFD TV's "Larry's Diner," and "The Homecoming." Lee is also a member of the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.
We talked with Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee about the movie, their music and the show they bring to town. Here's what they had to say…
The whole Urban Cowboy thing changed a lot of people's opinions about country music.
It changed a lot of things because it did a lot for western wear, jeans, and boots and hats. It gave everybody a different perspective of life because of John Travolta who was comin' off Saturday Night Fever and the disco craze into a country music thing that just exploded all of a sudden. I was just caught up in it and people in Nashville were saying, 'thanks for what you did for western wear. I said, 'You need to thank John Travolta, he's the one that pulled that off, I didn't.' He just happened to show up in my old club.
But they were all wearing Gilley's merch — jeans, shirts, underwear, belt buckles….
We had a lot of fun with it. We've still got a Gilley's in Vegas at Treasure Island, we have two in Oklahoma — one in Pocola and one in Durant and one in Dallas. I'm trying to get the one rebuilt in the Houston area. That one burned back in '88 or '89. I'm trying to put another club in the area, so people can still enjoy what we created back when we opened this club up in 1971.
The movie changed your life, too.
It turned into a blessing for me, it changed my life and my career. Johnny has the biggest record on the soundtrack with 'Lookin' for Love,' and of course, I had 'Stand By Me,' but we're having a good time presenting the music — it's going to last from now on 'cause they're great songs.
Talk about the show and share what people are saying about it.
We've been getting a lot of people coming through that said they really had a good time with us. When I come on I try to take 'em through my life in music. It's been very rewarding for me, and that's the reason we're coming out to Laughlin, we always enjoy coming out because we get to perform the songs as close as we can to the recordings, and the people who like good country music get to enjoy it when they're here.
People come to hear the hit songs, so that's what I try to do — three songs I have to do in the show is "Room Full of Roses" from '74, and I have to do "Don't The Girls All Look Prettier at Closing Time," and "Stand By Me."
Johnny Lee and I join forces at the end of the show to do the Urban Cowboy music. We try to make the show entertaining and interesting, we tell 'em some corny jokes, and get them to laughing. One of my opening lines is "I just turned 83, hope I look like I'm 50, but I'm walking like I'm 90." And I tell 'em, "I'm lucky to be with you. I've been through heart surgery, brain surgery, back surgery, my club exploded and burned, been in two airplane crashes, my car rolled over, but I'm still with you."
Was it John Travolta that connected all the dots for the project?
When you think about it, he came off the disco craze and then the country music thing. Instead of Saturday Night Fever, it turned into "Country Night Fever." That's the way I looked at it. He introduced country music to people who don't normally listen to the country side of the equation in music and that's what really exploded. So many radio stations that were rock and pop, they started playing some country music. It just comes down to good songs. That's the way I look at it.
Talk about Gilley's in its heyday…
It was a real joint, and when the Urban Cowboy film was released, you couldn't get in the club. It was just packed every night, people had to come see what it was all about, you know. That mechanical bull was a rodeo-training device, it was never meant to be in a club, but it attracted everyone who wanted to try and be a cowboy. All of a sudden you got all these plant workers coming in, "well, I'm gonna ride that bull," and they'd be thrown off. We had lawsuits out the kazoo. But we got to film Urban Cowboy, which turned Gilley's into a household word. Everything took off from that film.
What has been the response to this show everywhere you guys go?
We've been selling everything out, I'm really pleased with the responses we're getting from the people, and the show's going great, man. I couldn't ask for anything better. I'm working with my old friend Mickey Gilley and it's good to see him. I can't wait to come back to Laughlin, I love it there, I'm gonna' have some fun.
Do you ever scratch your head wondering how this whole thing came to be?
When I scratch my head and think about it, I thank the Lord. I'm very blessed and I'm very thankful. I worked hard my whole life for this. I figured the Urban Cowboy would either catapult our careers or set us back, one of the two. They keep playing, playing, playing it. There's a whole new era of people watching the movie now. I've got a 14-year-old boy that's gonna see it for the first time, and it's amazing.
What kind of doors did it open for you personally?
It answered my prayers, you know? I was gonna' work at being successful in the music business or die trying and fortunately, Urban Cowboy came along.
What do you think it was about that project that connected to people so much?
Oh, John Travolta, number one — John Travolta and Debra Winger — and the music to the soundtrack. That projected to a whole new country music crowd. Country music has always been great, but this opened doors to a whole new spectrum of people, and that soundtrack will stand up to anything that's been recorded today.
How did you come by "Lookin' for Love?"
I found it in a cardboard box, and I knew it was going to be a hit song, whether or not I was going to be the one to have a hit with it. But I found it, and I changed the music up some and boom it hit. Patti Ryan and Wanda Mallette, from Gulf Port, Mississippi, two second-grade school teachers wrote that song. They got the idea from their classroom of children and they never had a record recorded before in their lives.
Any new projects?
I just did a new CD last year called You Ain't Never Been to Texas, It's got a warning label on the cover, that says, — "Warning, real country music inside." And I did a book called Still Lookin' for Love, I did a cookbook called Chef Boy R Lee, and I'm working on a brand new CD. I'll release it soon — it will be sometime this spring.