Tribute: The late Mickey Gilley’s impact on country music’s early ‘80s pop success was undeniable (these numbers don’t lie)

(May 9, 2022).  Many a tribute has been written for the late country music legend Mickey Gilley, who passed away Saturday, May 7, at the age of 86.

The superstar singer was born in Natchez, Mississippi in 1936 and became famous for his family connections (he is the cousin of Rock and Roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis and the famous televangelist Jimmy Swaggart) as well as his musical success.  In the ten-year period from 1974-83, Gilley racked up 17 No. 1 singles on the Billboard country chart, including his lone pop top-40 crossover hit, “Stand By Me,” a 1980 remake of the old Ben E. King soul classic.

It was that song—and the movie soundtrack album containing it—that not only lit a spark under Gilley’s career, but connected the veteran singer to an incredible movement that changed the course of popular music during the early 1980s.

“Stand By Me” was from the soundtrack of the motion picture Urban Cowboy, which starred a post-Saturday Night Fever, post-Grease (and dare I say post-Moment By Moment) John Travolta in the lead role as a mechanical bull-riding cowboy who frequents Gilley’s, a huge honky-tonk in Pasadena, Texas.

Mickey Gilley (left) stands at his namesake honky-tonk nightclub and bar in Pasadena, TX

The honky-tonk in the movie was based on the real-life Gilley’s nightclub and bar, also located in Pasadena and co-owned by Mickey Gilley and his then-business partner, the late Sherwood Cryer.  If Urban Cowboy was to country music what Travolta’s earlier film Saturday Night Fever had been to disco—as is often noted by music historians—then Gilley’s nightclub in Texas, with its huge dance floor and a mechanical bull to boot, was country music’s Studio 54.

And the analogy doesn’t end there.  

In the two-plus years after Urban Cowboy’s success, country music exploded on the pop charts, just as disco music had post-Fever.  

The country genre had already been gaining in popularity as disco began to wear out its welcome in mid-1979, with both adult contemporary and soft-leaning country songs beginning to fill the voids left in disco’s wake on pop station playlists.  

But Urban Cowboy—made to capitalize on country’s growing popularity just as Fever had been after disco’s growth—had the same reciprocal effect on its source genre of music.

Urban Cowboy was released in June 1980—a month that serves not only as the dividing line between the pre- and post-Urban Cowboy eras, but also as a midpoint in the important five-year period between January 1978 and December 1982.  Those two bookends are significant because January 1978 was when Saturday Night Fever really began to expand disco’s impact on the pop music scene, and December 1982 was when Michael Jackson’s Thriller as well as the second British Music Invasion helped shift the direction of music from the soft country that had been pervasive over the previous years back to more uptempo, dance-oriented hits. 

But it’s the numbers during those intervening years that tell the true story of Urban Cowboy’s and, by extension, Gilley’s huge impact on popular culture and popular music during the early 1980s. 

In the two-and-a-half years between January 1978 and June 1980, only 24 songs that could be legitimately called country (i.e., those that also made the country chart or were by primarily country artists) peaked in the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 (the magazine’s pop chart).  

Two-thirds of those 24 songs (or 16 of them) were by three artists: Kenny Rogers (6), Dolly Parton (5) and Anne Murray (5).  The other eight were split between just six acts: Crystal Gayle (2), Eddie Rabbitt (2), and one each by the Charlie Daniels Band, Jennifer Warnes, Barbara Mandrell and The Bellamy Brothers.

By stark contrast, in the two-and-a-half years from July 1980 to December 1982, post-Gilley’s and Urban Cowboy—48 songs by country artists peaked in the pop top 40.  That’s double the number of the equivalent period above.  

What’s more, those 48 hits were by 24 different country acts (Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray and Dolly Parton only contributed nine of the songs), which meant the wealth was being spread among many other artists of the era.

Mickey Gilley’s remake of “Stand By Me” from the ‘Urban Cowboy’ soundtrack and movie

The Urban Cowboy soundtrack alone produced six different top-40 singles, including songs like Johnny Lee’s “Looking For Love,” a top-five, million-selling pop crossover hit that symbolized what was to come over the next two-plus years.  

Songs like Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” and Eddie Rabbitt’s “I Love A Rainy Night” became back-to-back, million-selling No. 1 pop hits in 1981, giving each veteran artist his or her first pop chart-topper.  Kenny Rogers ascended to new pop heights as well, with the country-pop ballad “Lady” topping the Hot 100 just months before Parton and Rabbitt did.  

Mickey Gilley’s own career was also clearly rejuvenated as a result of Urban Cowboy.  Of his seventeen No. 1 country hits, ten of them occurred from 1980-83 (all after the movie’s release), including a string of six straight toppers.  This was after a three-year drought where none of his hits reached No. 1 on the country chart.  

His “Stand By Me” remained his only pop top-40 hit, but it was from a soundtrack that clearly shifted the pop music landscape  and helped bring the country music genre its biggest commercial success in years.  

While Mickey Gilley wasn’t the sole reason for Urban Cowboy’s success or the explosion of country-to-pop crossover hits that followed, he was clearly instrumental in the movement given his namesake nightclub and bar serving as the movie’s setting (not to mention the mechanical bull that was central to the movie’s script) and given the popularity of his own brand of pop-friendly country, of which “Stand By Me” was a prime example.

Eventually, the popularity of crossover country began to fade, and by 1985 (after the impact by the aforementioned Thriller and second British Music Invasion), danceable pop once again dominated the airwaves.  The number of country singles reaching the pop top 40 had dropped into the single digits over the next five years. And Gilley’s—the nightclub and mechanical bull rodeo that sparked a movement—no longer exists.

But those of us who are old enough can still remember those great soft country-pop tunes of the early 1980s, and we remember the late Mickey Gilley, the honky-tonk singing urban cowboy who was so instrumental in ushering in the era.

Mickey Gilley (1936- 2022)

R.I.P. Mickey Leroy Gilley (March 9, 1936 – May 7, 2022). 

DJRob 

DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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DJRob

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