Rock Moment: The Urban Cowboy Craze

cover_ucb1

Mickey Gilley, center, partyin' down at Gilley's

Once upon a time, our little corner of Southeast Texas was literally swimming in oil and as a result, many people were also swimming in money.  The bright lights and towers of the petrochemical plants ringed the city of Houston and the night sky often had the eerie red glow of a flame-topped flare burning off petro waste products.

Pasadena, Texas, is a compact little town that would be in the shadow of Houston’s skyscrapers if the oil refineries weren’t in the way.  Many people who lived in Pasadena in the 1970s worked at the plant, and when they wanted to party, they went to one place – Gilley’s.

gilley_sGilley’s nightclub was a sprawling honky-tonk located along the Spencer Highway drag in Pasadena.  It was billed as the world’s largest honky-tonk, and who could argue?  It certainly looked like it was three or four football fields long (or wide, I never could figure out which) and could easily accommodate upwards of 6,000 people at one time.  (Note to Yankees: I’m just kidding about the football fields.  Don’t send me any e-mails, please.)  Gilley’s hardwood dance floor was surrounded by long wooden tables and thousands of chairs, allowing a great view of the bandstand from wherever you might be in this massive complex.

On a typical Saturday night in the late 1970s, you could crunch into Gilley’s crushed-oyster-shell parking lot, park among all the pickup trucks and walk under the big sign that said “We Doze But We Never Close.”

Yeah, if you saw the movie Urban Cowboy (1980) it was uc_posterpretty much like that – cowboy hats, smokin’ hot cowgirls (sometimes), drunk rednecks and that damn mechanical bull.  They had Gilley’s beer, which tasted like chilled (sometimes) horse piss, and every conceivable souvenir with the Gilley’s logo.  I used to say you and your girlfriend could walk into Gilley’s stark naked and purchase a full set of logo-emblazoned clothes, down to Gilley’s panties, jockey shorts, bras and cowboy boots.

Now this Urban Cowboy movie thing brought worldwide attention to the honky-tonk.   When they were filming it in 1979,  you could get daily updates on a local country radio station (KILT) where they often called for extras to fill out the nightclub scenes.  When the Bee Gees – riding the disco express from Saturday Night Fever – played the Summit in Houston, guess who showed up and did a disco dance onstage: John Travolta, with a full beard!

My favorite thing was the movie premiere party in 1980 at Gilley’s.  Just about everyone who was anyone at the time was there (I was a lowly member of the press).  Gilley’s “Urban gilleysbeercanCowboy” Band was playing full blast and we were stuck off pretty much by ourselves in a remote corner, swilling free Gilley’s Beer.  This guy came up to us and said, hey, you don’t have to move but hang out here and help us keep the girls away.  Wha?  Then all of a sudden a side door opens and some big dudes in cowboy hats usher in Travolta himself, decked out just like in the movie.  He looked real pale and real scared, and the cowboy hat seemed to be wearing him instead of the other way around.  He gave us a couple of limp-fish handshakes and said he was pretty nervous about going onstage in front of this huge crowd.  “Don’t worry, man,” I told him, “they’re all drunk.”

Later on, I ran into Andy Warhol in the men’s room.  I kinda wanted to talk about the Velvet Underground, but Andy had to rush back to his dates – the tall Texas model Jerry Hall and her sister (who were in the movie).  Well, that pretty much started what you already know: everybody wore cowboy hats for the next few years, they played Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee music on the radio and those damn mechanical bulls popped up everywhere.

Into the mid-1980s my wife and I ferried out-of-town visitors to Gilley’s, mostly on weeknights.  The band would be playing (no Gilley) and because the place was so huge, on those rare cold Texas nights they wouldn’t even try to heat it.  You could literally see your breath on the dance floor.  They finally shut the place around 1989 or so, and the next year a mysterious fire burned the place down.  Mickey Gilley opened a namesake club in Dallas, and now regularly plays for shriveled tourists in Branson, Missouri.

Much of his reputation seems to be staked on the memory of that old honky-tonk that once shared his name, but even though he has a house there Gilley only occasionally sets foot in Pasadena these days. After recovering from serious injuries sustained in a fall, Gilley has started performing again – mostly in Branson.

UPDATE: Mickey Gilley back to performing, if not 100 percent (from Feb. 2012)

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MP3: Pearl Beer Commercial/KILT station ID/”Hello Texas” by Jimmy Buffett

MP3: “Looking For Love” by Johnny Lee

MP3: “Stand By Me” by Mickey Gilley

MP3: “Look What You’ve Done To Me” by Boz Scaggs

MP3: “Darlin’ ” by Bonnie Raitt

MP3: “Here Comes The Hurt Again” by Mickey Gilley

MP3: Intro “Live From Gilley’s”  radio show

MP3: “One Step Forward” by the Desert Rose Band (live from Gilley’s)

18 Responses to “Rock Moment: The Urban Cowboy Craze”

  1. Jim King Says:

    I remember going to Gilley’s back in 1980 & 81 which was an experience for me, especially where I came from, Wellington, New Zealand. I think from memory I busiest and biggest nite club here in Wellington (capital city), held only about 200-300 max. I used to rave to all my friends about Gilleys and they would envy me because what they had seen on the movie Urban Cowboy. I still have the big glass that customers could have filled up with just about every spirit imaginable, and, also a book about Gilleys. I visited this place when I was only 16 years old. I will cherish these memories and am somewhat sadden by the closure of Gilleys, but all good things must come to an end. Well done to those who have published this page. Jim King

  2. Looking for the picture in the center of the Gilley’s NightClub book,
    The picture of Betty handing Bobbie money whom is standing beside Steve Strange with John Travolta sitting beside him. It was back in February of 1979 when it was Travolta’s first trip to Gilleys Nightclub in Pasadena, Texas

  3. Ron Crawford Says:

    Boy, those were the days. Spencer was an asphalt road (2 lanes each way), and then there was the restaraunt everyone went to after a night at Gilley’s… don’t remember the name but it was also featured in the movie “Urban Cowboy”. The movie didn’t do Gilley’s justice though – not by a long shot.

    Gilley’s is gone, just an empty, fenced off field. Spencer is now a 6 lane concrete madhouse, and Pasadena has gone way down hill from what it used to be.

    As far as I know, Mickey Gilley still owns his home off of Vista and Burke. He opened a restaurant but it didn’t last long at all. There are still a few of us around that remember our 5 or 6 nights a week at Gilley’s club, but most have moved on.

    Nobody who was ever a regular at Gilley’s will ever forget the good and bad times there.

  4. spurlock, jr. Says:

    Ah, yes, the good ol’ days. Having grown up in Pasadena and Deer Park and seeing all the legendary county stars names on the Gilley’s sign out front on Spencer Highway will always be a cherished memory of mine. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time, but, Gilley’s Night Club in little ol’ Pasadena, Texas remains larger and life LEGEND…

    Free Gilley’s beer on Wednesday night. The mechanical bulls(lol, I awoke one morning after a night of partying, drinking and riding that damn bull so many times, with a SEVERE left groin muscle pull…….thanks for the FLEXIRYL doc.)

    Yes, Pasadena has changed alot, like everywhere else I guess.

    Everyone has their own little connection to the movie. I worked at the Oil Refinery it was filmed in. Charter Oil was the name back then. It’s Valero-Houston Refining now over at 9701 Manchester St. My Dad was in real-estate at the time and had the key to “Uncle Bob’s” house over there off of San Augustine in Deer Park. He took me there on Sunday after church…..

    ….Ah, yes, the good ol’ DAYS!!!!! INDEED.

  5. I was a dance extra in the movie “Urban Cowboy”, also my buddy had a big scene in the dance contest in the movie. The times we had had Desperado, Cowboy, and Midnight Rode..are memories I will cherish to the end. We had a great time in Houston during the 1980′s. To all the great ladies me and Danny danced with at Midnight Rodeo…we miss you..!…

    Suzy I hoe you made the right choice leaving the University of Houston and me for TCU.!

  6. Jim BOBO Richardson Says:

    I was a professional rodeo clown in the the Houston/ Pasadena area during the Urban Cowboy era. I too, was a former student of Patsy Swayze’s dance school. Patsy, recruited me to be a movie extra in the dance scenes and Director Jim Bridges asked me to assist with the choreography of the mechanical bull riding scenes and coach the young boys who were going to act as clowns. Back in those days every night Sunday through Saturday, there was a club open to dance at and meet friends. Gilley’s always had some sort of special going on and it wasn’t unusal to see KNUZ Radio DJ Arch Yancy, KIKK DJ’s Pam Ivy, Larry Gallo and especially Joe Ladd at Gilley’s. You could be there any time of the afternoon or night and see a Star entertainer having a cold beverage and just talking to folks. NO ONE was ever a stranger at Gilley’s and it was the friendliest club in that part of Texas, as long as you didn’t cross the line and offend Sherwood Cryer’s house rules. And entertainer in and around the area had an opportunity to play at Gilley’s and the local radio station’s KIKK< KNUZ &KILT all played the local Artist's song's. The making of Urban Cowboy was fun, the movie release was held at the theatre at Rice University and everyone in the movie from top stars to movie extras was invited to the screening. Those days are gone but the memories live on, Many miles and tears and smiles have come and gone but the Era of Urban Cowboy will live on. I appreciate the opportunity I was allowed to share in such a short period the long term memories, I have been blessed with and the many friends that I would like to contact again. My prayers go out to Patsy & Lisa and thier families in the loss of Patrick. And to the others who have passed on form that era, "Killer" "Tanker "Big Pam" SHERWOOD. Gilley's was and always will be a legend and Urban Cowboy wasn't a great movie success, but it was success to the Urban Cowboy Era. THanks to my good friends Richard Wolf @ Gary's American Hats Downtown Houston on Louisana (then), Don's Western Wear, Capitol Flag Co. Model Boot Shop in the Heights, KIKK, KILT & KNUZ. Anyone who would like to help coordinate a Urban Cowboy Reunion, please contact me at: urbancowboyclown@aol.com or bobourbancowboyclown@yahoo.com. Smiles across the miles and may God Bless. Thanks for the memories. Jim BOBO Richardson

  7. Great story about The Gilley’s music experience. Listen to One step Forward from the Desert Rose Band. Still looking for that 1988 Gilley’s LP. Anybody who has one, please contact me

    Best,

    Willem
    webmaster@drb-fans.com

  8. Gilley rarely sets foot in Pasadena? He lives in Pasadena! Wow

  9. 30daysout Says:

    He does have a home in Pasadena, as well as a house in Branson. Although he has been in Houston lately, he has been riding a wheelchair – Gilley has been recuperating from a nasty fall last year. He hopes to resume performing in April 2010.

  10. Iva Dunn Says:

    I useto sell souvniers at Gilley’s. I kinow Mickey and Vivian , their son Greg. Is there going to be a reunion this year. I would love lto come. I live in lancaster about 20 min outside of dallas now.

  11. Wow, I’m so jealous of all of you who were at Gilley’s back in the good ole days. I would give anything to have been there. Don’t know what I could do regarding a reunion but would love to be there if possible. I was a regular at the old Gilley’s in Las Vegas and loved it. The new Gilley’s here is not in the same league, in my opinion.

    I’d love to have all of you vote in our Gilley’s poll, and help with info on items in our collection. Please feel free to visit GilleysMuseum.com and stay in touch.

    Bubba

  12. Wow, you all shared some fabulous information about Urban Cowboy, Pasadena, Mickey Gilley, and the locations. I was an extra in the movie and it changed my life for the better. God bless each and every one of you for sharing your stories. Tammy

  13. Thank you all and God Bless each of you for sharing your stories of Pasadena, Mickey Gilley, Urban Cowboy, John Travolta, and the movie locations. I had no idea where some of these places were, and it is exciting 32 years later to know. I was fortunate to be an extra int the movie, and it changed my life for the better. Tammy

  14. Denise Taylor Duffy Says:

    What memories! Even though I love the movie “Urban Cowboy” ,Gilleys was soooo much better before the movie turned it into a tourist attraction. My sisters and I went to Shellys for the first time in the 70`s when we were on a trailride and we camped there on the property and had so much fun at the dance. The restrooms were out back of the building. I remember ditching a guy out there that later became my first husband. Shortly after that it changed to Gilleys and every Friday and Saturday night we would all go dancing. It was a lifestyle before I knew what that word meant. If you lived in Pasadena, you went to Gilleys. Wish I could do it all again!

  15. I am looking for A..copy of the book about gilleys mostly about the movie urban cowboy.there is a picture of gator on the cover.there is a half page picture of my sisters, mom has Passed so I would love to have a copy.thank you.

  16. Hi Mary. The book you are looking for is called “Saturday Night at Gilley’s.” It’s normally not easy to find at a reasonable price but my buddy Robert has a really nice copy listed on ebay right now. Hope that helps. Good luck. Bubba

  17. 30daysout Says:

    Mary, there’s a book “Saturday Night at Gilley’s” written by former Houston Post/Chronicle columnist Bob Claypool. You can get some used copies from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Saturday-Night-Gilleys-Bob-Claypool/dp/0394177274

  18. mary kennedy Says:

    I was a welder at the bronco shop.loved getn in free.sherwood on beer bust nites.said not gonna let us in free and drink free.lol

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