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Mickey Gilley, country music star whose club inspired ‘Urban Cowboy,’ dies at 86

Mr. Gilley had 34 songs in the country Top Ten during his two decades on the charts.Jeff Taylor/Associated Press

Mickey Gilley, the hit singer and piano player whose Texas nightclub was the inspiration for the movie “Urban Cowboy” and the glittering country music revival that accompanied it, died on Saturday at a hospital in Branson, Mo. He was 86.

His publicist, Zach Farnum, announced the death but did not cite a cause.

A honey-toned singer with a warm, unhurried delivery, Mr. Gilley had 17 No. 1 country singles from 1974 to 1983, including “I Overlooked an Orchid” and “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.”

He placed 34 records in the country Top Ten during his two decades on the charts. But he was ultimately best known as the proprietor, with Sherwood Cryer, of Gilley’s, the honky-tonk in Pasadena, Texas, that became one of the most storied nightspots in country music.

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Established in 1971 as a local bar catering to 9-to-5ers in and around Pasadena, an oil refinery town near Houston, Gilley’s was large, encompassing 48,000 square feet, with a parquet dance floor that could accommodate up to 5,000 people. Among the hall’s main attractions was its mechanical bull, a repurposed piece of rodeo-training equipment on which the club’s more intrepid patrons vied to see who could ride the longest before being thrown off.

Just as striking was the synchronized line dancing of its boot-scooting regulars, attired, as was the fashion, in crisply pressed Wranglers, big, gleaming belt buckles and immaculately cared-for Stetson hats.

Extending rodeo iconography beyond the provinces of the American West, Gilley’s shaped dance scenes in cities and suburbs across the nation, especially after an article about the club, “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit,” appeared in Esquire magazine in 1978.

Two years later, Paramount Pictures released the feature film “Urban Cowboy,” starring John Travolta and Debra Winger. Much of the film was shot at Gilley’s.

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“Country Night Fever” was how Mr. Gilley characterized the movie in interviews, alluding to “Saturday Night Fever,” the disco-themed 1977 movie that also starred Travolta. Nevertheless — even as “Urban Cowboy” helped country music become more popular than disco — Mr. Gilley was quick to add that “Urban Cowboy” cast his establishment in a glossier light than its warehouselike ambience, mud-wrestling contests, and reputation as a hotbed for brawling might have warranted.

“There wasn’t anything nice about that club,” he said in a 2019 interview with The Santa Fe New Mexican. “I mean, Gilley’s was a joint. But it worked because of what it represented — country music and the cowboy image.”

Gilley’s and the scene that coalesced around it also brought country music newfound crossover success with adult contemporary radio. The soundtrack to “Urban Cowboy,” replete with contributions from rock and pop acts like Boz Scaggs, Bonnie, Raitt and the Eagles, was certified platinum three times over for sales of 3 million copies. It spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the country album chart and climbed as high as No. 3 on Billboard’s Top Pop Albums.

This crossover impulse was second nature to Mr. Gilley, who had successfully navigated the country charts in the ’70s with honky-tonk remakes of R&B staples including Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and Big Joe Turner’s “Chains of Love.” Both were No. 1 country singles for Mr. Gilley, as was his version, from the “Urban Cowboy” soundtrack, of soul singer Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.”

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“Orange Blossom Special/Hoedown,” a recording from the soundtrack credited to Gilley’s Urban Cowboy Band, won a Grammy for best country instrumental performance in 1981.

Well into his 30s before he had his first hit, and over 40 when his nightclub achieved widespread acclaim, Mr. Gilley was something of a late bloomer. This was certainly the case compared with his flamboyant cousin Jerry Lee Lewis, whose meteoric early success had reached its zenith — and flamed out, after his marriage to his adolescent cousin — by the time he turned 22.

Another of Mr. Gilley’s piano-playing cousins, televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, achieved fame (and notoriety, for widely publicized scandals involving prostitutes) more readily than Mr. Gilley did as well.

Mickey Leroy Gilley was born on March 9, 1936, in Natchez, Miss., to Irene (Lewis) and Arthur Gilley. Raised in nearby Ferriday, he grew up singing gospel harmonies with his cousins Swaggart and Lewis and sneaking into local juke joints with them to hear blues and honky-tonk music.

Mickey Gilley’s mother bought him a piano when he was 10, shortly before he came under the boogie-woogie-inspired tutelage of his cousin Jerry. Mr. Gilley would not begin playing professionally, though, until he was in his 20s, several years after he had moved to Houston to work in the construction industry.

He released his first single, “Ooh Wee Baby,” in 1957, only to wait 55 years for it to find an audience: It ran in a television commercial for Yoplait yogurt in 2012. His first recording to reach the charts, “Is It Wrong (For Loving You)” (1959), featured future star Kenny Rogers on bass guitar.

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Settling in Pasadena in the early ’60s, Mr. Gilley began performing regularly at the Nesadel Club, a rough-and-tumble honky-tonk owned by his future business partner, Cryer. His recording career, however, did not gain traction until 1974, when Hugh Hefner’s Playboy label rereleased his version of “Room Full of Roses,” which had been a No. 2 pop hit in 1949 for Sammy Kaye and his orchestra.. Mr. Gilley’s iteration became a No. 1 country single.

Mr. Gilley subsequently enjoyed a decade at or near the top of the country charts. At the height of the Urban Cowboy boom, he had six consecutive No. 1 hits.

As the movement that Gilley’s had spawned gave way to the back-to-basics neo-traditionalism of mid-’80s country music, Mr. Gilley increasingly turned his attention to his nightclub, where protracted conflict with Cryer, who died in 2009, had caused the men to dissolve their partnership. Mr. Gilley closed the honky-tonk in 1989, a year before a fire destroyed much of the building.

He opened the first of two theaters in Branson in 1990, and later established night spots in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. No longer a presence on the country charts, he also marketed his own brand of beer and made cameos on prime-time television shows.

Mr. Gilley suffered a fall while helping friends move a sofa in 2009, an accident that left him temporarily paralyzed. He was unable to play the piano again, but he otherwise recovered and resumed singing in public well into his 80s.

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He leaves his wife, Cindy Loeb Gilley; a daughter, Kathy; three sons, Michael, Gregory, and Keith Ray Gilley; four grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. He was married to Vivian McDonald from 1962 until her death in 2019. His first marriage, to Geraldine Garrett, ended in divorce.