It was back in 1978 when Esquire published a story called “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit.” Most of the events of the piece take place at Gilley’s, a honky-tonk in Pasadena, Texas, just outside Houston. And, frankly, that article pissed off the owner of that bar, country singer Mickey Gilley, because he thought it was making fun of country music and the whole surrounding scene. He was about to let his ire be known when he got wind that there was interest in shooting a movie based on the article, which would film at Gilley’s bar – a movie which would eventually become Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta. Suddenly that article didn’t seem so bad anymore.
Urban Cowboy would become a phenomenon, doing for country music what Saturday Night Fever would do for disco — perhaps more, considering country’s mainstream appeal hasn’t really wavered much since. This film about Bud (Travolta) and Sissy (Debra Winger) and their on-again, off-again relationship, interlaced with mechanical bull riding, put Houston on the Hollywood map and produced the smash hit “Looking For Love” by Johnny Lee and Gilley’s own smash, his cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” (Gilley even performed his version alongside King once.)
In celebration of Urban Cowboy‘s 40th anniversary, Paramount has released a new Blu-ray. When I was a little kid and we lived at Lake of the Ozark – yes, the one from the Netflix show – Gilley often used to perform at the bar my father’s best friend owned. So, when Paramount asked if I wanted to talk to Gilley, I couldn’t resist. And now, at 84, he’s still out there “performing for the folks.”
Well, at least he was before everything shut down, now he’s just keeping safe and reminiscing about the time he got to fly a plane with John Travolta.
How are you doing? Have you been staying safe? Been keeping busy?
Oh, yeah. I’m doing fine. We’ve been out of work now for quite some time, but the time is not bad.
Where in the world are you right now?
I’m in Branson, Missouri.
I’m in New York City right now. I went to junior high in Springfield, which isn’t that far from Branson.
I go to Springfield to go shopping and to do some things that they don’t do here in Branson. It’s about 35 miles, so it’s no problem.
The Battlefield Mall.
Battlefield Mall! You’re right.
Speaking of Missouri, I was a very little kid when Urban Cowboy came out, but I do remember all of a sudden my parents were going to honky-tonks and learning country dancing.
It was so awesome. It changed my life. I tell people I think John Travolta is keeping my career alive, at 84 years old and still singing the music from the soundtrack of Urban Cowboy. And it has been one heck of a ride.
I rewatched it the other night. It’s not at all what I remember. There’s a lot going on. So how did you get involved with it in the first place?
The article had come out in Esquire magazine, “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy.” And my business partner, he knew that I didn’t appreciate what the guy had written in Esquire magazine, because I thought he was poking fun at country music. And that was my life. I was was going out to do the Mike Douglas or the Merv Griffin show, one of those shows out there. And he said, “Look, don’t say anything bad about that article in Esquire magazine, because we may get a film on this particular article.” And I looked at him and I said, “What side of the bed did you roll off on?” And he says, “No, I’m serious.” He said, “They’re looking at John Travolta to play the part.” And when he said John Travolta, I said, wait a minute. Saturday Night Fever was the first thing I thought about. And I said, “Saturday Night Fever? Country Night Fever!” And I did not mention that that article at all in Esquire magazine. I kept my mouth shut about it.
Do you still dislike that article?
Oh, I love the article now.
The bottom line was, if you read the article, it said, “Boy meets girl. Twang, twang. Boy falls in love with girl. Twang, twang.” They were using the “twang, twang” on it. And that kind of irritated me a little bit. But we got to film Urban Cowboy with John Travolta playing the part, and it has become such a big thing in my life because of the music. I had “Stand By Me”, the old Ben E. King song. It wasn’t really a country song. It was a blues type song. And then Johnny Lee, of course, had the “Looking For Love,” which was a major hit in the film.
It is like the soundtrack of 1980.
And when I found out, now they’re going to put it out on Blu-ray, which is going to enhance the whole thing. And it’s been 40 years ago since that film came out, I’m very excited about it. It’s wonderful.
Do you think the influence of Urban Cowboy making country music mainstream led to even the ’90s explosion with people like Garth Brooks?
I think that the film changed a lot of people’s lives, as far as the music scene was concerned. Because a lot of people didn’t listen to country music until that film came out. And when it came out, and they heard all these other acts in this film doing some of this music that they could listen to, and they could relate to, and all of a sudden country music, well, it boomed all of a sudden.
Again, I was very young, but your version of “Stand By Me” was the first version I heard because my parents had the record. How did that become a thing?
Actually, the guy who picked it was a guy by the name of Jim Ed Norman. And he bought the song and he says, “I want you to record this song, and we’re going to use it for the dance in the film. Well, I thought we were going to do it like Ben E. King. And he changed the complete arrangement of it. And we started doing that differently, and it turned out to be a one heck of a song for me, because it was so different. It’s been a dynamite song. When I play it, people say, “What are you doing? You trying to milk the crowd?” And people get on their feet and stand up. I said, “Hey, it’s just a song.”
What’s wrong with milking the crowd? Why is that a bad thing? Milking the crowd is a good thing.
Well, I tell you what, I’m very fortunate to be 84 and still been able to go out there and sing the music for the folks. And people say, “Why don’t you retire?” And I say, “Because I enjoy the music. I love the music.”
I’m curious, did you ever hear from Ben E. King?
I got to perform with him in Los Angeles.
Oh, that’s great.
And he did his version. If I recall it correctly, he did the song, part of it, and I did part of it my way. I got to work with him on that one particular thing. It was Rhythm and Blues and Country, I think, or something, what they called it. I don’t remember exactly now, because it’s been awhile back. But it was quite a few acts on the show.
Tell me about Gilley’s, the bar. It’s such a huge part of Urban Cowboy.
We opened the club in 1971. And in 1973 or 1974, I had my first number one song in the country charts. And then in 1978, I’m on the road traveling. And my business partner, Sherwood Cryer, installed this mechanical bull in Gilley’s. And when he did, I thought it was a big mistake. And I told him, “We’re going to get people hurt on this thing. We’re going to start getting sued.” It had my name on it and I was a little scared about the thing. And he says, “We’re going to attract all these cowboys, who want to be a cowboy.” And it did. People coming out to Gilley’s, riding the mechanical bull, chasing the girls and drinking beer and that type of thing. And lo and behold, I didn’t believe they were going to do the film until the Paramount truck started pulling into the parking lot. Jim Bridges was the director at the time. He says, “When that film comes out, this club will never be the same.” And boy was he ever right. It changed completely after that film came out. I mean you could not get into it.
Maybe it’s movie magic, but it does look like Travolta is riding the bull.
Oh, he did ride the bull. That was him. It was actually him riding it. I don’t think he used a stuntman.
Did Debra Winger ride it, too?
Oh yeah. If you look, if you watch the film, she stands up on it and she’s dancing on top of the bull. It was awesome.
That scene when Travolta is dancing is pretty amazing. It really is a country version of Saturday Night Fever. He’s magic.
I got a private showing in Hollywood. I said, “Johnny Lee will have a hit, ‘Looking For Love.’” And they said, “Really?” And I said, “Yeah. And you know why? Because John Travolta said, ‘Turn that up. That’s my favorite song,’ in the film.”
What was he like to hang around then?
He was a very nice young man. And when I met him, the one thing we had in common was we both liked to fly. I had my multi-engine rating, my instrument rating. And he was working on his, getting his pilot’s license. And I got to fly with him. So, that’s my exciting thing that I can say that I did with John Travolta.
That actually is pretty exciting.
And I’ll carry that for the rest of my life.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.