Mickey Gilley stood with hands on hips in front of the smoldering wreckage of his Branson, Mo., music theater. It was May 11, 1993, a date that would be forever fixed in Gilley's brain. Twenty-four hours earlier, the country-music legend had received a call at his home in Pasadena, Texas, summoning him to the site. Upon seeing the charred ruins, Gilley, a showman to the core, with a diamond-encrusted "MG" necklace and absurdly thick hair, turned to a bandmate and asked, "How am I gonna keep you guys working?"
The answer turned out to be simple: perseverance and heaps of cash. Within three weeks, he found a temporary stage for his band. A year later, he had rebuilt his theater for $2.5 million--$1 million more than the insurance settlement. Says saxophonist and bandmate Norman Carlson: "He's always striving to make things work for all of us."
That line has the faint ring of a lyric in a sentimental country-music ballad--fitting for Gilley, 67, who has sung more than his fair share. Country-music fans remember him for his 17 No. 1 country hits and for inspiring the urban-cowboy trend in the 1980s--you may recall Debra Winger riding a mechanical bull at "Gilley's" in the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy. These days Gilley is still pumping out music (Invitation Only was released in May), playing gigs (about 225 concerts a year) and opening clubs (he licensed his name to a Gilley's that is slated to open this fall in Dallas). All this from a man who could have walked away from the business years ago with plenty of loot. "Until my health fails and people quit coming to hear me--as long as I can go out onstage--I'm going to continue working," says Gilley.
Raised in Ferriday, La., Mickey Leroy Gilley boasts two famous cousins: Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart. After moving to Houston at age 17, Gilley worked in construction until a meeting with Jerry Lee made Gilley think, "If he can do it, why can't I?" ("The Killer," as Jerry Lee was known, famously pulled a roll of cash from his pocket to stir young Gilley.) But it wasn't easy. For more than a decade, he played at a string of honky-tonks, earning a reputation as a solid journeyman pianist, albeit a clone of the cousin who had inspired him. "He was just a plain, old-fashioned, down-to-earth guy in those days, struggling to get a hit record," says Carlson.
Gilley's turn from small-time musician to big-time entertainer sprang from someone else's idea. In 1971 businessman Sherwood Cryer saw Gilley play and invited him to be a partner in a new club. In an offer that would change Gilley's life, Cryer said he would pay Gilley half the profits for playing six nights a week--and convinced the dubious musician that the club should be named Gilley's.
Something about the club and Gilley's evolving showmanship clicked. People flocked to hear his boogie-woogie ballads and honky-tonk anthems like Don't All the Girls Get Prettier at Closing Time? In 1974, after almost two decades of banging the keys, Gilley had his first No. 1 single: a sweet version of Room Full of Roses.