Oct. 1 will be a big day for Mickey Gilley.
It’s the date he’s decided he’ll be ready to hit the golf course again.
You’d think that a golf date might not be so important to a man who has restaurants, nightclubs, his own theater in Branson, regular touring dates (including one in Wichita on Friday) and a 60-plus-year career in country music that includes 39 top-10 hits, 17 of them hitting No. 1. (His most iconic hits include “Stand By Me” from the 1980 film “Urban Cowboy,” “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time,” “Roomful of Roses” and “City Lights.”)
But that golf game will mark a milestone for Gilley, 78, who was paralyzed in an accident in 2009 and told he might never walk again.
Gilley was moving a sofa for a friend when he stumbled backward and fell, crushing four vertebrae. He was bedridden for months, unable to move from the neck down. After intense physical therapy, he was able to walk again, then returned to the stage.
Today, he said, he’s almost recovered except that he still has limited use of his hands. He can’t button his own shirts or play the piano. And though he’s tried to golf a few times over the years, it’s never gone well.
“The doctor said to me, ‘You’re wanting to get better. I think your push in life is what brought you back to this point,’” Gilley said during a recent phone interview from Branson, where he performs at his Mickey Gilley Branson Theatre up to five times a week. “I said, ‘My ultimate goal is to play golf again and play piano. I don’t know if I can do them both again, but I promise you I’m going to try.’”
Gilley was born in Mississippi in 1936, and his family included famous cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. As a young man, he moved to Houston, where he became a regular and popular performer on the nightclub scene.
In 1971, he and a partner opened Gilley’s in nearby Pasadena, Texas, and the club, fit with mechanical bulls and an indoor rodeo ring, became known as the “world’s largest honky tonk.” Gilley played at the club and got a record deal. “Room Full of Roses” was his first big hit.
In the late 1970s, an Esquire magazine article called “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy” featured Gilley’s and its mechanical bulls. The article inspired the 1980 Paramount movie “Urban Cowboy,” starring John Travolta and Debra Winger. Much of the movie was filmed at Gilley’s.
“It was something that was unbelievable,” Gilley remembers. “When Paramount started bringing the trucks into the old nightclub Gilley’s, I took two or three steps back and said, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to do that.’ The producer told me, ‘When we finish this film, Gilley’s will never be the same,’ and he was absolutely correct. It turned that place inside out and upside down. People started coming from all over the world.”
Gilley, who appears in the film as himself, got another No. 1 hit from the movie soundtrack: “Stand By Me.” The original Gilley’s closed in 1986 after a falling out between Gilley and his partner, and in 1990, it burned. (A new Gilley’s opened in Dallas in the early 2000s, and there’s also one in Las Vegas.)
These days, Gilley puts his attention on touring and on his theater in Branson, where he also has a restaurant called Gilley’s Texas Cafe.
But he says he’s finally ready to slow down and put his focus on performing – and on golf.
The show he’ll perform in Wichita, he said, is much like his Branson show and offers the audience a musical retrospective on his long career.
“I told my son today, ‘I don’t want to be in the restaurant business or the club business. I just want to be in the singing business,’” Gilley said. “I want to perform my shows out on the road and have a great time and play for the audience. At my age, how much time do I have left? I don’t know. but I intend to enjoy the rest of the years I have. It’s been a great ride. I’ve had a great time.”
If you go
Mickey Gilley in concert
What: The country legend will perform in Wichita in conjunction with this weekend’s BlackTop Nationals event.
When: 7 p.m. Friday; doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
Tickets: $40 reserved, $20 general admission, available at www.WichitaTIX.com or by calling 316-303-8100.