No money headaches today for Mickey Gilley [classic article]

For somebody who claims he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, country singer Mickey Gilley is very sharp businessman.

Classic country singer Mickey Gilley has accomplished what most artists only dream of — a long and fulfilling career marked by loyal fans and financial success. Mickey’s first musical influence as a boy growing up in Ferriday, La., was his piano-pounding cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis. He grew up close to Jerry Lee and another famous cousin, Jimmy Swaggart. Gilley scored his first string of consecutive No. 1 hits in the mid-’70s — “Roomful of Roses,” “I Overlooked an Orchid,” “City Lights,” “Window Up Above,” “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time” and “Bring It on Home to Me.” He performed traditional honky-tonk songs long before the style returned to favor in Nashville. In the ’80s, he became a smooth crooner of country love songs — “That’s All That Matters To Me,” “Headache Tomorrow, Heartache Tonight,” “I’m Just A Fool For Your Love,” “Lonely Nights,” “Put Your Dreams Away,” “Paradise Tonight” — and distinctive updates of such romantic classics as “Stand By Me,” “True Love Ways,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Talk to Me” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.”

Mickey has achieved a remarkable 39 Top 10 country hits, with 17 of those songs reaching the No. 1 spot on the country charts. In 1976, he swept the Academy of Country Music Awards, hauling home trophies for Entertainer of the Year, Top Male Vocalist, Song of the Year, Single of the Year and Album of the Year. He was ranked among the top 50 country music hit-makers in the 1989 book written by Billboard record research historian, Joel Whitburn.

One of the secrets behind Mickey’s longevity is his ability to balance the heart of an entertainer with the brain of a businessman. He helped create Gilley’s Club, the landmark Texas nightclub in 1971. The forerunner of the Hard Rock Cafe and other theme restaurants, it also helped elevate country music to new heights of popularity. Esquire Magazine caught wind of the Pasadena nightclub and featured it in an article called “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy.” Intrigued by the piece, Paramount Pictures contracted to use Gilley’s as the centerpiece of a motion picture with John Travolta.

Billed as the “world’s largest honky-tonk,” Gilley’s became the defining launching pad for some of country music’s biggest stars, and the dominating force behind the Urban Cowboy craze that swept the country in the early ’80s. Before the club burned to the ground in 1989, Mickey had recorded the performances for his weekly radio show, “Live From Gilley’s,” which was syndicated to 500 stations from 1977 to 1989. When Mickey and his partner in the venture split up, Mickey removed nearly 1,000 rolls of 24-track tapes from the premises, which saved them from the fire that destroyed Gilley’s. Released on QVC’s Q Records, the first four-CD set featured 56 songs, ranging from Willie Nelson, Rosanne Cash, Johnny Lee and Ed Bruce to rock ‘n rollers such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Fats Domino to some of the last performances of Ernest Tubb and Faron Young. QVC plans to mine this mother lode of historic music for future CD releases.

After the Urban Cowboy craze died down, Mickey kept his performing chops up at his successful theater in Branson, Mo.

Then, in October 2003, Gilley’s was reborn as “Gilley’s Dallas Texas,” a 190,000 square-foot entertainment complex. Its slogan: “More urban, less cowboy,” because it features a wider selection of musical genres. The new Gilley’s contains a 4,000-seat theater featuring national headline acts, a giant amusement arcade, a Wild West Show and rodeo arena, theme restaurants and bars named after some of Mickey’s biggest hits, and a retail complex complete with an e-commerce mall at gilleys.com.

Bankrate: Tell me about your latest projects.

Mickey Gilley: Where should I start? After “Urban Cowboy” dried up and people weren’t coming to the shows, I came out to Branson. I’ve been here 14 years. I’ve had the restaurant 10 years. I opened another restaurant and it’s been open a year. My only failure was the restaurant in Myrtle Beach. I kept it open for four years. It was in a tourist town, it was only busy four and half, five months of the year. But the bills kept coming all year.

Bankrate: You’ve had business savvy for many years, where did you learn that?

Mickey Gilley: I’ve been lucky. I never really dreamed Branson could be a place I could come and stay and make money. It’s been a cash cow for my other projects. It lets me perform. I don’t have to pay a performer. Lots of people in Branson have had a tough time of it. My place is usually packed.

Bankrate: Let’s talk about that, how so many venues in Branson have closed while yours is a success.

Mickey Gilley: There have been several artists who put their name on the theater. They had backers. They thought that old saying, “Build it and they will come”. That is not true in Branson! You have to work it yourself. If it doesn’t succeed at first, you can keep at it. These other ones, their backers got tired and pulled the plug. If the owner couldn’t make his money back right away, he threw his hands up in the air and said, “That’s it!” Ray Stevens also made a good success of it. He sold it, but financed the sale himself. Now, I just read where he’s going to be back!

Bankrate: Many celebrities spend their own money and non-celebrities will go into debt to finance a restaurant. Unfortunately, there’s a high failure rate. What are your secrets to survival in such a tough business?

Mickey Gilley: I don’t own everything, I do have a partner. I try to stay ahead of things, if you know what I mean. I take the money I make and reinvest it. I try to diversify. I pay my bills. I make my money performing. That definitely fills in the gaps, so that I can do the other things!

Bankrate: Where do you think the direction of country music is headed?

Mickey Gilley: I was watching “60 Minutes” and saw where Toby Keith will be making $46 million this year. That shocked me! In 1980, Johnny Lee and I were on top of the charts and we weren’t even close to that kind of money. We spent a lot, too. It’s the same with the ballplayers. Babe Ruth spent a lot, too and the ballplayers make a lot more money now. I had seventeen No. 1 songs and I didn’t see anything like that kind of money. I bought a King Air airplane. I’ve grown up with my audience; they’re my age or older. Not a lot of kids are coming to see me. Some shows in Branson are more family-oriented. Jim Thomas brought me out to Branson, to play the Roy Clark Theater. I asked him, “Where in the world is Branson, Missouri?” The money they were offering was OK, but I told him I didn’t want to play in front of a bunch of empty seats. He called back and let me know all three shows were sold out, then six. There used to be a lot of acts, which was good, because people don’t want to see the same act every night. But, you don’t want too many acts, you don’t want to over-saturate it. You don’t want to over-saturate anything. I’m set to have my best year ever: I’m hiring some acts and there will be a show in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. I’m going to use my theater to its fullest potential. I have the restaurant, too. I serve Southwest, barbecue. I do things differently than they can get in Branson. If you have good food, people will come to your restaurant.

Bankrate: How did “Urban Cowboy” change your life?

Mickey Gilley: I had had five or six No. 1s. John Travolta came down and they did a kind of classic country mix. It opened bigger rooms for me to play — Vegas, Reno, Tahoe and Atlantic City. I always wanted to play those kind of places.

Bankrate: Do you manage your own money?

Mickey Gilley: I have an office in Texas where the wife and people who work for me pay the bills. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I do know how to count. I used to have a CPA who got me into some pretty bad deals. I was making money but didn’t see it. I said, “This is not working.” They would tell me that things were fine, but I didn’t care what they said, if I could see that the bills, the notes weren’t going to be paid.

Bankrate: Do you have investments other than your theater and restaurant?

Mickey Gilley: I had a few stocks, but stocks took a dive. I never sell my stocks. The only one that made money was Reebok. I had some airline stock, but the airlines tanked. I didn’t have a lot of money in them, though. If you want to be a successful trader of stocks, you have to stay on top of it. All I want to do is do my shows and play golf. I asked my accountant, “Where is all my money?” He pointed to my King Air. So, I put it up for sale! Now, I have a smaller plane, a C55 Baron. I pilot it. I am instrument and commercial rated. If I got to the point where I couldn’t fly, I’d give up Branson, because I have to be able to go home on weekends. I pilot it myself; I won’t pay somebody to do what I can do for myself.

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