When Mickey Gilley teamed up with fellow Texas country veteran Johnny Lee for an Urban Cowboy Reunion tour some two years ago, he didn’t expect fan response would lead to an extension of the tour beyond its initial run.
What he did expect from his end, a chance to thank fans for their support over the years, turned out to be the case, too, and that continues with every show from the 83-year-old performer.
“I enjoy being out there with my fans. They’ve have given us a great life and a great ride,” he said.
That great ride has carried the Mississippi-born musician — piano-playing cousin to rock-and-roller Jerry Lee Lewis and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart — to a career six decades past his start in Houston’s honky-tonk club scene and the recording success of 17 No. 1 hits, starting with 1974’s “Room Full of Roses” and “City Lights” the year after that.
Gilley brings his solo show to the Waco Hippodrome Friday night, complete with a seven-piece band and two backup singers. That’s larger than the usual country touring band, but Gilley said he needs that to play his hits as fans remember them. “Folks gave me 17 No. 1s and I do as many as I can,” he said.
He praised his band, particularly keyboard player Lee Hendrix, who captures Gilley’s style on piano on hits like “Room Full of Roses.” “I had a spinal cord injury about 10 years ago that took my hands away from me, but he’s extended my career,” Gilley said.
His show also includes a 25-minute video segment on “Urban Cowboy,” the 1980 film starring John Travolta whose country-pop soundtrack boosted the profile of country music in the 1980s and gave hits to Gilley with his cover of “Stand by Me” and Lee with “Looking for Love.”
The movie, based on an Esquire magazine article about his Pasadena honky-tonk club Gilley’s, also drew national attention to that club and Gilley later expanded with more clubs in Texas and Oklahoma.
The country singer scored early ’80s hits with “Fool for Your Love” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” then started working in the Branson, Missouri, theater circuit some 27 years ago. Gilley was working the Clay Cooper Theatre in Branson when Lee joined him as a last-minute substitute for Mel Tillis.
The two proved a winning combination, he said, even if the relationship got testy at times, particularly if Lee ran past his allotted minutes onstage. “We fought like brothers. We loved each other like brothers and we fought like brothers,” he recalled.
On their reunion tour, Gilley noted that Lee was much more punctual. Even today, they continue to play dates in Branson. “Use it or lose it, right?” he chuckled.