Branson mourns passing of country legend Mickey Gilley; more details on what led to his death

Published: May. 8, 2022 at 10:42 PM CDT
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BRANSON, Mo. (KY3) - Country music legend Mickey Gilley sold the theater on West 76 Country Boulevard that still bears his name several years ago.

Other acts now also call the theater home, but Gilley still performed there and was scheduled to team up with his close friend Johnny Lee for their “Urban Cowboys Ride Again” show on Sunday night.

Sadly, that performance never happened as Gilley passed away at age 86 on Saturday.

According to his spokesperson at the theater, Gilley died at Cox South in Springfield after being diagnosed with bone cancer. He had also developed complications, including pneumonia and kidney failure. A memorial service in Branson will take place at a future date that hasn’t been determined yet.

Gilley was among the stars who brought a whole new level of interest to Branson when they opened theaters there, including Roy Clark, Glen Campbell, Jim Stafford, Ray Stevens, Tony Orlando, Mel Tillis, Andy Williams, and Shoji Tabuchi.

Orlando, well-known as a singer, actor, and music executive, admitted that Gilley’s passing hit him hard.

“Mickey Gilley has been my friend for 51 years,” Orlando said. “This is a great loss to the city of Branson, country music, and for me. When I moved to Branson, we’d see each other all the time. We had such a great relationship that he refused to do a Christmas show because he loved my Christmas show so much. He was very gracious and kind like that. And because of Mickey’s great character, I not only came to work in this great city, but I’ve lived here for 32 unbelievable years. He was such a deep-hearted, beautiful person, and Branson had just lost a really incredible part of this city. I personally can tell you there’s a hole in my heart, and this is one of the greatest losses I’ve ever had.”

Shoji Tabuchi was a longtime golfing buddy of Gilley and had first-hand knowledge of his sense of humor.

“It shocked me, and I feel so sad,” Tabuchi said of Gilley’s passing. “But Mickey loved Japanese sushi, and I would always see him at the restaurant. He would call me ‘Sushi’ Tabuchi.”

Gilley had a great career in country music with 39 Top 10 hits and 17 Number 1 songs. He was a cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart and had survived car and plane crashes.

But his life and career changed drastically in 1980 when he teamed with Johnny Lee to provide the music and setting for the iconic movie “Urban Cowboy” starring John Travolta.

Coming out of the disco era, that movie, partially filmed at Gilley’s famous nightclub in Pasadena, Texas, started a whole new craze of popularity for country music and bars that offered line dancing and mechanical bulls.

“Bingo!” Gilley said when he first heard that Travolta was interested in a movie that would involve his nightclub. “Saturday Night Fever...Country Night Fever! I knew if he did the movie, it was going to have some credibility.”

Springfieldians Sandy Davis and her husband Jim count themselves among Gilley’s many fans. Sandy remembers visiting the original nightclub as the Urban Cowboy phenomenon was taking off.

“I did get on the bull, but they didn’t turn it on because there was a weight limit, and I didn’t weigh enough at the time,” she said. “But you just brought it home with you and went, ‘Wow, this is pretty unique, and I’ve actually been there to see this in person.’”

“Urban Cowboy changed a lot about what people thought country music was and how they dealt with people who were in the country-western entertainment field,” Jim added.

The Oak Ridge Boys saw that change happen first-hand. Initially a gospel quartet, they moved more towards country music in the mid-1970s. In the early ‘80s, after Urban Cowboy came out, they had many mainstream pop hits, including “Elvira,” “Bobby Sue,” and “American Made.”

“Urban Cowboy started a lot of the crossover craze,” said Joe Bonsall, the tenor singer for the Oak Ridge Boys. “I think Urban Cowboy helped us. Everybody in country music was. Mickey Gilley helped take country music to that next level of being accepted by everybody. That ship rose up and took a lot of ships with it. Urban Cowboy was such a big deal, and Mickey and Johnny were crossing over to the pop market. Then Dolly Parton had ‘Working 9-to-5′, and Crystal Gayle, Eddie Rabbit, Kenny Rogers, and a whole lot of others had crossover hits.”

Quite the legacy for a life well-lived, and now as Branson prepares to say goodbye.

“We’ll miss him,” Tabuchi said as he pointed to the heavens. “But he’ll still be singing up there.”

“Branson is middle America, and Mickey cared about Branson,” Bonsall said. “To lose a Mickey Gilley and a Naomi Judd all within a week is just an incredible experience to know they won’t be here anymore. But where they are now, they sure wouldn’t want to come back.”

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