9 March 1936, Natchez, Louisiana, USA, but raised in Ferriday, Louisiana. Gilley is a cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis and the evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. He grew up with his cousins and his mother, a waitress, who saved her money to buy him a piano when he was 12 years old. Gilley left Louisiana when he was 17 and started working in bars in Houston. His first record was Tell Me Why for the aptly named Minor label in 1953. He had regional success in 1959 with Is It Wrong?, with Kenny Rogers on bass. In 1964 he started a record label, Astro, in Houston and again did well locally with Lonely Wine; the resulting album is now valued at £200 a copy. In 1968 he signed with Louisianas Paula label and had short-lived success with Now I Can Live Again. He was heard at the Des Nesadel club in Houston by Sherwood Cryer, a local businessman. Cryer was impressed with Gilleys performance and invited him to his club, Shelleys, in Pasadena, Texas, with a view to establishing a partnership.
In 1971, the club reopened as Gilleys, and through regular exposure on television, became very popular. Gilley himself was a resident performer and, to please a jukebox operator, he recorded Harlan Howards She Called Me Baby for his Astro label. The Houston disc jockeys preferred the b-side, a revival of George Morgans country hit Room Full Of Roses. In 1974, Playboy magazine, which had its own label, reissued it nationally and Room Full Of Roses was a number 1 US country hit and also made the Top 50 of the pop charts. Continuing with his country flower power, he followed it with another chart-topping revival, I Overlooked An Orchid. His success on the US country charts was soon outstripping his cousins as he had number 1 records with revivals (City Lights, Window Up Above, Bring It On Home To Me) and with new songs (Dont The Girls All Get Prettier At Closing Time, Shes Pulling Me Back Again). Gilley also made the US country Top 10 with Overnight Sensation, a duet with Playmate-turned-country singer Barbi Benton. However, most of his records, for the good or the worse, were strongly influenced by Jerry Lee Lewis and were made quickly and cheaply.
After Gilley signed with Epic Records, the producer Jim Ed Norman was determined to take him out of Lewis shadow and have him spend more time on his records. His revival of True Love Ways was a US number 1 country hit in 1980 and was followed by Stand By Me, which he sang in Urban Cowboy, a movie starring John Travolta - and a mechanical bull - and set in Gilleys. Gilleys was so successful that it had been extended to take 3, 500 customers and Cryer, having the patent on the mechanical bull, made a fortune by selling them to other clubs. Stand By Me made number 22 on the US pop charts, and Johnny Lee, the band leader at Gilleys, also did well with Lookin For Love. Gilley continued his run of country number 1s with revivals of You Dont Know Me and Talk To Me, and Thats All That Matters, A Headache Tomorrow (Or A Heartache Tonight), Lonely Nights, Put Your Dreams Away, Fool For Your Love and the 1983 duet with Charly McClain, Paradise Tonight. In 1987 he split acrimoniously with Cryer, which resulted in the closure of Gilleys club. After a legal action, Gilley was awarded $17 million, which included considerable back-royalties on T-shirt sales alone.
No longer confined to the club, Gilley has toured extensively, but has not tried to build a UK following. He also opened a theatre in Branson, Missouri in the 90s. Surprisingly, Gilley has only ever had three singles released in the UK (Room Full Of Roses, Stand By Me and You Dont Know Me). Gilley mentions Jerry Lee Lewis in his stage show, also performing Great Balls Of Fire, and is keen to record an album with his cousin. He says, Ive always given Jerry Lee credit for being the best talent in the family. He created that piano style and it rubbed off on me. Gilley underwent major surgery in 2003.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.