Mickey Gilley Interview: Country Legend Talks New Tour After Paralyzing Accident
Mickey Gilley has had a long, painful road to his new tour.
The 78-year-old country legend has spent years in physical therapy since an accident in 2009 left him paralyzed and unable to work. He returned to the stage in a limited capacity at his theater in Branson in 2010, and on March 21 he kicked off his first national tour since his rehabilitation. Gilley is slated to perform a series of dates that run through July 30, when the tour wraps up in Louisiana.
The set list for the new stage show runs the gamut of Gilley’s entire career, which includes hits like ‘Room Full of Roses,’ ‘Stand By Me,’ ‘True Love Ways’ and ‘The Power of Positive Drinkin’.’
The Boot caught up with Gilley just prior to the tour to discuss the upcoming shows, his accident, and the long road back to the stage in the following exclusive interview.
How is your health?
Actually, I’m doing pretty good. I’m not totally recovered from my injury, but I’m back on the road, singing and performing again, and I’m excited about that. At 78 years old, you’ve got to be appreciative of your life.
You’ve had a long road back. How exactly did this injury happen?
I was helping a friend of mine move a little piece of furniture that weighed about 40-50 pounds, a little loveseat. I backed out of the doorway, stepped in a flower bed and fell backwards . . . woke up two days later and found out that I had damaged C4, C5, C6 and C7 in my vertebrae, a spinal cord injury. Had a neck brace on, and I was paralyzed from the neck down.
The doctors never thought I’d walk again after that. My left side is still giving me a little problem, but at least I’m walking. I haven’t gotten to where I can trot or run yet, but at least I’m walking.
I tell everybody, ‘Look, don’t move any furniture when you get in your 70s. Call Two Men and a Truck.’ [Laughs.]
"At 78 years old, you’ve got to be appreciative of your life."
How long was it before you were actually able to get up and around after your injury?
It was probably almost a year. When I went back to the theater to perform, I had two ladies on each side of me to walk me out. I had trouble walking. They set me in a chair, and I did the performance from a chair, like a little office chair where I could roll around. Now I’m up where I can walk out by myself, and I can’t stand up for the full set, but I stand up and sing a few of the songs, I walk from one side of the stage to the other.
I can’t play the piano yet, because my hands haven’t recovered totally, but they’re better. So I don’t know if I’ll ever play the piano again — the doctors said I have a 50-50 shot at maybe playing the piano again, but it’s not really required, because I’ve got a seven-piece band.
I’m doing the music as close as I possibly can to my original recordings. So the people have accepted the fact that I did have an injury and I can’t play the keyboard, but I try to entertain them and show them a good time, tell them a few corny jokes and go on with the show.
Was there ever a point in your recovery where you despaired of maybe not ever being able to work again?
Well, I don’t mind telling you — you ever seen a grown man cry? A few tears have rolled down these cheeks, you know, and I’m wondering, ‘What in the devil did I do to myself?’ But with determination, and with a positive attitude, I’ve made it back this far, and I’m hoping . . . my goal is to play golf again in the spring, and maybe play the piano in the fall.
So I don’t know if I’ll ever be as good as I once was, but I’m not as bad . . . what was that Toby Keith song? [Laughs.] Anyway, I’m back this far, and I’m very excited about the fact that I’m back on the road.
What’s the new show like?
The folks that are out there on the road, I tell them, “Folks, I’m going to take you down Memory Lane with Mickey Gilley, I’m going to tell you everything that you ever wanted to know about me and were afraid to ask, I’m going to take you from the ’50s all the way into the ’90s.” And I do ‘em some music that they’ve probably never heard before and may never hear again, unless they come back to one of my concerts. [Laughs.] I play them the first record I ever made, and I take them all the way through my career in music.
I tell them the stories behind the music, and why I did what I did. I tell them the story of growing up Reverend Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, and us being cousins, and trying to overcome the fact that I was a cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis, because I play piano and sing.
Most people come and go very, very quickly in the music business. What is the secret to such a long career?
I guess I’ve been blessed. I think God has blessed me with the fact that He gave me a vocal that’s sort of a little bit different than everybody else’s, and I’ve had success with my recordings. I haven’t had as many No. 1 songs as George Strait or Conway Twitty, but the folks gave me 17 No. 1 songs in my career, and I tell people, too, I’d have had better recordings if I hadn’t been in a partying mode.
Back then I was young, I was successful, and I wasn’t paying any attention. I was going so fast through life, and like I tell some people, it’s the old cliche: sometimes you get too close to the forest to see the trees. That was me. I was going through life like a perfect storm so to speak. And all of a sudden, when I fell and hurt myself, it dawned on me, ‘This could be my last day on Earth. You’d better straighten your act up.”
I still enjoy having a beer every now and then, or a shot of Crown, but I don’t drink like I used to, and I try to concentrate on my show, and try to entertain the people. I’m more in tune with what’s going on now — I’m having more fun now than I was when I was having success, because it’s entertaining to me to entertain the people, to see them have a good time.
"Back then I was young, I was successful, and I wasn’t paying any attention."
That’s what makes it important to me to be out there and still be able to do it, because you look at the obituary, and you see people dying in their 50s and 60s and 70s. And then when I lost my comedian at 43 to colon cancer, I knew, hey, I’ve got a limited time. My friend Ray Price, he’s already gone. There’s a lot of guys that have already passed on before me. We’re not gonna last forever. So let’s go through this world the best we can, and have a fun time as you go.
Do you have any nerves about the upcoming dates? Touring is a hard enough grind even when you haven’t been through a physical trauma.
Well, I was very, very into aviation for a long time, and after my accident the FAA pulled my medical. I’m not able to fly anymore. But up until then I was able to get in my airplane, I would fly out and meet the bus somewhere, and we’d go from there. Now, if I book a date, I’m on the bus with the guys.
I find it very rewarding to just be on the bus with the guys, and the camaraderie that we have running up and down the road together, and being able to lay back there in the back room and watch TV as we’re driving down the road. It’s just like being at home. So it’s actually a little more relaxing than it was when I was flying myself to different venues.I don’t have to worry about the weather and that sort of thing.
For a long time I didn’t want to tour anymore. That’s the reason I went into the theater business. I’ve done the theater business, I’ve done the club business, I’ve done the restaurant business, and I told some people the other day, “Look, I’m tired of all the business end of it. I just want to be in the singing business.” That’s where I’m at now.
Is there anything else you want to say about the tour, or anything else you’ve got coming up?
I’m very excited about the fact that I’ve got my name on a club in Vegas, at Treasure Island. We have a Gilley’s there, we have a mechanical bull. I have two in Oklahoma; one in Durant, Okla. and one in Pocola, Okla. We have the mechanical bulls there. I have one in Dallas, and we have one fixing to be built outside of Reno.
And then the thing that I’m very excited about is that, on April 19, we’re going to re-issue the Gilley Beer. So I’m still doing some things that I get a kick out of doing. I’m not in it for the money; I’m in it for the fact that it’s enjoyable to get out and do some different things.