Gilley's was a nightclub located in Pasadena, Texas, from 1970 to 1990. The club, owned by Sherwood Cryer, had been previously called Shelly's. Cryer decided to reopen it in 1970 under the name Gilley's, with budding musician Mickey Gilley as partner. Gilley, who grew up in Ferriday, Louisiana, with cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart, wanted to call the club the "Den of Sin," but Sherwood insisted on naming it Gilley's, since Mickey Gilley himself was to be the headlining act.
Gilley's launched Mickey Gilley's career, for the club was an instant success. It filled to capacity nightly soon after the opening. It had a shooting gallery, showers for truckers, a rodeo arena with mechanical bulls, pool tables, punching bags, and a dance floor big enough for thousands. It had a 6,000-person capacity and was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest honky-tonk. Gilley's was open seven days a week, from 10 A.M. to 2 A.M. Its motto was "We Doze but We Never Close." Dramatic economic growth occurred along the Texas Gulf Coast in the late 1970s, especially in Houston. Many residents of Pasadena worked in the Houston-area petrochemical plants, and they used Gilley's as a place to socialize.
Loretta Lynn, Ernest Tubb, Emmylou Harris, and Roseanne Cash all played at Gilley's, along with many other famous country artists. Most performances were recorded live and archived, and the nightly shows were broadcast weekly on radio from 1977 to 1989. Live from Gilley's was carried nationally by more than 500 stations. Thanks to Armed Forces Radio, the show was also broadcast around the globe.
In 1978 Aaron Latham published "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America's Search for True Grit" in the September 12 issue of Esquire magazine. Cryer had urged Latham to write this article, based on Latham's experiences at Gilley's, in hopes that a movie would be made of the story. The movie Urban Cowboy began filming in 1979. Most of the movie was filmed inside Gilley's. It starred John Travolta and Debra Winger as the characters Bud and Sissy, who meet at Gilley's, marry, separate, and then reunite.
Gator Conley, a regular at Gilley's, was considered the best dancer and mechanical bull rider; the director used him frequently throughout the movie. Conley stated, "A lot of people say the movie made Gilley's, but actually it was the other way around." Urban Cowboy, a box office hit, brought Gilley's into American pop culture and made the club one of Houston's main tourist draws. Even after the fad passed, Gilley's continued to draw crowds. The Academy of Country Music awarded Gilley's the title "best nightclub of the year" in 1984.
Eventually Mickey Gilley became frustrated because he believed that Cryer failed to maintain the place and present quality acts. Cryer refused to make major renovations over the years, and fans were complaining of dirty restrooms and a bad parking lot, among other problems. Gilley, who thought this reflected poorly on his name, sued to gain control of the club in 1988, claiming that Cryer had been keeping profits. The jury awarded Gilley the club and forced Cryer to pay Gilley $17 million. Cryer had to give up much of his real estate to pay the debt.
The club operated under Gilley briefly after the lawsuit, until the judge ordered it closed in 1989 due to loss of profits. Gilley rescued the tapes of the live shows before a suspicious fire burned the club down in 1990. The Pasadena school district has owned the lot since 1992. In the early 2000s the property was still mired in tax liens, unpaid taxes amounted to more than the property was worth, and PISD was searching for a buyer. In November 2005 all remaining structures, including the rodeo arena, were demolished to clear the site for the construction of a middle school. The restored Gilley's sign can be seen about a mile away at the Cowboy Ranch restaurant.
Mickey Gilley opened Gilley's Dallas in 2003 to serve patrons in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. The honky tonk, with more than 90,000-square feet of event space, included a large dance floor and the famous mechanical bull. In 2011 the complex also boasted a new venue, the Jack Daniels Saloon, with live music on Friday and Saturday nights. In the 2010s Gilley’s clubs were also open in Las Vegas and at two locations in Oklahoma. By 2013 Mickey Gilley was making plans to bring Gilley’s back to Pasadena, Texas, and sought investors for funding. A new complex would include a dance floor and concert stage, bar, restaurant, museum, and a mechanical bull. CMT aired the documentary Urban Cowboy: The Rise and Fall of Gilley’s in 2015 in connection with the thirty-fifth anniversary of Urban Cowboy.