ARLINGTON — Singer Mickey Gilley had 17 No. 1 hits, including a duet called “Paradise Tonight." Recorded in rush, he remembers telling a friend it would be his biggest bomb.
“And he said, 'I thought it was a pretty good song.' I said, 'You’ve got to be kidding!' About 18 weeks later, it was No. 1 on the country chart, and I said, 'You know, it was a good song, wasn’t it?'”
Career-wise, Gilley found paradise after he and his namesake Pasadena nightclub appeared in a movie that became a Texas cult classic: “Urban Cowboy."
“It went crazy after that," he said.
And it stayed crazy.
Another 30 years of performances followed, until a really bad night in July 2009 when Gilley gave a helping hand to a friend who needed to move a couch.
“At that time, I am 74 years old, but I don’t feel it... you know? I’m backing out of the doorway and I step on the flower bed and I fall back about 18 to 20 inches right on the back of my neck," Gilley recalled. "The first thing I heard somebody say is, 'Don’t move!'”
He couldn’t move from the neck down.
"I woke up two days later. I had a neck brace on, and I was paralyzed," Gilley said. "I damaged C4, 5, 6 and 7 in my vertebrae and had a spinal cord injury."
And when Gilley was told he might be in a wheelchair the rest of his life? “I prayed and said, 'Go ahead and take me... I am ready.'"
Those first days of desperation gave way to months of rehab and suggestions that it was time for him to retire. He was incredulous.
"Retire? What for?" he asked. "I got a passion. I love playing and singing."
It took every bit of that passion... and many months of rehabilitation... but Gilley eventually got back on stage and resumed his long-running show in Branson, Missouri.
"They had to roll me out in a chair," he said, and he performed while seated. He kept working to recover until he was finally able to stand... then walk... and then — most audaciously — go on tour again.
Mickey Gilley is back on the road now. We caught up with him at a stop at the Arlington Music Hall as a crowd packed in to listen to a legend making a remarkable comeback.
"I’ll tell you exactly what I learned: When you get in your 70s, don’t move any furniture... call Two Men and a Truck!”
Now 78, Gilley credits his sense of humor, his positive outlook, and prayers from his fans for his recovery.
"I am having the time of my life," he said.
He remains busy with his Gilley’s club and food brands, and he just re-launched Gilley’s beer.
And Mickey Gilley is still making a lot of music.
At his concerts, Gilley and his audiences are re-living the old glory days. Sometimes he performs while sitting, sometimes standing, and occasionally even dancing.
Not bad for a guy who was told he’d probably never walk again.
There are still unreached milestones. Gilley hopes his hands have recuperated enough to return to the golf course soon. And perhaps by the end of the year, the once prolific piano player aims to try his hand at getting his hands back on the ivories,
“I’m telling you, I want to get back to full force again," he said. "I want to leave this world with a bang."
But don’t misunderstand: This "Urban Cowboy" isn’t quite ready to ride off into the sunset.
“I hope I’ve got another 10 years," Gilley said.
Even as he dreams of longevity, Gilley is trying to live in the moment; still very much enjoying this second chance, and those fans who stood by him through it all.
As he ended his set Saturday in Arlington with his now-famous rendition of “Stand By Me," the audience did exactly that — many of them rising to their feet to give a standing ovation to a man who somehow rose to his again.
Mickey Gilley plans to return to the area this summer with tour stops in Odessa on June 26 and in Greenville on June 27.