Saturday July 7, 2018 7:00 pm
This year marks the Golden Anniversary of one of our greatest living country vocalists. In 1962, Gene Watson began his professional career by recording his first single.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he chuckles, remembering himself as a 19-year-old. “I think maybe I was dreaming a little bit. Who knows what’s going through your mind back then? I was playing nightclubs here and there and decided it might be good if I could record a song.
“My first recording ever was on a little ole independent label that was started up just for this recording session, Sun Valley Records. Maybe I thought I could sell them at my shows or something. I wrote the record, ‘If It Was That Easy.’ It was not any good, but, boy, I thought that was something. I had my own record.”
He might not have known what he was doing in 1962, but he does now. Gene Watson has re-recorded his classic hits on an extraordinary, 25-song collection titled The Best of the Best. His ageless voice sounds exactly as it did when he first recorded these songs in the 1970s and 1980s. The legendary Sonny Garrish reprises the steel-guitar playing he performed during the original recording sessions, and the rest of the players recreate the original arrangements.
It is one of the curious facts of the music business that a major-label artist pays for their recording sessions, yet the label owns the recordings. In addition, Gene Watson’s classics are owned by four different corporations. In a sense, by re-recording them to sound precisely like the originals, he now finally “owns” them all himself.
“I wanted these to sound as close to the originals as could be done,” says Gene. “I had to work so hard to capture them the same way I did them originally. All of these songs are in the same keys. I just thank the good Lord above that He’s let me keep my voice intact. In fact, I can probably hit the notes better now than I could back then.
Whenever there was a question when I was re-recording these, we went back and listened to the original recording.
“I put this together on my own dime, and it’s coming out on my own label, Fourteen Carat Music. These songs have always been a part of my life and career. As long as the people will take their hard-earned money and come to my shows, this is what they’re going to hear.”
Performances such as “Fourteen Carat Mind,” “Love in the Hot Afternoon,” “Farewell Party,” “Memories to Burn,” “Got No Reason Now for Going Home,” “Speak Softly,” “Paper Rosie” and “Sometimes I Get Lucky and Forget” have forged Gene Watson’s reputation as a “Singer’s Singer.” He is the envy of his peers and the idol of such younger performers as Joe Nichols, Brad Paisley, Trace Adkins, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Lee Ann Womack and Randy Travis.
Gene, himself, views his remarkable vocal talent as a matter of course. All seven Watson children sang, as did his parents.
“I can remember singing as far back as I can remember talking. Singing was something that was not out of the ordinary for me. It wasn’t unique. My whole family were singers.”
Even in a musical genre noted for its hard-luck stories, Gene Watson’s stands out. The family drifted from shack to shack as his itinerant father took logging and crop-picking jobs. “Home” eventually became a converted school bus. Gene dropped out of school in the ninth grade to work alongside his parents in the fields.
“I sang in church with my sister. My younger brother Jessie and me would sing at little school functions and local things. He played electric guitar, and I played acoustic guitar. When I was 15 and he was about 12, there was a guy who came to town in Paris, Texas who was supposed to be a big producer and talent scout and all this. He thought that Jessie and I had a lot of potential, so he put a show together at the coliseum. That was the big debut for The Watson Brothers. By the time the show was over with, he left town with the proceeds.”
Gene settled in Houston, TX where he developed a strong local following and staged his disc debut. In 1964, the Grand Ole Opry duo, The Wilburn Brothers, took Gene on the road briefly. Then it was back to the Texas honky-tonks and a string of local singles throughout the ‘60s.
“My cousin, Bill Watson, is a songwriter. We decided to go to Nashville and check out what it takes to get a song recorded. That would have been in like, 1966 or 1967. We thought with some of his songs and my singing, we might get someone to listen. Of course, it was to no avail.”
But in 1974, one of Gene Watson’s small-label singles caught the ear of Capitol Records. He was an auto-body repairman and the featured performer at Houston’s Dynasty nightclub when the label picked up the steamy, sexual waltz “Love in the Hot Afternoon” for national distribution. It became the first of Gene Watson’s two-dozen top-10 hits in early 1975.
“Seems like my career just kind of happened accidentally,” says Gene. “It was purely unintentional. Music was just a sideline. I was going to be playing and singing no matter what line of work I was going to do. I never did really have any high expectations out of the music business. Even today, I never know what to expect from one day to the next.
“But there is one thing: As far as I know, I do have an impeccable reputation in the music business, and I wouldn’t take nothing for that. If anything in the world means ‘success’ to me, that right there does.”
Gene took no songwriting credit when he re-wrote the lyrics of 1979’s “Pick the Wildwood Flower” to make it an autobiographical song. Songwriter Lawton Williams was so grateful for Gene’s bravura performance of “Farewell Party” that he gave the singer his 1980 BMI Award for it.
Gene Watson quit drinking in 1980 and quit smoking in 1990. He underwent surgery and survived colon cancer in 2000-01. Through it all, he continued to record one critically applauded collection after another. He was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame in 2002.
“It’s unbelievable to me that it’s been 50 years,” says Gene. “For most of those years, it seemed like it took everything I could do to keep working as steady as I needed to. Now that I’m older, it seems like everything comes to me without trying. I’m working more shows than I was 15 years ago.
“It’s quite a compliment. I think a lot of it is because there’s not too much of what I do around anymore. I think there is still such a hunger out there for traditional country music. So I’d like to stay out there as long as I’m able to do the job and do it well.
“Every time I step out on that stage and see that audience, it’s a new beginning. Even though I’ve sung these songs millions of times, I look at each one like it’s brand new to me. Every night, I try to deliver that song the best that I can.
“Being called a ‘Singer’s Singer’ humbles me. It’s flattering, but what I do is just what I do. The good Lord just gave me the voice.”
Mickey Gilley has accomplished what most artists only dream of — a long and fulfilling career marked by loyal fans and financial success. One of the secrets behind Mickey's longevity is his ability to balance the heart of an entertainer with the brain of a businessman. He hasn't had to "reinvent" himself to stay in the game. He has stayed current with the times, but Mickey knows what not to change. He has treated his fans with the same respect throughout the years, maintained his consistent high-quality performances, selected classic songs that withstood the fickleness of trends and tapped into business opportunities with an uncanny foresight.
The landmark Texas nightclub he helped create in 1971, is the perfect case in point. Gilley's Club was the sensation of the era: the "world's largest honky-tonk." It was a launching pad for some of country music's biggest stars and the dominating force behind the "Urban Cowboy" craze that swept the country in the early '80s, following the release of the John Travolta movie filmed in the Pasadena, Texas, nightclub.
Today, more than a decade after the club burned to the ground in 1989, Gilley's — like its namesake — just keeps rising from the ashes to retain its legendary status. As the new century dawned, developers announced the rebirth of Gilley's as "Gilley's Dallas," an entertainment complex that is part of the "South Side" development in the Texas metropolis. Bigger and better than ever, the new Gilley's contains a 2,000-seat showroom featuring national headline acts.
"I knew we had done something extraordinary at the time, especially after Paramount filmed Urban Cowboy in the club," Mickey says. "But I had no idea Gilley's would outlast the millennium. This is really incredible."
In addition to Gilley's Dallas, there is a Gilley's Club at The New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. This gives Gilley's a presence on the world-famous Las Vegas Strip. Urban Cowboy was mounted as a musical, which ran on Broadway for part of 2003. The Gilley's Club logo was prominent on the Broadway stage.
Even as he was helping to build the original Gilley's Club into the landmark honky-tonk of the century, Mickey was also launching an incredible career as an entertainer and recording artist. He scored his first string of consecutive number-one hits in the mid-'70s — "Roomful of Roses," "I Overlooked An Orchid," "City Lights," "Window Up Above," "Don't The Girls All Get Prettier At Closing Time" and "Bring It On Home To Me." He performed traditional honky-tonk songs long before the style returned to favor in Nashville. In the '80s, he became a smooth crooner of country love songs — "That's All That Matters To Me," "Headache Tomorrow, Heartache Tonight," "I'm Just A Fool For Your Love," "Lonely Nights," "Put Your Dreams Away" and "Paradise Tonight" — and distinctive updates of such romantic classics as "Stand By Me," "True Love Ways," "You Don't Know Me," "Talk To Me" and "You've Really Got A Hold On Me."
In all, Mickey has achieved a remarkable 39 Top-Ten country hits, with 17 of those songs reaching the No. 1 spot on the country charts. In 1976, he swept the ACM Awards, hauling home trophies for Entertainer of the Year, Top Male Vocalist, Song of the Year, Single of the Year and Album of the Year. He was ranked among the top-fifty country music hitmakers in the 1989 book written by record research historian Joel Whitburn.
Mickey also guest-starred on numerous popular television series, including Murder She Wrote, The Fall Guy, Fantasy Island and Dukes of Hazzard, as well as featured appearances on 20/20, The Grammy Awards Show, The American Music Awards, Solid Gold, The Tonight Show and several others. He is among a select-few country singers who have achieved the honor of being recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In addition, he was a featured attraction in Las Vegas, Reno and Atlantic City, which proves how universal his music is to American audiences.
And then there was Gilley's Club. The forerunner of Hard Rock Cafe and other theme restaurants so popular today, it also helped elevate country music to new heights of popularity.
"Gilley's wasn't planned. It evolved into what it became," Mickey says. "We started out seating 750 people, but because of a local television show I had in the Houston market, the crowds began to grow, and we started adding on to the club."
Esquire magazine caught wind of the excitement being created by the Pasadena nightclub and featured it in an article called "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy." Intrigued by the piece, Paramount Pictures contracted to use Gilley's as the centerpiece of a motion picture with Saturday Night Fever star John Travolta.
"I never really believed that Paramount was going to do a film based on that article and shoot it at Gilley's," Mickey shares. "I still didn't believe it after we signed the contracts. Then one day I was in the recording studio that we had on the grounds, and the Paramount trucks started rolling in. I thought, 'Wow, they're really going to do it.'"
Opening his Branson theater in 1990, is another example of Mickey's visionary business ability. Just as he was a pioneer in the area of country dance clubs, Mickey was among the first entertainers to recognize the potential of the Ozark music Mecca. When his first Branson theater burned down in 1993 (deja vu!), Mickey rebuilt on the same spot, updating the venue and the restaurant he had opened next door in 1992. He expanded his business ventures further in 2002, by opening Gilley's Restaurant in his hometown of Pasadena, Texas.
"Branson works because it provides the best conditions for both the fans and the entertainers," Mickey notes. "The fans get to see us under the best setting possible as far as seeing a singer. The theaters have good seats, and we have set up the best stage with state-of-the-art sound and lights. We don't have to break down and set it back up day after day while we travel night after night, so everyone on stage is rested and ready to entertain. It's a quality situation for everyone."
In 2003, Varese Sarabande Records released Invitation Only. Mickey had recorded this album in 1989 and 1990. Several of the songs on the album are now featured in his show. Sony Music also put out Mickey Gilley-16 Biggest Hits on their Legacy imprint. The CD includes all 17 of Mickey's No. 1 recordings in the chronological order that they were released.
Mickey has become successful in Branson in the same way that he was successful as a recording artist: by giving his audiences what they want. His is a timeless talent keyed to the response of his fans.
Mickey's first musical influence as a boy growing up in Ferriday, La., was his piano-pounding cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis. He grew up close to Jerry Lee and another famous cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, even as he snuck up to the windows of clubs to absorb the haunting sound of Louisiana rhythm-and-blues.
Jerry Lee was the inspiration for Mickey's decision to entertain people for a living. At age 17, shortly before his cousin scored his first big hit, the youngster moved to Houston to work in construction. Mickey went to see Jerry Lee in concert in Houston and took him to the airport after the show. "He pulled out a big wad of hundred-dollar bills, and it made me decide right then that I was in the wrong business," Mickey says with a laugh. "The problem was, I was trying to be a Jerry Lee clone. Then a guy named Jim Ed Norman [now the president of Warner Bros./Nashville] came into my life. Jim Ed got me out of the shadow of Jerry Lee by giving me songs that appealed to a bigger audience. He helped me find my musical identity."
Mickey began by performing in the Houston nightclubs. He recorded his first song in Memphis for Dot Records and later performed as a singer and pianist in cities throughout the South. Eventually, his trek returned him to the Pasadena area, where he took up residence at the Nesadel Club and quickly developed into one of the city's most popular acts. He opened Gilley's in 1971, and started hitting the pop and country charts with a bang in the mid-seventies.
The entertainer continues to maintain a residence in Pasadena, Texas. His hobbies include golf, walking and flying his own airplane.
"I enjoy performing and singing as much these days as I ever have," Mickey says. "I joke that I'm semi-retired. Of course, I work just as hard as always. The thing about experience is, it helps you keep your priorities straight. I'm interested in quality now, not quantity. I make sure my business and my life are set up so I can get the most enjoyment out of the things I love. And the thing I love the most is getting on stage and performing a good show for people."
As a multiple-Billboard charting entertainer, Jody Miller brings her extraordinary lifetime of show business experience to every performance she delivers. From the “invitation only” San Remo, Italy Song Festival to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, Jody’s reputation as an energetic performer has taken her all over the world. With recording credits in genres including pop, country, folk, patriotic, and gospel music, Jody Miller’s show can be tailored to fit your particular event. As a vocal artist who is as much at home with her tenor guitar as she is with a forty piece orchestra, Grammy winning Jody brings a uniquely legendary quality to each stage she graces.
Jody Miller’s status as a trail blazing vocal artist has been affirmed by Brian Matthew, radio host of BBC2’s “Sounds of the 60’s”, who has said on air that “Jody Miller is the pioneering vocal artist who paved the way for the likes of Linda Ronstadt and Anne Murray.” Following Jody’s first Billboard hit, “He Walks Like a Man, “ Jody’s reputation as a cross-over artist was established by her Grammy winning hit “Queen of the House,” which broke on a jazz station and reached #12 on Billboard Hot 100, #5 on Hot Country, and #4 on Easy Listening. Indeed, Jody’s appreciation for all genres of music is evident in her ability to interpret meaningfully just about any type of song. British journalist Tony Byworth has written in Country Music People that Jody Miller can make any type of material “attain a certain greatness.”
With thirty Billboard charting singles to her credit, including the Grammy nominated cross-over hit “He’s So Fine,” and the CMA nominated duet hit“Let’s All Go Down to the River,” Jody Miller’s warm and engaging stage presence has made her a fan favorite through the years at various rodeos, state fairs, coliseums, and Las Vegas showrooms. As a natural entertainer whom the camera loves, some of Jody’s memorable television appearances include American Bandstand, Shindig!, Hollywood-A-Go Go, Hee Haw, Pop! Goes the Country and Nashville Now. From The Tonight Show to the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Jody Miller has proven musically that she can do it all.
After taking a break for most of the 80’s to spend more time with her family and to help her husband with his thriving quarter horse breeding and training business, Jody recorded a patriotic album which caught the attention of then-Presidential candidate George H. W. Bush, who invited her to sing at campaign stops and eventually his inaugural ball at the White House. Recently, Jody’s masterful affinity for patriotic singing was once again lauded as she dazzled fans and industry insiders alike with her moving version of the National Anthem for “A Tribute to Jean Shepard” at the Nashville Palace in November 2016.
At this point in her five decades career, Jody Miller continues to perform for enthusiastic audiences who flock to see a living legend in action. Jody’s high quality body of work is enjoying a critical re-appraisal through the monthly online radio broadcast “In the Spotlight with Jody Miller,” presented by Baltimore Net Radio for world-wide listeners. Both Universal Music Group and Sony Music have released well-received 21st century collections of Jody’s 60’s and 70’s Capitol and Epic hits, respectively. Jody is enjoying the fruits of her life and career, as she was recently honored by Governor Mary Fallin, who proclaimed July 29, 2016, as “Jody Miller Day” across Oklahoma. With an impressive record of accomplishment behind her, Jody continues to look ahead with creative projects in various stages of progress, including a single release with her family group Three Generations. Whether performing her pop and country hits and gospel favorites as a solo artist or as the leader of Three Generations, Jody Miller’s ability to weave wit and inspiration into each musical performance is certain to create a memorable experience that pleases audiences of all ages and backgrounds.