18 August 2009

Closing Time : Gilley's Sherwood Cryer, a Honky Tonk Legend

Gilley's owner Sherwood Cryer, right, with singer Mickey Gilley, at the Pasadena club in 1980. Photo by Joel Draut / Houston Chronicle.
Former owner of iconic honky-tonk Gilley's dies

Sherwood Cryer, whose honky-tonk Gilley's created a lasting image of the Houston area as a blue-collar, redneck boomtown after it was immortalized in the movie Urban Cowboy, has died. He was 81.
Cryer's genius was most evident in the mechanical bull he invented, the bucking, spinning mechanical ride that brought lines of people into the Pasadena bar and made for Urban Cowboy's most memorable scenes -- John Travolta, Debra Winger and Scott Glenn taking turns atop it.
The bar was founded in 1971 after Cryer discovered Gilley singing at a Pasadena club where he was making so little money he could barely pay his three-member band. Cryer told Gilley, “How would you like to have a club of your own?” the singer was quoted as saying five years ago.

-- Todd Ackerman / Houston Chronicle

As Sherwood made more money, he eventually put up walls on this structure and installed air-conditioning. He later met Mickey Gilley, and the rest was history.
By Carlos Calbillo / The Rag Blog / August 18, 2009

I grew up in Pasadena, Texas. in fact, I graduated (barely) from Sam Rayburn High School. High school for me was an ordeal. The school was brand new when I arrived there in 1965, and I did not know who this school was named for and never learned anything about Sam Rayburn until much later. I read Robert Caro's incredible books on Lyndon Johnson and finally learned the real deal about Sam Rayburn, one of the greatest sons of Texas, a populist and fighter in his time, for the farmers and the common man.

Sherwood Cryer, as the story goes, opened a club out on Spencer Highway named "Sherwood's" (or possibly, "Shelly's") in the late 1950's or early 60's. It was an acre of concrete slab with no walls, just a roof.

There was a great picture in Sherwood's office at Gilley's of a young unknown singer who played there in those days, with short, short hair, clean-shaven, wearing a coat and tie, by the name of Willie Nelson. This Nelson kid was living in Nashville, having moved there to try to make it in C/W Showbiz after being a DJ in Texas for so many years. When he played Sherwood's place, he was not known very well as a performer but was beginning to show promise as a songwriter.

As Sherwood made more money, he eventually put up walls on this structure and installed air-conditioning. He later met Mickey Gilley, and the rest was history.

Gilley's patron rides the mechanical bull on Dec. 17, 1980. AP photo / ABC13.com

The word "legend" in Texas is thrown around a lot (we Texans have a lot of pride, are known throughout the planet for it, and unfortunately much of it as it turns out, is false pride and/or misplaced; some of it IS right on). Sherwood had genuinely achieved this status of "legend" way before the Urban Cowboy scene hit and took off around the world. There are many many stories about Sherwood, and many of them are fantastic.

Even before the Urban Cowboy era began, I would visit Gilley's, sometimes in the company of Roberto of Liberty Hall fame. My friend Bob Claypool, music writer at the Houston Post, would also be there a lot and we would talk about the scene, checking out the gorgeous cowgirl honeys in their tight Wranglers, swigging longnecks as we posed in our boots and ten-gallon hats, quintessential "drugstore cowboys.”

Todd Ackerman’s reference in the Houston Chronicle to Sherwood's appearance is true; you would walk into the club and see this shabby guy emptying the garbage cans, clanking around with all of those empty longneck bottles of Gilley’s Beer, and if you weren't acquainted with him, you would think, curiously, that he was the only non-Mexican janitor that worked in the place. This guy who appeared homeless, was to become one the richest men in Texas, owning clubs, mansions, boats, cars and a fleet of airplanes to fly people in to perform in his place.

One of the memorable shows (there were many) that I remember was the night I sat in the front to watch the great Ernest Tubb, who by then was an old man, touring because he had to make money somehow and only occasionally showing some of the magic that he would dredge up from within that had made HIM a Texas legend. There was of course the magic in the place that floated about whenever Willie took to the stage.

I was also there one night when the International Harvester Tour, fronted by a hillbilly-looking dude with a railroad gimme cap, showed up and he and his band tried their best to show the Gilley's crowd that they were the real item and not just novices playing at being C/W. The band's leader of course was a guy named Neil Young; now -- that was weird.

John Travolta and Debra Winger on the Gilley's dance floor. Photo is a still from Urban Cowboy.

Usually when Mickey Gilley was in town and fronting for or opening a show, he would close the night's entertainment by going up on stage and performing "Goodnight Irene,” sometimes just on his piano, without his band, with EVERYONE singing along. Mickey Gilley of course was the cousin of both rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis and evangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggert; I always wondered if Mickey knew the provenance of this incredible song written so many years ago by the great Huddie Ledbetter, yet ANOTHER Texas music legend.

I remember when Sherwood opened a club, also on Spencer Highway, for his good friend Jose Maria DeLeon Hernandez of Temple, Texas, and named the club "Little Joe's.” It only lasted a year or two but some great Tejano and Norteño music was presented there. Sherwood seemed always to have an instinct/gift for making money.

Sherwood was a first-class raconteur. If you were lucky, and I was on several occasions, you could sit in Sherwood's small office at the club during one of his breaks, or perhaps after the night's show, and he could be persuaded to tell you some stories, sometimes also offering you a beverage. I remember asking him one time about the famous Gilley's bouncers. Sherwood employed about 20 of the roughest, biggest, mean-looking Pasadena good ol' boys you would never want to run into in a dark alley. These bouncers, many off of the local oil rigs, were proficient with their fists, boots and blackjacks, and they kept order, especially in the early days before the tourists descended, and beer-fueled fights among the patrons were frequent.

I asked Sherwood to tell me about the BIGGEST fight or free-for-all he had ever witnessed in his place and he told me about the time that a teacher's (!) convention had come to Houston and on a Saturday night a busload of teachers, men and women from all parts of the country, had shown up to take in the Gilley's experience, as the club's fame was beginning to soar. They all went to sit in one of the corners of the cavernous club and they soon began to have too much fun; these teachers got liquored up and began to fight, first with each other, and then they took on the regulars.

Sherwood sent over two, then four, then eventually every bouncer and large patron he could find in an attempt to restore order, but these drunken teachers ended up beating the crap out of every bouncer and wannabee bouncer in that melee and finally Sherwood had to call in the Pasadena Police and the EMTs and shut down and evacuate the club for the night. When the Pasadena Police arrived in force with their riot helmets on and brandishing serious-looking batons and when the schoolteachers found themselves being surrounded by these officers, they reacted by attacking the cops (!) and eventually many of these rowdy educators were hauled off to jail.

He had a great story-telling style and as you visualized this scene he was describing you also took in his glee as he recalled it.

Next time you are in Austin, go by the Texas State History Museum to see the actual, real entryway and door to Gilley's club, preserved there for future generations.

We are losing more and more of the great characters of Texas that I, for one, was lucky enough to grow up with and be around, and we are all becoming the poorer for it.

[Carlos Calbillo is an independent filmmaker, writer, producer and director. He works with the Southwest Alternate Media Project in Houston, conducting filmmaking classes and seminars with youth from the inner city. He is currently in pre-production on a documentary film about emerging Latino political power in Houston.]

The Rag Blog

Only a few posts now show on a page, due to Blogger pagination changes beyond our control.

Please click on 'Older Posts' to continue reading The Rag Blog.