Country singer Johnny Lee was on a break at Gilley’s, a club in Pasadena, Texas, back in 1979, when a man approached him with his business card. Would Lee be interested in singing in a movie, the man asked. Accustomed to being courted by would-be “managers” and “I’m-going-to-make-you-a-star” hustlers, Lee humored the man.
“I said, ’Sure, whatever,'” Lee, 54, recalls of his meeting with music impresario and Urban Cowboy producer Irving Azoff.
“You have to understand, people were coming in all the time promising this, saying that,” he remembers. “I thought [Azoff] was just somebody else feeding me a line of [baloney]. I went on drinking my beer. When it actually happened, it freaked me out.”
Although Lee had registered in the lower reaches of the country charts with songs such as “Sometimes” and “Country Party,” when Azoff approached him he was working seven nights a week at Gilley’s, looking not for love, but for the success that so far had eluded him.
“I had made quite a few records and was striving to become someone who got to travel around and have everyone get to know my music,” Lee recalls. “When Urban Cowboy came along, my thoughts were, ’If this is a success, this is really going to slingshot my career into being something successful, and if it isn’t, it’s going to shoot me backwards and knock down everything I’d been working for.’ I didn’t know which way it was going to go, but I thought it was a pretty big deal with John Travolta in it.”
Lee was right. Set at Gilley’s and starring Travolta and Debra Winger, Urban Cowboy inspired a brief, nationwide love affair with western wear, two-stepping and mechanical bulls. It also catapulted Lee to the stardom he had been pursuing.
In a programming first, CMT will air Urban Cowboy Saturday (Feb. 3) at 8 p.m. and Sunday (Feb. 4) at 2 p.m. (repeats Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 21 at 5:30 p.m., all times Eastern). CMT is broadening the scope of its offerings to include country-themed movies.
Speaking from his home in Branson, Mo., Lee has fond memories of Urban Cowboy, and he feels grateful for the career break it provided. After appearing in the film and scoring a No. 1 country hit and a No. 5 pop hit with the theme song, “Lookin’ for Love,” he enjoyed a string of chart successes including “One in a Million,” “Bet Your Heart on Me” and “You Could’ve Heard a Heart Break.”
“When we went to the premiere, with ’Lookin’ for Love’ playing so many times, I just floated out of there,” Lee recalls. “I was very happy and proud. It seemed like it changed my life almost overnight. I had been singing that song at Gilley’s before the movie, and it had been on the radio some, but once it came out in the movie, my dreams were fulfilled. I not only got to travel around the country, but just about the whole world. It was pretty overwhelming sometimes.”
Like the disco craze fueled by another Travolta movie, Saturday Night Fever, the passion for cowboy culture burned hot for a while in the early ’80s before popular taste moved on to other things.
“That movie broadened the audience that listened to country music,” Lee asserts. “A lot of people started listening to country music and going to country dance halls that never did before. It gave country music a shot in the arm. It was a fun time, and it absolutely was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.”
In the years since, Lee has maintained some of the momentum created by his career-boosting movie appearance. He hits the concert trail annually, and he records occasionally. He just finished a duet album with Lane Brody, his partner on “The Yellow Rose,” a No. 1 hit in 1984. Live at Gilley’s: Johnny Lee came out in 1999, and this year will bring another album, Johnny Lee Live at Billy Bob’s. Lee hopes to land a permanent gig at a Branson theater since working in one place would allow him to be a more “hands-on” single dad to his 10-year-old son.
While country has certainly been Lee’s primary calling, he also is making plans to return to his roots in rock ’n’ roll.
“I want to start doing more of a ’50s sound in my show, the stuff I grew up on and love,” he says. “Lots of other people like it, too, but they just don’t get to hear it.”
“One of my idols has always been Ricky Nelson,” he explains, “but I’ve also been listening to some Tommy Edwards stuff, Fats Domino, Little Richard, all the doo-wop groups. If I ever get the opportunity to record any of that, I’ll do it in a heartbeat. If I don’t, I’ll still have a blast doing it on stage. How could you not enjoy that?”