By the Way

Why this Urban Cowboy song is Gulfport’s greatest contribution to pop culture

Johnny Lee
Johnny Lee David Bailey

One of Gulfport’s biggest contributions to pop culture almost didn’t happen.

“Looking for Love,” which was written by Wanda Mallette of Gulfport and Patti Ryan of Long Beach, both of whom were teachers in the Gulfport School District, along with Bob Morrison of Nashville, was passed over by 20 or so singers before it finally found a home.

But when it caught the attention of Texas singer Johnny Lee, the “little song by two elementary school teachers from Gulfport, Mississippi,” as Lee once called it, became one of the biggest songs of the early 1980s.

And 36 years later, it has become a classic.

In an interview with the Sun Herald, Lee said he had already recorded “Cherokee Fiddle” for the soundtrack to the film “Urban Cowboy” when the film’s producer, Irving Azoff, who also managed the Eagles, approached Lee about recording another song for the film.

“He was a big time music mogul and he liked my voice and he said he needed a couple of more songs for the film,” Lee said. “The movie’s music coordinator took me to a hotel room that was just stacked full of cassette tapes in cardboard boxes of material people had submitted.”

Looking for the perfect song

Lee said he was “overwhelmed’ by the amount of material in the room, but, fortunately, “Looking for Love” was among the first songs he found.

“I pulled out this little cassette and put it on and it was ‘Looking for Love,’ and for whatever reason, that song just grabbed me,” he said. “I said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I didn’t write this song myself.’”

After changing the arrangement of the song, which includes opening the song with major 7th chord, Lee recorded the song in a studio in Los Angeles with Linda Ronstadt's producer John Boylan behind the board.

A huge hit

“Looking for Love” was released in June 1980. It made Lee a star and it stayed on the charts for 37 weeks, peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles and at No. 5 on the pop charts.

“Later on, I found out that it was written by Wanda Mallette and Patti Ryan who taught second grade in Gulfport,” Lee said. “They had never had a record recorded in their lives.”

Lee said he was initially caught off guard by the song’s success.

“I thought the big song was going to be Mickey Gilley’s ‘Stand By Me,’ but for whatever reason, everybody felt like I did when they heard the song and they fell in love with it.”

Urban Cowboy

But it was at the film’s premiere in Houston that Lee said he knew the song was going to be a hit.

“They played it at the beginning of the movie and at the spotlight dance and then they played it at the end of the movie,” he said. “Then John Travolta said that was his favorite song and they played it some more — man, I just thought, ‘Wow.’ I knew it had potential to be a hit but nothing like what it was.”

After he recorded the song, Lee said he met Mallette and Ryan at an awards show.

“I became good friends with them,” he said. “That song made them a lot of money.”

The greatest parody

“Looking For Love” was so popular that it was even parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”

Eddie Murphy’s version of an adult Buckwheat from the “Little Rascals” sang “Wookin’ Pa Nub,” his version of Lee’s song in the skit “Buckwheat’s Greatest Hits.”

“I was actually on tour in New York the night that happened,” Lee said. “I thought it was hilarious — people still talk to me about ‘Wookin’ Pa Nub.’”

Johnny Lee’s new album “You Ain’t Never Been to Texas” was released in June.