Old Joe Turner Dreamed Up the Urban Cowboy's Nemesis, El Toro—but Mickey Gilley Got All the Bucks

updated 09/15/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/1980 01:00AM

Rodeo riders swear by it. Honky-tonk cowboys (and girls) swear at it. Its creator, Joe Turner, swears he's not sure he should ever have invented El Toro, the electrical bull that has bucked its way to fame in the movie Urban Cowboy and at Western-style bars from Detroit to Sydney. Joe is no macho, two-fisted Texan but, as he puts it, "a fat old self-made, small-time, two-bit businessman."

Now 58 and living on a three-acre ranch in Corrales, N.Mex., Turner built the first of the bucking contraptions in 1974 to help rodeo pals train. Powered by two motors, the 750-pound rubber-and-metal bull spins and bucks up to 90 times a minute. (Previously bronco riders practiced on relatively poky, inauthentic oil drums, suspended from pulleys and ropes jerked by wranglers.)

After Turner put El Toro on the market, he was surprised when one ended up at Gilley's, a nightclub in Pasadena, Texas. What followed should have been an inventor's dream: An Esquire article about Gilley's bull inspired the movie, starring John Travolta. But the ensuing nightclub owners' stampede to buy the beast left Turner as much as a year behind even after he had geared up production to 20 bulls a month. After selling a herd of 600, at a top price of $2,995, Turner developed severe hypertension and sold out last year to singer-club owner Mickey Gilley and his partner, Sherwood Cryer. That was 11 months before the movie opened, and Gilley's now receives 50 calls a day for El Toro—at an inflated $7,495 per.

Turner, who grew up in New Mexico and long ran a truck-leasing business, recalls advice from his mule-skinner grandpa: "Never think back about an old girlfriend or cry over spilled milk." Still, he has had regrets. He won't say what Gilley's paid for the business ($100,000 is the rumored amount), but of his royalty deal, Turner grouses, "I get peanuts." Joe has not seen Urban Cowboy. "I felt like a poor relative at a family picnic," he recalls of the time he visited the movie set, and he was not invited to the premiere.

So Joe hopes his latest invention, Realatch—a lock for corral gates that can be opened easily with one hand and won't gouge animals—will, unlike El Toro and other earlier patents, finally enable him to retire. As for barstool cowpokes who risk limb and ego on El Toro, Turner protests, "I didn't invent the machine for that purpose. You can get hurt on those things." But he admits, "In my youth, I'd probably be right there with 'em."

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