BILLY LEE RILEY
Billy Lee Riley R.I.P.
One of the greatest original Sun Recordings artists, peacefully passed away on Sunday, August 2nd, 2009 at 5:20 am. His family was at his bedside.
BILLY LEE'S TRIBUTE PAGE
(By Tony Wilkinson) Posted on Billy's 69th Birthday. Oct. 5, 2002Update posted August 11, 2009
Subject: Billy lee Riley. The Bellhops, Recorded a album with Billy last year and it was released early 2009 at Rhythm Bomb Records. Billy was in The Netherlands to do a show on America Roots festival and after that show we went to the studio for five days and did the recordings for: "Still got my Mojo". Billy was very proud on his last album and he said "This is one of the best that I did" The band is very proud of it, He did a hell of a job!! Thanks and regards from Holland, Jolanda Garcia www.thebellhops.com - firstname.lastname@example.org
Comments from Rocko:
From: email@example.com - Posted August 11, 2009 - For old time's sake ... Red Hot is a song many people have heard. Not most, not at this point in time. People are born every day into a world in which the language of the music originally described as Rock'n'Roll is slipping further and further from the lexicon. And so, men like Billy Lee Riley are a dying breed. And sadly, Billy Lee himself has now died. His story and his impact are part of a verbal history which shall be forgotten, piece by piece. It's incumbent upon me to keep the narrative alive for as long as I can, which shall be for as long as I draw breath. As long as these words can find you somehow, gentle reader. But words are written constantly and time never stops, so it's all a drop in a bucket larger than any of us can comprehend.
Billy Lee recorded many songs over a career which spanned across 6 decades. He will forever be best known for a handful he recorded as a very young man. These would be Red Hot, Pearly Lee, and a novel tune called Flying Saucer Rock'n'Roll. He was a part of the famous Sun Records scene, and in fact his band was made up of the Sun session musicians, the studio men. When they played behind Billy Lee, they were called The Little Green Men. They were like a very well built gun, and Billy Lee -handsome, charismatic, and in charge of a deep voice that belied everything a white man could comprehend about The Blues- was a Silver Bullet. They could get down, and they cut a swath. Sam Phillips was the owner, proprietor, and producer of Sun Records, a label which had the most Pyrrhic victories in all of recorded record history. Sam's label couldn't handle the success it's stars would generate, and when Sam couldn't figure out how to print enough records to meet demand, bigger labels with actual A&R men and printing power behind them were a phone call away. The rising stars would get the hint and leave after they got that first hit. Billy Lee never got the hit, so he never took the hint. At least not until it was too late.
Mercurial, eccentric, and in many ways incompetent, Sam managed to accidentally start the careers of such as Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Cash, Rufus Thomas, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, most famously Elvis Presley, and, ultimately disastrously, Jerry Lee Lewis. Billy Lee's brief opportune moment existed between Elvis being sold to RCA and Sam's fervent promotion of Jerry Lee, whose self destructive behavior would soon crash the ship. Red Hot is a cool song you never forget once you've heard it, and it was a regional smash hit. So much so, in fact, that DJs north of the Mason Dixon Line sought 45s from Sam. Airplay outside of the Memphis locale would've put Billy Lee into another stratosphere. Sam was only interested in making Jerry Lee Lewis the man, and so he filled the orders for Red Hot with Great Balls of Fire instead. "Don't worry about that guy, check out this guy." Sam believed in Jerry Lee. He felt that the sound of his piano could Save Souls. Jerry Lee believed marrying his 14 year old cousin and bragging about it to the press was a good idea. Sam lost his ass when Jerry Lee's record sales plummeted, and his hit making days were behind him. Billy Lee never got the memo. He stayed at Sun, and as the 60's drew by and his voice and songwriting matured, nobody seemed to notice.
A three CD box set of Billy Lee's complete Sun Recordings came into my possession when I was 16. The set was of dubious legality, out of print by the time I got it, and I've never met anyone else who had it to my knowledge. As a kid, it was the Rock'n'Roll that moved me, and so at that time I didn't move past the first disc. Primal, simple Rockabilly at it's most Blues infused, it was a lingo I could comprehend. Besides the aforementioned 3 tracks, there was one called Trouble Bound that trumped them all. A song about desire gone awry, a woman who has done the narrator wrong, and the lethal problem with another man visible on the horizon like a coming storm. Even this one floated under the popular radar. It blipped on mine.
As time passed and life took me where it would, I started to find things out about myself when I gave those other 2 discs a shot. If Billy Lee was speaking from experience in his songs, he had a woman or girl leave him to do something she couldn't do with him in tow. He also wrote and sang about time passing you by, leaving you to die without leaving a mark. Much heavier things than Flying Saucers, and you could hear in the voice of Billy Lee Riley a conviction that is all at once heartbreaking, uplifting, powerful, and true. I hear that in these songs, and they have moved me. So in that sense, they were successful. Commercially, not at all.
Billy Lee would find some great, though limited, acclaim. There exists today a Rockabilly "Revival" scene, with newer bands and young (younger than 75, anyway) enthusiasts that have built a sort of alternate reality in which the 50's never ended. As subcultures go, it's something like the Amish in it's attention to traditionalism. It's an odd and beautiful world of which I am proud to be something of a part. Not least of all because it made a home for Billy Lee Riley, and gave me the opportunity to befriend and spend time with him. I wanted desperately for him to play songs like San Francisco Lady and Potter's Field live. The news he broke to me was that he and I were alone in that conviction. He instead played those old Rocking numbers, albeit for extremely enthusiastic crowds, of which I was lucky enough to be a part on several occasions. He had good times in his last years, I know he did. He certainly felt appreciated. Which was comforting when I got the word last weekend that he had died. I pulled out that old set again, and stabbed into it again, at a song I'd never investigated before to my memory. A song called Kay. This past week, I've listened to it at least 50 times, trying to quite figure it out. Billy Lee brought "Kay" to Memphis, where she wanted to be because she's a great singer and craves success. Which she finds, and leaves Billy Lee on the outside of it. And so, she slips away. Billy Lee's left holding the bag. And while he's sad, he is not melancholy. He's living and yet he's dying, and Memphis keeps overturning. It all strikes a chord deep within me. I wish I'd talked to him about it.
I discovered this song the day that he died on a set that I've had half my life. I still learn from him, you see. And I will talk about that for as long as I can...
Born 5th October 1933, Pocahontas, Arkansas
Riley is probably the greatest talent who recorded for Sun that failed to make the big time. A multi-talented instrumentalist, excelling especially on harmonica, he is equally at home roaring out hard driving rock 'n' roll or moaning the blues plus he is adept at rockin' tinged country. He was and remains a master showman on live appearances and this was reconfirmed during the Green Bay Rockin' Fest in July this year. Justifiably famous for the six cult classic single singles he cut for Sun, there is however far more to the talent that is Billy Lee Riley.
Born into relative poverty, he and his parents plus seven other children were constantly on the move and on occasion were living together in ex army tents. The family worked on cotton plantations where Billy gathered a musical heritage in the blues. He also became immersed in the honky tonk hillbilly coming forth from the battery-operated radio. His dad taught him how to play the harmonica and at the age of nine, he bought a Silvertone guitar from a girlfriend. Tommy Hamblin taught him basic chords.
Around 1947, he made his first public appearance on radio station WELO but in 1949, he enlisted in the US Army (one of his sisters falsifying that he was aged 18). He served two stints in the armed forces, eventually returning to civilian life circa 1953/54. Upon discharge, he became more and more involved in music and joined two bands in the Jonesboro Arkansas area, namely CD Tennyson & The Happy Valley Boys plus the KBTM Ranch Boys and also appeared regularly on three local radio stations.
He then moved to Memphis and joined his brother in law in a setting up a restaurant, which failed. From here he worked as a meat cutter and as a truck driver. He linked up with another truck driver, Slim Wallace, and joined his Dixie Ramblers group, which also included Jack Clement, Wayne McGinnis, Bob Deckleman (brother of 'Daydreaming' Bud) and Ramon Mauphin. Clement and Wallace formed the legendary Fernwood label and the first intended release, in 1956, was Billy's 'Think Before You Go' and 'Trouble Bound' which were taken to Sam Phillips for some reason. Phillips did not care for the country music of 'Think Before You Go' and so 'Rock With Me Baby' replaced it. The masters were either leased or sold to Sam and Billy found himself as a Sun recording artist when the two sides were issued as Sun 245 but bearing the original Fernwood matrix numbers. Also as a consequence, the guitarist on the session, Roland Janes became the Sun house guitarist whilst Jack Clement became an engineer at 706 Union. (Fernwood Records eventually came into existence in 1958).
Gathering around him James Van Eaton on drums and Marvin Pepper on bass as well as the aforementioned Janes, Riley and his group evolved into the Sun house band. His second release for Sun was the stunning 'Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll', a song written by Ray Scott and inspired by the then UFO near epidemic. The band were renamed as The Green Men and the outfit hit the road. One of the band's stage attire was to wear green suits made out of billiard tablecloth. Only trouble was that when the guys started to sweat during a performance, the dye ran from the cloth onto their skins and was only removed with difficulty.
The follow up release was Billy's classic version of Billy Emerson's 'Red Hot', eclipsing the original, coupled with 'Pearly Lee'. This record was starting to take off when Phillips released Jerry Lee's 'Great Balls Of Fire' and put all his efforts behind this disc and effectively pulled 'Red Hot'. Riley found out, got drunk and set about wrecking the studio but silver-tongued Sam calmed him down with the promise that he would make him the next big Sun star. The next record 'Wouldn't You Know/Baby Please Don't Go' (Sun 289) sold around 3,200 copies in the first four months of release in 1958 with the result that Riley left Sun Records for a one off deal with Brunswick and the Owen Bradley produced 'Rockin' On The Moon/Is That All To The Ball Mr. Hall'.
Billy was then offered a recording contract by Dick Clark with Swan Records and was also approached by Steve Sholes with a view to joining RCA. Riley did neither but returned to Sam Phillips and Sun Records. This saw two more releases 'Down By The Riverside/No Name Girl' (Sun 313) and 'Come Back Baby (One More Time)/Got The Water Boiling (Sun 322) but neither sold in significant quantity.
There were actually another two releases by Billy for Phillips during this tenure with Sun. The first was the rockin' pair of instrumentals in 1958 'Itchy/Thunderbird issued on Sun 304 but only credited to Sonny Burgess with the second being 'Yulesville USA/Rockin' Old Lang Syne' under the name of The Rockin' Stockings (originally issued in 1960 on Billy's own Mojo Records).
On leaving Sun, Riley and Roland Janes established Rita Records but Riley sold out his share just as the label's 'Mountain Of Love' by Harold Dorman started to break out big. However this was not before Riley released 'Dark Muddy Bottom/Repossession Blues' as Lightnin' Leon (and which gained cult status as an authentic blues record with bluesologists). He also released 'That's What I Want/Too Much Woman For Me' on the label although there are stories that this was originally cut for Jack Clement's Summer Records). But before this, 1959 saw the release of the Riley & Janes as The Spitfires with 'Fireball Mail/Catfish' on the Top Rank subsidiary label Jaro (#77004).
After Rita Records , Riley established Nita Records followed by Mojo Records and for the latter in 1960, he released 'Fast Livin'/Hill Country Music' under the name of Skip Wiley. May 1961 saw his versions of 'Teenage Letter/Flip Flop and Fly' on Home Of The Blues (#233) but Billy is adamant that he cut these sides earlier. Later that year, he and his band (Pat O'Neil on bass, James Van Eaton on drums, Jimmy Wilson on organ and Martin Willis on sax) went to the Pepper Sound Studio in Memphis and recorded the instrumentals 'Shimmy Shimmy Walk Parts 1 and 2" which were released under the name of The Megatons on the Dodge label (#808) out of Ferriday, Louisiana. This disc was subsequently issued on Checker 1005 and made position #88 on the Billboard charts in January 1962.
The band returned to the Pepper Studio in March 1962 and laid down a further ten sides. These were leased or sold to the Chess brothers who erased Riley's harmonica and added Bo Diddley on guitar and released the tracks (with new titles) in 1963 as Bo's 'Surfin' With' album on Checker LP-2987. The band subsequently recorded a further ten titles at the Ter-Mer studio in Chicago but these remain unreleased. Riley had earlier cut two of these sides, 'Everybody's Twisting/I've Been Searching' and these were issued on the Myrl label, sister to the aforementioned Dodge Records, under the name of Darron Lee in 1961.
Sometime around 1962/1963, Riley went over to the west coast of America and established himself as an in demand session player and was featured on recordings by such as The Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, Dean Martin, John Prine and Wilson Pickett. He also signed to the Mercury, GNP Crescendo and Crown labels with a few album releases, some of which were similar to the Johnny Rivers 'Live at The Whisky A Go-Go' style. Others were harmonica led instrumental sets. He also released a single on the Era label under the name of Sandy & The Sandstorms which has Riley playing every instrument apart from the drums plus has an obscure single on the Denver based Enterprise Records (#2142) in 1963 with 'Nightmare Mash'
Circa 1966, Billy relocated back south and reactivated his Mojo label. He released a few singles and an LP plus was featured in the dreadful B-movie 'Speed Lovers'. Also in the sixties, he recorded for Atlantic and Hip Records. Contrary to some sources, records by Bill and Will plus Prince Albert are not by Billy under another name.
When Shelby Singleton reactivated the Sun label in 1969, one of the first artists signed was Riley and he had two singles issued, the excellent 'Kay/Lookin' For My Baby (Sun 1100) and 'Pilot Town Louisiana/Working On The River' (Sun 1105). The closest to a chart breakthrough that Riley had came about in 1971 with his original version of 'A Thing About You Baby' on the Entrance label produced by Chips Moman. The disc was starting to build nicely when a certain Elvis Presley rush released his version and killed Riley's record dead in the water.
For a while thereafter, Billy gave up the music business and made a living as a house decorator but come 1978, he returned to the studios and made a couple of singles which were issued on his Mojo label. He also returned to playing live shows and came across the Big Pond to England. This is where I made his acquaintance, a friendship I am glad to say continues to this day.
Since then, he has issued quite a few albums, including three very good blues sets, and is still stomping the boards. Thankfully he is showing no signs of slowing down and has just released a CD of recordings made recently at the Sun Studio. Catch a Billy Lee Riley stage show if you can, they are generally magic.
Bear Family BCD 15444 'Billy Riley Classic Recordings, 1956 - 1960' (2xCD set) (1990)
(Charly) CD Sun Box 3 'Rockin' With Riley' (3xCD set) (1992)
Hightone HCD 8040 'Blue Collar Blues' (1992)
Star Club CD1995-2 'Everybody Let's Rock' (1995) contains much otherwise not available material)
Icehouse ICD 9413 'Rockin' Fifties' (1995)
Capricorn 314 534 785-2 'Hot Damn!' (1997)
Icehouse IHR 9434 'Shade Tree Blues' (1999)
Sun Up SR-3391 'One More Time' (2002)
In addition to the foregoing, there have been at least three single CD compilations of Billy's Sun material issued by Charly and/or AVI Records. Sadly, none of his Mercury or GNP Crescendo recordings have been re-issued on CD.
Finally, there is the various artists 'Tribute To The Legendary Billy Lee Riley' CD on BSC Records BSC 95-007 which was issued in 1995 and contains one otherwise unavailable track by Billy ('All My Rockin' Friends')
"What's New" - Update: May 2000Billy Lee Riley Joins Ark. Walk
(Courtesy The Sentinel-Record) Thanks to Steve Lester
The Arkansas Walk of Fame welcomed its newest member to the elite club Saturday, March 18, 2000 - the man known as the "father of rockabilly." Billy Lee Riley of Newport, one of the original members of the Sun Records Studio package from 1955 to 1960, was welcomed into the Walk during a ceremonies at The Bath House Show and Hill Wheatley Plaza. Riley, his wife, Joyce, and daughter, Angela, were on hand for the ceremony, which recognized his accomplishments as one of the originators of the rock and roll genre.
"This is one of the greatest honors ever bestowed upon me," Riley said. "This is something hard to explain how it makes you feel." Riley and his band, the Little Green Men, were an integral part of the Memphis sound Sun Records produced during the 1950's and 60's. Other artists in that Memphis group included Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, who was the original piano player for Riley's band. Another band mate, Joe Parker, attended the ceremony to wish the best to his good friend.
"I can't wish him any better," Parker said. "There's nothing more to say. "He's like a brother to me." Riley received letters congratulating him on his induction from the Sun Entertainment Corp., the Smithsonian Institute, Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records and rock legend Bob Dylan, who calls Riley his idol. Hot Springs mayor Bob Mathis also read a proclamation naming Saturday as Arkansas Walk of Fame Day for Riley.
Following the ceremony and the unveiling of his plaque on the Walk, Riley entertained the crowd by playing four of his songs and signing autographs. He thanked everyone for coming out and being a part of the ceremony. "Thank you all very much," Riley said. "I will try my best to live up t o what you expect of me."
Above photos: Keith Merckx - Little Rock, AR
COMMENTS from RaB HoF staff reporter Steve Lester - LESTERSD@aol.com -
I just wanted to report that the induction of Billy Lee Riley into the Arkansas Walk of Fame was a smashing success. In spite of off and on rain showers, spirits were high in Hot Springs. Billy was joined on stage by his wife Joyce and daughter Angela to accept the honor. I had the privilege as nominator to say a few words about how and why the nomination came about. Billy's old bass player, Joe Parker, from the Whiskey A Go-Go days then gave an inspired talk about the old days and wished his friend the best. Then various members of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce read letters from Sam Phillips, the Smithsonian Institute and Bob Dylan praising Billy as a pioneer, an influence, a great artist and a proud Arkansan. The mayor then presented a plaque to Billy and proclaimed it Billy Lee Riley day in Hot Springs. Billy said that "this is one of the greatest honors ever bestowed upon me." After this the crowd walked across the street for the unveiling of Billy's marker amongst all the other famous Arkansans in the sidewalk of the Walk of Fame. The crowd then regrouped in Tom Wilkins' "Bath House Theatre" for a fantastic acoustic blues set from Billy followed by an autograph session. "Farthest traveled" honors go to Mr. Mark R. Deaver of Los Angeles who made the trek from the West coast to meet Billy and observe the ceremony after reading about it on the Internet's Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Latest Billy Lee Riley CD
Billy Lee - Initial release is a limited pressing, autographed collectible, available by the end of the month. The disc is titled "Shade Tree Blues" and is on his own Sun-Up record label. This is a blues disc in a similar vein to "Hot Damn!", his last CD. The first 1,000 copies were special collectors editions. .
BIOBILLY LEE RILEY ... He was part of the legendary Sun Studio package between 1955 and 1960, along with a few other new artists by the names of Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, and Jerry Lee Lewis. His Sun recordings, "Red Hot" and Flyin' Saucers Rock 'n' Roll have become classics, and remain benchmarks of wildcat rockabilly today. His band, The Little Green Men (which included Jerry Lee Lewis in 1956) played backup for nearly every rockabilly side recorded at Sun.
He had no way of knowing it at the time, but 22-year-old Billy Lee Riley was playing a major role in the historical change that was taking place in the American music coming out of Memphis in the fifties. The man was in fact one of the original pioneers of rock 'n' roll. Even Bob Dylan has publicly proclaimed him to be his idol.
When the folk legend tracked Riley down in 1992 in Newport, Arkansas, and asked him to open a show for him in Little Rock, Arkansas, he introduced Riley onstage as "my hero," then stood alongside him - not singing, but smiling broadly - something Dylan is not known to do often in public. It was written in the local paper back then that Dylan had been trying to get in touch with Riley for years.
"Bob said I was his favorite singer and he had been looking for me since 1985 - he'd even been to my old house in Murfreesboro, Tennessee looking for me," says Riley. "He said he's always admired two of my songs, Trouble Bound and One More Time. He knew more about me than I did - he reminded me that I had recorded "Like A Rolling Stone" on guitar and harmonica on an instrumental album for Mercury Records in 1965. He even knew I cut a song under another name, Sweet William."
Dylan was quoted as saying after Riley's energetic performance (he asked Riley to open two more shows for him in Nashville the following year) that he was "a hard act to follow." In the early years, Billy Lee Riley was an act who was in demand on the road because of his "fire-eyed, hell-raising" rockabilly style. It was written in one review that "when Billy Lee hit the stage the crowds went wild, the girls screamed, and critics noticed."
Though he's been inducted into the Smithsonian Institution as one of the pioneers of rock 'n' roll, and is being considered for the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame, 63-year-old Billy Lee Riley has spent his 42-year career in virtual obscurity.
He's tasted success as a producer and one of the best session musicians around during the 60's (Riley is a soulful wiz on the harmonica and his lead guitar is featured on Herb Alpert's "Lonely Bull), has been frustrated time and again as label politics and misunderstandings have thwarted a golden opportunity to break through. But he never gave up. And even today when he looks back over his star-crossed career that has taken hm from Memphis to California to Florida to Georgia to Europe and finally back to his roots in Arkansas where he resides today, Billy Lee Riley refuses to blame it on bad luck.
"It's just being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people," he says. "I've come real close to some hits, but I've never been able to break through. I've always done a lot of different kinds of music, but nothing seems to work."
What has worked for Billy Lee Riley ever since he can remember is the blues. It's where it all began for him, as a 6-year-old boy, when he was hanging around the juke joints on the black side of town in Osceola, Arkansas, playing the harmonica and singing the blues. And it's where it has all come together for him today with the release of his first blues album for Capricorn Records, "Hot Damn"!
The album found Riley coming full circle in his career, back to the legendary Sun Studio to record the project. The album features 16 echo-dripped, harp-blown songs that range from gutbucket shuffle to the delta blues so languid, so thick and sultry, it wraps around you like a hot, magnolia-scented southern night. Seven cuts were written by Riley, who was likened by one critic to "an old hep cat finding solace in a timeless sound."
As a young boy, Billy was fascinated by the black man's music, and on many a Saturday afternoon, when his parents took him into town, he and his parents took him into town, he and his black friend Josh would slip away and head for the part of town that the white folks referred to as "black town." Riley vividly recalls walking along the crowded sidewalks of "blacktown" with his friend as a young boy, listening to the thick, muddy sounds of the delta blues blasting from the juke boxes, or some live band crammed in the corner of one of the beer joints that accounted for most of the businesses operating there.
Sometimes the local cops would drive by on patrol and spot me on the street and pick me up and drive me back to the other side of town. But as soon as I was out of the patrol car, I was back looking for Josh in "black town," he says with a warm, lusty chuckle that rumbles deep in his throat.
When Billy was 13, his family moved to a plantation in St. Francis County, Arkansas. There were four white families and 36 black families living on this farm, and every black family had members that were "damn good" musicians. Billy Lee Riley had found heaven. Two boys, the Williams brothers - Ray and Abraham - became good friends of young Riley's and taught him everything he needed to know about the delta blues. Riley remembers being moved by the way Ray played the harp, awed by the sounds Abraham could make playing the slide guitar with the broken neck of an RC Cola bottle. And he wondered if he would ever be able to play the used Sears Silvertone guitar his father had bought him as well.
"Man, I couldn't play a note!" Riley laughs. "Learning how to create music that didn't make my family stuff cotton they picked in their ears was a challenge! I'd make all these crazy noises and my mother would run me out of the house and tell me to get out in the yard if I was gonna keep up that racket!" But in the yard Billy's noise soon became nirvana as he learned to play the blues with the Williams brothers, and other musicians who lived on the plantation, like Tommy Hamblin, who taught him his first guitar note, and Willie "Snooks" Bradshaw, who was a great guitar player and a wiz at snooker pool. "Before long I was playing blues like the rest of 'em," remembers Riley. "Not in night clubs and honky tonks, but on the front porch and under shade trees."
Though The Williams Brothers and Tommy Hamblin and Willie "Snooks" Bradshaw were some of the best blues musicians and singers around at that time, Riley recalls one old man who sharecropped a few acres on that old chunk of land that was "the best there was." "When old Jericho Lightnin' Leon Carter would commence to play that old beat up guitar and his harmonica, we would all just stop playing for a while and listen while old Lightnin' gave us a lesson in the art of the delta blues," Riley remembers.
"He got the name Lightnin' after he was struck by lightning when he was plowing the fields when he was a young boy. He almost died, and the doctor told his parents that their boy was lucky to be alive. But Lightnin' would tell us that luck ain't had nothin' to do with it," Riley continues in his husky, southern-fried drawl. "He'd say, da' Lawd just had mercy on ol' Lightnin' and sent him one of his miracles. He knowed I would be needed 'round here so's I could learn all you boys about the blues." Whether luck or miracle, Riley says today, "I will always be thankful that old Lightnin' hung around long enough for me to meet him and have him for my friend. Every time I sing a blues tune, I try to put just a smidgen of old Lightnin' Leon in it."
In 1948 Riley's family moved to Tupelo, Mississippi and Billy began to travel with a street preacher at the age of 14, singing gospel songs. "You can bet your life, when I sang them gospel songs standing on that street in some rural Mississippi town square, there was that little smidgen of Lightnin' in them" says Riley. It was just a few months later when his brother came back to Tupelo after a visit to the plantation that Billy learned that his old friend and mentor, Lightnin' Leon Carter had died of pneumonia in February 1948. "They buried him with his guitar and harmonica," Riley says solemnly, "because his family felt he just might be needing them later on."
In March 1949 Billy Lee joined the Army. (He was only 15 and didn't have a birth certificate, so he conned his sister into signing papers stating that he was 17.) During his four years of active duty Riley won three first place talent show awards from the Army service club. After his honorable discharge from service, he went back home to live with his family in Jonesboro, Arkansas where he immediately put together a hillbilly band, and began playing local high school dances, radio broadcasts and night clubs.
In 1955 Riley married and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. And on Christmas morning of that year he met Jack Clement, the man who would change his life. "My wife and I were visiting our families for the holiday and I was leaving Jonesboro to visit my parents in Nettleton when I saw these two fellas hitchhiking," Riley recalls. "I picked them up and found out that one of them was Jack Clements, who was a well-known name in Nashville the past 35 years. He'd just spent the night in jail the night before for public drunkedness in a dry county after he and his friend, Slim Wallace, had played a club there." After learning that Riley was a singer, the two invited him to sing in their band and play a club that Slim owned.
When they arrived in Memphis, the two hitchhikers showed Riley the studio they were building in Slim's garage. It was to be called Fernwood Studios, and it would later include Scotty Moore of Elvis fame. They asked Riley to be their first artist, and in March 1956 he cut his first song, "Trouble Bound", a bluesy tune along the lines of Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel". The other side, more of a country song, was called "Think Before You Go". After recording them, Clements took the tape to Sam Phillip's Sun Studio to have an acetate master made.
"Sam was the only one in Memphis with a lathe for mastering a record," Riley recalls. "When he cut "Trouble Bound" Sam told Jack, now here's a record. This is what the kids want - rockabilly. They're looking for that Elvis thing and this record has it." Before leaving the studio, Clements made a deal with Phillips to release the record on the Sun label with the understanding that Billy Lee would cut another rockabilly song for the other side. "Jack asked me if I had another song that was more rockabilly, and I told him no, but I could write one," remembers Riley. "So I wrote "Rock With Me Baby" and we went to a radio station and recorded it."
The tape was given to Phillips who then signed Billy Lee to a recording contract and gave Jack Clements a production deal. Riley recorded for the Sun label from 1956 until 1960, recording several sides during that period, but there were only six releases, including his first release, "Trouble Bound/Rock With Me Baby," and the "Flyin' Saucers Rock 'n' Roll" and "Red Hot." Before he recorded Flyin' Saucers Rock 'n' Roll, Riley recalls walking into the studio one morning and being bowled over by a young fella who was playing the piano like he'd never heard a piano played before. The young man's name was Jerry Lee Lewis.
"I asked him if he was working with anyone and when he told me that he wasn't I asked him if he would like to work with the band I had, playing a few shows," Riley remembers. "He said he would so I hired him. Later I told him to work with my band." According to Riley, Phillips was unimpressed and told him a piano player would never work in a rockabilly band, that all he needed were guitars, drums and a bass. "My session was coming up, and I told him that I intended to use Jerry in it," Riley continues. "Sam grumbled and disagreed with me but come session time, Jerry was on board. Sam wouldn't let him take no solos, he just wanted him to play what he termed "pumping rhythm." That's where his pumping piano style got its name."
It was Jerry Lee's rumbling piano that is heard in both "Red Hot" and "Flyin' Saucers Rock 'n' Roll". And it wasn't long before Sam Phillips was entranced by Jerry Lee. Sun Records had just sold Elvis to RCA Victor, and according to Riley, "Sam was looking for the next Elvis, and he thought he had him in J erry Lee."
At that time, Billy Lee's record "Red Hot" was breaking - and so was Jerry lee's "Great Balls of Fire". "I called the deejay, Alan Freed, at WINS in New York, and he said, Man, you got a smash hit record!" Riley recalls, his voice thickening with remembered emotion. But when Billy Lee Riley walked into the studio one morning to find three telegrams lying open on Sam Phillip's desk (one from Detroit, one from Chicago, and one from New York) with 10,000 orders for "Red Hot" on each one, it wasn't the thrill of victory he tasted, but a devastatingly bitter dose of reality. It wasn't in Sam Phillip's plans to push his record when he had Jerry Lee to promote.
"When Sam walked in he picked up the phone and called all those distributors and told them he's sending "Great Balls Of Fire" instead of "Red Hot," Riley recalls, his graveled voice hardening at the bitter memory. "I got in my '57 red and white Chevrolet Bel-Aire and I drove. I stopped and got a Texas fifth - almost a half gallon - and started drinking. I got really plastered, and went back to the studio. I turned over file cabinets, I kicked a hole in the bass and poured some whiskey in the piano and all down in the Ampex. They sent for Sam and he took me back in his little office and spent the night charming me over a fifth of VAT 69. He said he did that because he had greater plans for me after they got "Great Balls of Fire" out of the way. Sam could convince me of anything."
Riley eventually left Sun Records in 1960 - bitterly dissillusioned but fiercely determined - with one of his band members, Roland Janes. Together they formed the Rita Records label and produced the 1960 million-selling hit, "Mountain of Love" by Harold Dorman. After selling his part of the label, Riley formed the Mojo label and produced the blues classic, "You Don't Love Me," by Willie Cobb. In 1961, Riley moved to Los Angeles where he worked as a record producer, session musician and night club performer for the next several years. As a session musician, Riley played alongside The Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, Glen Campbell, James Burton, Leon Russell, Hal Blaine and Barney Kessel. He was featured harmonica soloist on records with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Rick Nelson, and Johnny Rivers.
During this time, Riley also worked onstage with Eddie Fisher, Pearl Baily, Dean Martin, Janet Leigh and Natalie Wood, and alternated with Johnny Rivers performing at the grand openings of Whiskey A Go Go clubs across the country. In 1966, Riley moved to Atlanta and revived his Mojo label, releasing one album and a single that was picked up by the Stax label in Memphis. He moved back to Memphis where he worked as an artist/producer with the Stax label, and in 1968 he recorded an R & B version of the Wesley Ryles' country song, "Kay" which he played for his old boss, Sam Phillips.
"Sam suggested I play it for Shelby Singleton who had just bought all the old Sun masters and had formed the Sun International label," says Riley. "Shelby bought the record and gave me a job as producer and moved me to Fort Walton Beach, Florida to produce in his studio there." After a year, Riley was back in Atlanta, and in 1971 recorded a session for Chips Moman in memphis for his Entrance label which was distributed by Columbia Records. And once again, Billy Lee Riley tasted the bitterness of being in the wrong place with the wrong people at the wrong time in his career.
"My record, "I got A Thing For You Baby" was ready to break nationally when Columbia and Chips had a misunderstanding and my record was pulled from their distributors, so I lost another hit." Riley followed Chips to Nashville in hopes to record again, but the deal fell apart, as had his second marriage by that time, and he went back home to Arkansas. After remarrying in 1975, Riley found himself "sort of retired from music for a while" until he did the Memphis in May Beale Street Blues Festival in 1979 and "got the bug again."
Since that time, Riley has been touring Europe, where his revved-up 50's rock 'n' roll and hot delta blues has been drawing wildly enthusiastic crowds in England, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Belgium and France, and has made him a much-sought-after headline act for the past two decades. Married the past 22 years, the father of four grown children, and settled in Newport, Arkansas, Billy Lee Riley has come full circle in life - back to where it all began for a 6-year-old little boy who hung around the juke joints on the black side of town, singing the blues.
"This is the blues as I remember it played on the porches of the black plantation workers when I was a kid," Riley says in the liner notes of "Hot Damn"!, which he recorded live with just his harmonica and an overdubbed electric guitar. "It's not produced blues - it is raw, simple and honest blues, just the way it was done back then."
He was one of the pioneers of the music we call rock 'n' roll. Today Billy Lee Riley is even more proud of the role he's playing, in the kind of delta blues he's reviving. He's gone back to his roots that lie deeply buried in the thick Mississippi mud, to the tree-shaded front porch of an old black sharecropper's shanty. He's done ol' Lightnin' proud. Billy Lee Riley is in the right place at the right time at last.
"HOT DAMN!" - Billy Lee Riley's Great Bluesy CD.; Capricorn Records
01 Fine Little Mama
02 Winter Time Blues
03 I'm Him
04 It Never Rains Til It Rains On You
05 Nothin' But The Devil
06 I'm Gonna Quit You Pretty Baby
07 Rock Me Baby
08 Take Me Back Baby
09 Rainy Night In Georgia
10 Too Close Blues
11 Rainin' In My Heart
12 Cause You Got A Little Money
13 Blues For My Baby
14 How Come We All Ain't Got The Same
15 You Gonna Miss Me
16 Time Ain't On My Side
Joyce (Mrs. Billy Lee) Riley