Billy Lee Riley (Billy Lee Riley)

Billy Lee Riley

Born in Pocahontas, Arkansas, the son of a sharecropper, Billy Lee Riley learned to play guitar from black farm workers. After four years in the Army, Riley first recorded in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1955 before being lured to Sun Studios by Sam Phillips. He recorded “Trouble Bound” for Jack Clement and Slim Wallace. Sam Phillips obtained the rights and released “Trouble Bound” b/w “Rock With Me Baby” on September 1, 1956 (Sun 245). His first hit was “Flyin’ Saucers Rock and Roll” b/w “I Want You Baby”, released February 23, 1957 (Sun 260), with backing piano by Jerry Lee Lewis, after which he recorded “Red Hot” b/w “Pearly Lee”, released September 30, 1957 (Sun 277). “Red Hot” was showing a lot of promise as a big hit record, but Sam Phillips pulled the promotion and switched it to “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis. Riley felt that his own chances of chart success were compromised when Phillips diverted resources to Lewis’ career. He had other Sun recordings and they, likewise, did not have a lot of sales as his promotion had stopped. Like other artists such as Sonny Burgess, Hayden Thompson, Ray Harris, and Warren Smith, chart success largely eluded him. Considered good looking and with wild stage moves, Billy Lee Riley had a brief solo career with his backing band the Little Green Men. Riley and his Little Green Men were the main Sun studio band. They were Riley, guitarist Roland Janes, drummer J.M. Van Eaton, Marvin Pepper, and Jimmy Wilson, later joined by Martin Willis. In 1960, he left Sun and started Rita Record label with Roland Janes. They produced the national hit record “Mountain of Love” by Harold Dorman. He later started two other labels, Nita and Mojo.

In 1962, he moved to Los Angeles and worked as a session musician with Dean Martin, the Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, and Sammy Davis Jr. among others, as well as recording under various aliases. In the early 1970s, Billy Lee Riley quit music to return to Arkansas to begin his own construction business. In 1978 “Red Hot” and “Flyin’ Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll” were covered by Robert Gordon and Link Wray, which led to a one-off performance in Memphis in 1979, the success of which led to further recording at Sun Studio and a full-time return to performing. Rediscovered by Bob Dylan in 1992, who had been a fan since 1956, Riley played rock and roll, blues, and country-blues. His album Hot Damn! (Capricorn, 1997) was nominated for a Grammy Award. He was injured falling on a slippery department store floor in 2005, requiring two surgeries as a result. In 2006, he released a country CD, Hillbilly Rockin’ Man. The Rockabilly Hall of Fame reported in summer 2009 that Riley was in poor health, battling stage four colon cancer. His last public performance came in June 2009 at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street in Memphis, when he took part in Petefest 2009, honoring historian Pete Daniel, who had befriended Riley while helping launch the Memphis Rock N’ Soul Museum. Supported by a walker, Billy Lee rocked out on “Red Hot” and other of his old hits. He succumbed to colon cancer on August 2, 2009, in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Born

  • October, 05, 1933
  • USA
  • Pocahontas, Arkansas

Died

  • August, 02, 2009
  • USA
  • Jonesboro, Arkansas

Cause of Death

  • colon cancer

Cemetery

  • Walnut Grove Cemetery
  • Newport, Arkansas
  • USA

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