Sunday, August 2, 2009

R.I.P. The Great Billy Lee Riley, Sun Records Pioneer

Billy Lee Riley ...
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. Funeral arrangements are pending. Billy, 75, had his share of health problems and medical bills. Please consider sending something to his wife, Joyce, to show Billy Lee's family that he meant a lot to us.
Checks or money orders can be made payable to:
Joyce Riley
723 Crest Drive
Jonesboro, Arkansas 72401
Or Donate via PayPal here:

BILLY LEE RILEY MEMORIAL BENEFIT SHOW: Sunday, August 30th. Newport, Arkansas at the Silver Moon Club, located on 167 Highway, North of the Rock and Roll Highway. The show will start at 1 pm. Scheduled to appear: Sonny Burgess and the Pacers, WS Holland and his band, Travis Wammack, Carl Mann, Smoochy Smith, Ace Cannon and his band, Jr Rogers, Warren Crow, JM VanEaton, Dale Hawkins, CW Gattin, Teddy Reidel, Jeannie and the Guys, Matt - Jim & Tim the Blues Bros. Band, Teddy Hill, Larry Donn - Contact:
BILLY LEE RILEY Newport, AR. Depot Days 2008. (photo courtesy Mike Chojnacki -

Good Ole Country Music, Hillbilly, Western Swing, Rockabilly, Rock'n Roll, Blues...


BILLY LEE RILEY ... 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. Funeral arrangements are pending. Billy had his share of health problems and medical bills. Please consider sending something to his wife, Joyce, to show Billy Lee's family that he meant a lot to us.
Checks or money orders can be made payable to:
Joyce Riley
723 Crest Drive
Jonesboro, Arkansas 72401

F-10 - Trouble Bound
F-11 - Rock With Me Baby

Vinyl rip. Disc scans:
Publié par Uncle Gil à l'adresse 21:37
Taken from the album 'Live at the Star club' in Hamburg .
From: Gentleman John Battles

Farewell , Billy Lee Riley.
Aug 2, 2009 1:52 PM

BILLY LEE RILEY , Most (Ruggedly) Handsome Man in Rock'n'Roll , True Sun Rockabilly legend , conqueror of all American music styles , great singer and performer , and all around super nice guy , just moved to a better place ,that'sall.

I just got the word , as some of you have , that the legendary Rockabilly/​R'​n'​B/​Blues / Country , you name it , he did it , artist , Billy Lee Riley has left behind a latter day period of intense suffering and grave hardships , but , of course , leaving behind people who loved him dearly.

In leaving this world , you could say we've lost , you could say he lost , but , it's not so. It is Cancer itself that has just been shot full of holes , set on fire , and given no place to go. Not even a swine. Billy Lee's departure is his victory. We may not live to see Cancer banished from this Earth forever , but , if it has to be that way , please tell your children , those of you who have them , that the day will come , most likely in their lifetime. But , what we need to do , now , is talk about life. It goes without saying that Billy Lee had a voice that could have sent instructions to planes and boats in danger from 100 miles away.
It also goes without saying that he never turned his back on The Rock , even in The 60's when , like most people who were even still in the game , he experimented with many different styles. His alternate (You might say...) career in Blues won him the patronage of no less a fan than Bob Dylan , but , his big call to arms came from England , where The Rockers , Teds , and newly emerging Rockabilly Rebels called for his return to the stage in the late 70's. Eventually ,The U.S. did the same , and by the 90's , he was rockin' the clubs and festivals right here at home. I think Billy Lee was most concerned about playing for people that just wanted to hear some good music , and where they were from was inconsequential​.​ I had the pleasure of seeing Billy Lee perform several times ,and he never disappointed , he poured his soul into every song , and , if any of if got away , he picked it up and laid it out all over the next song. I was also fortunate enough to meet Billy Lee a few times , and he was always a no - nonsense , down to earth , individual who seemed to really love his work and the people that came to bear witness to it.

But , Billy's soul is everywhere , now , with you , with me , with everything.

Happy Ascension Day , Billy , We Love You. John Battles , Chicago.
Red Hot (LIVE in 1980)
From: Memphis Commercial Appeal

Sun Records' 'lost giant' Billy Lee Riley dies at 75

By Bob Mehr (Contact), Memphis Commercial Appeal
Originally published 03:46 p.m., August 2, 2009
Updated 03:46 p.m., August 2, 2009

The sky grew dimmer today, as another great ray of light from the Sun Records roster, Billy Lee Riley, died. Riley, who’d been battling cancer since May, passed away at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro, Ark., after being admitted on Saturday. He was 75.

Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal
Billy Lee Riley delivers his signature Sun Studio rockabilly sound at the Memphis In May Music Festival in this 2007 file photograph.

Although Riley had been diagnosed with stage four colon cancer which had spread to his bones, his wife Joyce Riley says the singer was feeling optimistic. “We weren’t thinking the end was coming so soon,” says Joyce. “He was actually feeling better lately. So the very end was unexpected. But, he went peacefully.”

One of Memphis’ truly unique rock and roll characters, Riley is considered by many to be Sun Records’ lost giant. A true multi-threat, he possessed the myriad musical gifts of Carl Perkins, the unhinged spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis, and the punkish insouciance of Elvis Presley — yet fate never rewarded Riley beyond cult acclaim.

Born in Pocahontas, Arkansas in 1933 to a poor sharecropping clan, Riley developed a passion for blues and learned to pick guitar watching the older black musicians his family worked alongside.

Although he made some early appearances performing on local radio, Riley’s career took shape after he was discharged from the Army in the mid-’50s. Moving to Memphis, Riley soon hooked up with a crew of fledgling country musicians that included “Cowboy” Jack Clement.

Clement and his truck driver partner Slim Wallace founded the tiny Fernwood label in a South Memphis garage and cut Riley’s debut recordings, “Trouble Bound” and “Think Before Your Go.” Clement took to the tapes to Sam Phillips over at Sun Records so he could master a single. Impressed by what he heard, Phillips ended up hiring Clement to work at Sun, and signed Riley.

Riley and his group – which included drummer J.M. Van Eaton and guitarist Roland Janes – would also become the de facto house band at Sun, providing the backing on numerous hits.

Riley is perhaps best remembered for his classic 1957 single, “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll” — a novelty rockabilly rave-up inspired by the era’s U.F.O. mania – which proved a hit and prompted him to rename his band the Little Green Men.

Despite this promising start, Riley’s commercial fate was sealed after Sun put its promotional efforts behind Jerry Lee Lewis' “Great Balls of Fire” – a song Riley played on – which zoomed up the charts and past his own follow-up single “Red Hot.”

Despite his disappointment, Riley continued to record for Sun and Phillips for several years, before going onto cut sides for Mercury, Atlantic and Crown, as well his own Nita and Mojo labels, creating a body of work that’s been championed by rock critics and notable fans, including Bob Dylan.

In the early-’60s, Riley headed west to California where he became an in-demand studio musician, playing sessions for The Beach Boys, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin, among others. Riley returned to the South in 1966, and was one of the first artists signed to Shelby Singleton’s reactivated Sun Records label in 1969.

Although Riley stepped back from music for a time in the 1970s, working in home decorating, he eventually returned to the stage in 1978, riding the rockabilly revival wave in England. He continued to perform and record for the next three decades, releasing several albums of blues oriented material.

Though he battled numerous health problems in recent years – including a quadruple bypass heart surgery and a trio of hip replacement operations — Riley remained a staple of the live circuit in Europe, and here at home, where he was one of the perennial acts at the annual Beale Street Music Festival. His final performance came in June, where he appeared with his old Sun labelmate Sonny Burgess during an event at downtown’s Rock and Soul Museum.

In recent weeks, after his cancer diagnosis became public, the international rockabilly community rallied around Riley and his wife as the couple struggled to pay mounting medical bills.

Riley is survived by his wife Joyce, their daughter Angela Johns, and three children from his first marriage, Erin Riley, Wendy Kennedy, and Darron Riley.

Memorial services are pending, but arrangements will be handled by the Dillinger Funeral Home in Newport, Arkansas. Those wishing to send condolences or contributions directly can contact: Joyce Riley, 723 Crest Drive, Jonesboro, Arkansas 72401.
VIDEO: Billy Lee Riley at the 2008 Beale Street Music Fest

From: Memphis Flyer

MUSIC Billy Lee Riley, RIP

Guitars at half mast, please. Billy Lee Riley, the Sun Studio rockabilly artist who recorded atomic age classics such as "Flying Saucers Rock and Roll" and "Red Hot" is dead. It was recently reported that Riley, who had been in poor health since taking a bad fall in 2005, was suffering from the final stages of terminal cancer.

On August 30th, there will be a memorial show in Newport, Arkansas featuring Sonny Burgess and the Pacers, WS Holland and his band, Travis Wammack, Carl Mann, Smoochy Smith, Ace Cannon and his band, Jr. Rogers, Warren Crow, J.M. VanEaton, Dale Hawkins, C.W. Gattin, and the Blues Brothers Band.

We'll have more to say about this influential and under-sung Memphis artist.

Billy Lee Riley & Tav Falco (from Tav's Myspace)

Joe Nick Patoski made a comment about your note "R.I.P. The Great Billy Lee Riley, Sun Records Pioneer":

Tosches captured him in words at a Jerry Lee Lewis recording session back in the 70s. Billy Lee came into the studio wild-eyed, and held his hands out wide, saying, 'There's this invisible pill in front of me and every time I take a bite out of it, it grows bigger and bigger."

An uplifting mix of Southern soul, latin grooves, sunny 60’s pop, funked-up soundtracks & deep- fried country
We're Gonna Rock 'n' Roll All The Way To The Stars

Billy Lee Riley and others came to London's Barbican for the 'It Came from Memphis' season in 2005.

On January 30th 1957 at Sun Studios, 706 Union Avenue, a kind of alchemy took place.
A dumb song, Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll by one Ray Scott was transformed from kitsch fluff to rockabilly gold by the sheer intensity of its performance. On piano that day, an as yet little known, Jerry Lee Lewis but at the microphone, singing with a devilish conviction that belies the songs nonsense lyrics was Billy Lee Riley!

Without Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll, with its campy lyrics, monster movie screams and insanely committed performance contemporary music would be a duller, less strange place.As no less an authority than Greil Marcus wrote of it (in the notes to the 2000 edition of Mystery Train) "Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll.. [was] of the weirdest of early rock 'n' roll records - and early rock 'n' roll records were weird"!

Together with Riley’s cover of Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson’s Red Hot and his own composition Pearly Lee, both of which were also recorded that fateful day in Memphis, Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll forms the foundation of the Billy Lee Riley story. It is a story as labyrinthine and surprising as any in the history of American roots music.

Born in 1933, of Irish/Cherokee stock Riley grew up in Osceala Arkansas. The family were poor and Riley’s father, a house painter by trade, and his elder sister would pick cotton to help make ends meet. At one point things got so bad the family were reduced to living in a tent for a year.

Blues was the young Riley’s first love- as he recalled in the sleeve notes to his 1992 Blue Collar Blues album- “I was raised mainly around the old gut bucket blues. Those days we couldn't listen to blues on radio, no one played it. I used to hang around and listen to all the black guys playing blues” By the age of six he was already an accomplished harmonica player.

In 1948 a 15 year old Billy Lee Riley lied about his age and joined the US army. Discharged in 1953 he married the following year and moved to Memphis in 1955. It was here fate, in the shape of ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement, stepped in.

Clement, together with Ronald ‘Slim’ Wallace, had built a recording studio in the latter’s garage. In March 1956 they cut their first record, with Billy Lee Riley on vocals, Trouble Bound on one side and Think Before You Go on the flip.

Clement took the tapes to Sam Phillips,founder of Sun records and forever known as the man who discovered Elvis, to have an acetate master made. Sam liked Trouble Bound enough to want to release it as a Sun record conditional on the country sounding Think Before You Go being replaced with a more rocking tune. Riley obliged by penning Rock With Me Baby.

James Van Eaton played drums, Marvin Pepper bass and Roland Janes guitar on Rock With Me Baby.Post Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll this group became known as The Little Green Men and together with multi instrumentalist Riley they became the Sun studios house band, playing on numerous pioneering rock ‘n’ roll records.

Billy Lee Riley’s blistering version of Red Hot was tipped for the top by no lesser an authority than Alan Freed and legendary Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips (a man whose footnote in history was assured when he became the first to play an Elvis record on air) played it. A lot. As Memphis music maverick Jim Dickinson recalled in Robert Gordon’s book It Came From Memphis “Red Hot by Billy Lee Riley- I didn't realize that wasn't a hit until I moved to Texas for college.”

And why wasn't it a hit? Speaking in 2001 to Brian Smith of the Phoenix New Times newspaper Riley insisted “Red Hot was going to become a national hit.... I saw the orders; there were orders for a lot of records. He (Sam Phillips) got on the ‘phone right in front of me and said ‘we’re not shipping Red Hot were shipping Great Balls Of Fire instead’”.

So in 1958 a disgruntled Riley left Sun for the first time and recorded a single on Brunswick. Produced by Owen Bradley Rockin’ On The Moon was, presumably, intended to capture again that Outer Space/ Flying Saucer magic. Despite interest from RCA he was persuaded to return to Sun for another couple of releases before leaving again in 1960.

There then followed a bewildering array of independent releases, some under his own name, others under an equally bewildering array of pseudonyms. There are many gems in Riley’s wayward discography of this time but, for me, none surpass Shimmy Shimmy Walk Parts 1 & 2. Issued in 1962 on the Dodge label and credited to The Megatons this instrumental is a steaming slab of swampy southern soul swagger that wouldn’t have disgraced Booker T and the MG’s themselves.

Talking of whom…it was after a weekend session with Billy Lee Riley at the Stax studios that Booker T and the MG’s were born. In Rob Bowman’s book Soulsville USA Steve Cropper recalled that day: “We were sitting around waiting after the last cut to find out if we were gonna do another take. Billy and Jim(Stewart-co founder of Stax) decided that was it, that was good enough for what Billy wanted and when Jim went to hit the talkback to tell us ‘Hey guys, that’s it, go home’ we were just jamming on this blues thing.” That blues thing became Green Onions. (In 1972 Stax did issue a Billy Lee Riley single, on its "white" HIP subsidiary, Family Portrait/Going Back to Memphis it was not,however, recorded at Stax famous East McLemore Avenue studios)

Sometime later in ‘62 Riley moved to the west coast and became a sought after session musician. Sessions included, amongst many others, playing bass on The Beach Boys Help Me Rhonda and bringing some proper southern harmonica blues to Ohio- born Dean Martin’s waxing of Lee Hazlewood’s Houston.

Riley moved back to the south in 1966. In 1968 Riley recorded Happy Man for Atlantic records. Covered as Otis Smith's "Down The Road",this brass heavy track was a favourite of Northern Soul DJ Guy Hennigan at Stafford allnighters.

The following year found Riley back at Sun, although by now the label was owned by Shelby Singleton, for a further two singles:Kay / Lookin' For My Baby and Pilot Town, La. / Working On The River.Both singles were recorded for Sun International in Florida and both are appealling stabs at country soul.

His 1971 version of A Thing About You Baby, produced by Chips Moman, was selling well until that most celebrated of Sun records alumni, Elvis Presley, released his version. Sick of it all Riley quit the music business in 1973. For a while.

Coaxed out of self imposed exile to play the 1979 Memphis in May festival Riley was once again seduced by the siren call of music. Arriving to a Europe in the grip of a rockabilly revival later that year, Riley was amazed to find himself revered by this new wave of old school rock ‘n’ roll fans. Still it wasn’t until 1991 that Riley returned to music full time.

And then Bob Dylan came a-calling. By this time Riley was once more living in Arkansas and as he told his local paper: “Bob said I was his favourite singer and that he had been looking for me since 1985, he’d even been to my old house in Murfreesboro, Tennessee looking for me.” When Riley opened for Dylan at Little Rock Arkansas in 1992 Dylan introduced him as “my hero” and was visibly thrilled by his set. Curiously, earlier in his career. Riley had covered three Dylan songs (Blowin’ in the Wind, Like a Rolling Stone and Mr Tambourine Man) on his 1966 Funk Harmonica album.

When Riley was inducted to the Arkansas Walk of Fame in March 2000; letters from Dylan, Sam Phillips and The Smithsonian Institute were read out, all hailing him as a pioneer and seminal influence. Some consolation, perhaps, for a career typified by missed opportunities and poor timing.

Despite having a lousy band backing him Billy Lee showed he could still “rock ‘n’ roll all the way to the stars” at The Barbican’s “It Came From Memphis” festival in April last year,from whence the picture that accompanies this article came.


Billy Lee Riley

Birthdate - October 5, 1933
Birthplace - Pocahontas, Arkansas
Curent Residence - Newport, Arkansas
Billy Lee Riley was born to a sharecropper family at the end of the great depression. His carear has spanned 5 decades and he has made his mark in each one of them.

In the 50's he recorded Flying Saucer Rock and Roll which was his first hit record. Recording at Sun Studio's in Memphis, Tennessee, Riley ended up backing up many of the performers who came through the door to do session work at Sun. His guitar and harmonica work was called into play for any performer without a band. Joining him during these sessions were Roland James and J.M. Van Eaton. These three formed a group called the Little Green Men the name drawn from Riley first hit.

During the 60's Billy Lee moved to Las Angeles. The first year was hard but eventually he became one of the hottest session men in LA working with such greats as Herb Alpert, Sammy Davis Jr., The Beach Boys, Pearl Bailey, and many more. Riley say's that working with Sammy Davis Jr. was one of the high points of his long carear.

The 70's found Billy Lee with a new audience. Europe had discovered Rock and Roll and the original rock and rollers were hot comodities. The Europeans loved the real stuff and they wanted it in the flesh. The music that had been just rock and roll was now called Rockabilly and the Rock and Rollers from the 50's could play all they wanted if they were willing to go abroad. England, France, Sweeden, Germany, were all part of the tours. Just about everywhere on the European continent there was some kind of Rockabilly Festival. There were Sweedish Rockabilly Bands, and English Rockabilly Bands, German, Austrian, etc. all on stage playing the music and getting into the style of the early rockers.

The 80's brought more touring in Europe, with long sabitcals in Newport. Billy Lee began playing the music he grew up on. The music of the plantations, call it Gut Bucket Blues or Deep Blues, or Delta Blues it was the foundation for Rock and Roll and it was the foundation for Billy Lee Riley's new carear in the Blues. Billy Lee's choice to turn to the Blues genre was not a big step for him; the Blues were always part of his performances but now they were the major part.

In the early 90's the Smithsonian found Billy Lee and interviewed him for their archives, he released his first all Blues CD "Blue Collar Blues" in 1992, and he does a lecture concert series all over the world about the Blues and the Delta and growing up as a sharecropper. Catch his act you'll be glad you did.

Billy Lee Banned

It's 1957 and Rock and Roll is happenin'. Billy Lee receives a call from ASU to play at the old field house. Agreeing to play he shows up with his band and starts his gig. The show is cookin and the crowd's getting excited. Billy Lee climbs up on the piano and begins to dance while standing on the piano. Just a little leg jerk here and a hip shake there.
Now about this time the band really starts hopping and the piano is on wheels; so as the band is dancing around on the stage the piano begins to roll. Billy Lee is doing his dance on top of the piano, the rest of the band is boogyin' away and he begins to notice that the piano seems to be moving. When he realizes that the piano is rolling off the stage he reaches up and grabs on to one of the steel girders that runs the width of the field house. He's hanging on with one hand using the microphone with the other and trying to get someone's attention to his plight. The piano is by now tipping off the stage on one side and Billy Lee is hanging suspended from the ceiling.

When the song finally ends and the piano is moved back on stage Billy Lee finishes his set and figures that alls well that ends well. .... But, the dean is waiting for him as he packs up to leave and he say's "Boy, that was a vulgar show you just put on and you are banned from this school."

Now the next year rolls around and the students want him back so they call and say Billy Lee come and play at the dance again this year. "I can't, he says, "I've been banned from playing at ASU. The dean says I can't play there again."

They say, "The dean doesn't know your name. Change your band name to something else and come back and play." So Billy Lee changes the band's name and goes to ASU to do the gig. Once again the show is hot and everyone is having a great time. Once again the dean meets him at the end of the performance and say's "Boy, you are banned from ASU"

Billy Lee Riley
In His Own Words ...

Copyright Billy Lee Riley

My name is Billy Lee Riley, I was born October 5, 1933 in Pocohantas, Arkansas. A small rural town in northeast Arkansas in the foothills of the Ozarks. At the age of three my family moved from Pocahontas to Osceola, another small rural Arkansas town founded on the banks of the Mississippi River. Osceola was a cotton farming town and we moved onto what was once a large plantation owned by Mr. Hal Jackson. Therefore it's name was "Jacksonville." The houses on the farm was used as rental property. If a tenant wanted to live there and work on the farm his rent was free. But if a tenant preferred working jobs other than farm work the rent was one dollar per week. My father was a house painter by trade so he chose to pay the dollar a week rent. But in the fall and winter months when painting work was scarce, my dad and my older sister worked in the fields picking cotton.
I learned to play the harmonica at the age of six and my love for blues music started at that age. Some of my black friends, playmates and I would go over to the black section of town and listen to the black blues singers playing on the streets or sit by the doors of the honky tonks and listen to music from the juke boxes. Saturday afternoons for most other kids my age was a Saturday matinee western movie. I did that, too, but most of the time a Saturday matinee for me was the sound of the blues coming from the juke boxes at the beer joints.

Billy Lee Riley 1942-1946

Copyright Billy Lee Riley

My family moved from Osceola in 1942 after our house burned to the ground with all of our belongings, what little they were. This would be our first year as share-croppers. For the next four years we lived on this farm at Poplar Ridge, Arkansas. We farmed twenty-five acres of cotton expecting to receive half of the earnings, but we always wound up owing the land owner, so each year we would have to stay and try to get even. We never did.

I first worked in the fields in Osceola at the age of seven picking cotton but working for me the next four years became serious business. I did the work of an adult. Each morning at the crack of dawn I was in that barn yard harnessing up my team of mules for a long hard day's work of plowing. My dad, brother, and I did all the field work and mom took care of the house and the younger kids. I had to quit school in the third grade to help on the farm to support the family.

After four years of farming at Poplar Ridge, we moved to a plantation about twenty miles out of Forrest City, Arkansas. There was no vacant house on this farm for us to live in so dad with the help of friends and family bought an old surplus Army tent. It was twenty feet by twenty feet. This would serve as home for the next year. This turned out to be an exceptionally hard year for us, but it was where I learned to play the guitar and sing the blues. This was the kind of music that had intrigued me for the past twelve years. THE BLUES

In 1943 my dad had bought me my first guitar from a friend on the farm. It was a Silvertone from Sears. He gave five dollars for it, but I had never learned to play it until moving to this plantation. There were forty families and thirty six were black families. Almost every family had someone that played some sort of musical instrument. For the most part all of the families living on this plantation were good decent folks. You would run into a bad apple every once in a while but in general, everyone got along very well with his neighbor. Everyone was treated the same by the land owner regardless of his color. We were all there for one purpose and that was to make money for the MAN.

I had special friends living here, both black and white. These are the ones that taught me how to play the guitar and helped me to understand, love and appreciate the blues. Special names like, Willie "Snooks" Bradshaw. Willie was a great blues guitar player and he worked a lot teaching me to play. Another special friend was a white boy my age. His family was a musical family and I spent lots of time at his house he taught me a lot. His name was Tommy Hamblin.

Billy Lee Riley 1947-1952

Copyright Billy Lee Riley

Two other good friends of mine, even though they were a lot older than me were the Williams brothers, Ray and Abraham. Ray was a whiz on the harmonica. He taught me what I know on the harmonica. Ray was a great influence and a great guy. His brother, Abrham played bottle neck style guitar and was one of the beat.

But, the one man that I considered the best of the lot was an old man by the name of Jericho Leon Carter. Jericho was an excellent guitar player as well as a master on the harmonica. He had built this aparatus on his guitar that held his harmonica so he could play both at the same time. I had never seen anything like this before or since. We all loved to play music with Jericho but most of the time when old Jericho played we all just sat there and listened. He was so good and made it look so simple. He used to tell me, "You keep on son, you keep playing the Blues and some day you gonna be somebody." I never forgot those words and maybe someday I'll find out that old Jericho was right.

Everybody called Jericho, "Lightnin". The reason was, as it was told, Jericho was riding his mule in from the field one day during a thunderstorm. Just before he got ot the safety of the barn the mule he was riding was struck by lightening. Well, it killed the mule but Jericho survived with severe burns all over his body. They said he almost died before they could find a way to get him to the doctor twnety miles away in Forrest City. But he did live, and when I met him he was fifty-eight and the best blues singer and picker in the world.

After our crops were gathered that winter we moved to Tupelo, Mississippi. I learned later that my friend, Jericho "lightnin' Leon" Carter died of pneumonia in February 1948. They buried his guitar and harmonica with him. His folks said they felt like he would be needing them later.

We only lived in Tupelo from January 1948 until September. My parents and the smaller children moved back to Pocahontas and I moved back to Osceola to live with my sister and brother-in-law.

My older brother had recently enlisted in the Army so I thought I would try also. In November some friends and I hitch-hiked to Blytheville to join the Army. I got as far as the physical examination and failed. In March of the next year, 1949, I tried again. I had no birth certificate so the enlisting officer told me that if I could get my parents to sign a statement that I was seventeen he could get me in. I conned my sister into signing the papers and I was off again. This time I passed and was shipped to Camp Chaffee, Arkansas in Fort Smith for my basic training.

After basic training I was shipped to Fort Bening, Georgia for paratroop training. I found out very quickly that jumping out of air planes was not for me so I quit and was then shipped to Fort Lawton, Washington.

I was given a hardship discharge because of my father's sickness. I was hoping that I would be more able to help the family at home. I was sending fifty dollars of my seventy-five dollars a month home on a special family allotment plan but I thought I would be able to do more if I could find a job. Work for a fifteen year old was hard to find in the early fifties so I did whatever job I could find to help out.

Dad's illness improved and he was back at work painting houses and we had just gone to war with Korea. Being in the reserves, I was one of the first to re-called to active duty. Three months after I was discharged, I was back on active duty in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I never saw Korea. I spent the next three years at Fort Sill. In April, 1953 I was honorably discharged and came home to where my parents were living, Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Billy Lee Riley 1953-1957

Copyright Billy Lee Riley

The first thing I did upon returning home was form a hillbilly band. The band played at high schools and clubs. We had three radio shows. Two of them were live broadcast and one was taped on Sundays for the following week. I was working at a local shoe manufacturing plant at the time and in order to do the live broadcasts we had to get up to be at the station to go on the air at 5:30 am, do thirty minutes, go home have breakfast and be at work at 7:00 am. Needless to say, this didn't last long.

I married my first wife in 1954 and in 1955 we moved to Memphis and opened a bar and grill restaurant with my brother-in-law. Not knowing much about Memphis, nor the restaurant business, we picked a bad section of town and were closed by the city three months later resulting from a gunfight between two of our customers. After that I worked at various jobs one being a meat cutter at a supermarket.

On Christmas morning 1955 I met the one man that would play a major roll in my life, Jack Clement. My wife and I were visiting our families for the holiday. I was leaving Jonesboro to visit my parents in Nettleton, a suburb of Jonesboro when I saw these two fellows hitch-hiking. Although I was only going the three miles to Nettleton, I decided to stop and give them a ride that far.

The fellows I had picked up were Jack Clement, a well known name in Nashville for the past thirty-five years, and his friend, Slim Wallace. Our conversation was getting so interesting by the time we got to Nettleton that I decided to drive them all the way to Memphis.

We talked a lot about music and when they found out that I was a singer, they invited me to sing in their band and play the club in Paragould, which belonged to Slim. I agreed and for the next few weeks I worked every Friday and Saturday night.

When we got to Memphis, Jack and Slim showed me the studio that they were building in Slim's garage on Fernwood Street. It was to be called "Fernwood Studios." A studio that later included Scotty Moore, of Elvis fame.

When the studio was finally finished it was equipped with a home Magnachord recorder and a patch for three mikes. But to me it was "downtown". Jack asked me if I wanted to be their first artist, of course I was flattered and jumped at the chance. the session was set up for a Sunday afternoon in March of 1956. It was supposed to have been a country session but one of the songs turned out a little more bluesy and a little like Elvis' Heartbreak Hotel. This song was called "Trouble Bound" The other song, more of a country song, was called "Think Before You Go"

After we recorded them, Jack 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. Sam cut "Think Before You go" first and then started on the other side, "Trouble Bound." He told Jack, "Now here's a record. This is what the kids want, Rock-A-Billy. They're looking for that Elvis thing and this record has it." Before Jack left the studio he had made a deal with Sam to release my record on Sun with the understanding that we cut another Rock-A-Billy song for the other side.

Jack told me about it and asked me if I had another song that was more Rock-A-Billy. I told him no but I could write one. So, I wrote "Rock With Me Baby" and we went to a radio station and recorded it. Jack took them back over to Sam. He gave me a recording contract and Jack a production deal. I recorded for the Sun label from 1956 until 1960. I recorded several sides during that period but only had six releases, "Trouble Bound" / "Rock With me Baby" being my first release. My second release was "Flyin' Saucers Rock and roll" / "I Want You Baby." Before I recorded "Flyin Saucers," I walked in the studio at Sun one morning and saw this fellow sitting at the piano and playing like I had never heard a piano played before.

I spoke to him and he introduced himself to me. "I'm Jerry Lee Lewis," he said. "Hi, I said, "My name is Bill Riley. Man you play the piano great. You from around here?"

"Naw, I'm from Louisiana, Farriday Louisiana. I come up here to see what's goin' on," he told me.

I asked him if he was working with anyone and when he told me he wasn't I asked him if he was looking for work because I had a band and we did a few shows but mostly clubs. He said he would like to work with us so I hired him. Later I told Sam about him, about how good he played and that I had hired him to work with my band.

Sam said "Man, you don't want no piano player in a Rock-A-Billy band. It don't work in a Rock-A-Billy band. Man you need guitars, drums, and a bass, but not a piano." Well, I knew my session was coming up soon so I told him that I intended to use Jerry on my session. Sam grumbled and disagreed with me but come session time, Jerry was on board. Sam wouldn't let him take any solo's. He just wanted him to play what he termed, "pumping rhythm." That's where his PUMPING PIANO style got its name. After the session was over Sam was pleased but never had any praise for Jerry. Jerry continued working in the band until "Crazy Arms" was recorded.

During my stay at Sun I was part of the Sun package. This package included, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Warren Smith and later on Jerry Lee Lewis. Shows were booked by Bob Neal and getting your money was sometimes a hassle. I've had to go to Bob's house at three and four in the morning after a show to get my money. We all were supposed to get paid after the show but this seldom happened with Bob. My band and I played lots of colleges dates back then also, lots of high school proms and dances, a lot of outside shows at openings for automobile companies, mobile home shows and drive in theaters as well as regular theaters. It was hectic, a lot of fun and we paid a lot of dues. We traveled in my 1957 four door Chevrolet. Five musicians plus all of our clothes and instruments including sometimes, an upright bass, inside if it happened to be raining.

Billy Lee Riley 1958-1960

Copyright Billy Lee Riley

I left Sun Records in 1958 for a one record deal on Brunswick produced by Owen Bradley at Bradley's barn because Sam had deliberately sabotaged a record of mine, that was on it's way to the national charts in favor of a Jerry Lee Lewis record that he was trying to build Jerry on, "Great Balls of Fire".

My band and I were working in Canada at the time and out of a bet with my drummer I called Allen Freed about booking us on a tour that I had read about in the trades a few days before. I called WINS radio and got through to Allen. It was then that I found out that my record, "Red Hot," was happening. I knew that it was doing pretty good in the south but no one had told me that it was looking good nationally.

Allen Freed told me that I had a hit record and back then if Allen Freed said you had a hit you could take that to the bank. He also said he wanted me on the tour for later that year. After talking with Allen, I called Sam Phillips and told him the good news. He seemed, I thought happy about the whole thing but I was wrong. He told me that I should close out in Canada and come home and start an album and cut another single before the tour.

But by the time I closed out and got back home, Sam had contacted Allen Freed's manager and cut a deal with him that got me off the tour and Jerry Lee Lewis put in my place. To rub salt in the wound, a couple of days after I returned to Memphis, and before I found about the switch, (I didn't find this out for over a month. I thought Sam and Judd Philips were handling everything with Allen Freed and I was on the tour.) I was in the front office at Sun when the mail came and Sam's secretary opened it and laid it on Sam's desk. I noticed that there were three pieces of mail that looked like Western Union Telegrams. These were night letters sent through the Western Union. Each letter was an order for ten thousand copies of my record "Red Hot". One was from a distributor in Ohio, one was from New York and the other one was from Detroit. They were asking for ten thousand on a deal. I assumed that meant Sam had some sort of deal where if you buy a certain amount you got some free copies. I asked Sally when Sam would be in and she told me she didn't know so I went next door for coffee.

I saw when Sam's car pulled up in front of the studio so I went back over to catch the reaction on Sam's face at the amount of the orders for my record. What I saw and heard wasn't what I wanted to see or hear. As soon as Sam saw the orders he got on the phone and called each of the distributors and told them that he was not shipping number 277, the number of my record, he was pushing number 281, Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire." This is the time that I left Sun and went to Nashville to record with Brunswick.

I returned to Sun after the Brunswick record and recorded three more releases before leaving in 1960. They were "Baby Please Don't Go" / "Wouldn't You Know", "No Name Girl" / "Down By The Riverside", and "One More Time"/"Got The Water Boilin' Baby." Most of the records recorded on Sun from 1956 until 1960 were backed up by my band "The Little Green Men" All or part of the band was on recordings with Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Bill Justis and all of the lesser knowns.

Billy Lee Riley 1960-1966

Copyright Billy Lee Riley

After leaving Sun for the last time in 1960 my ex-guitar player and I formed the RITA record label. We had several releases but the one that the label is known for was the Harold Dorman recording of "Mountain of Love." This record sold a million and I made a thousand dollars. When the record started to show up in the charts, several record labels wanted it. We were offered some really good deals. But to humor Judd Philipps and Bill Justis, who were already doing business with Bill Lowery in Atlanta, we went with NRC Records. The company went broke before we could get any money so I sold my interest for one thousand dollars and came out ahead of my partner.
After RITA, I formed another label, MOJO Records, and produced the original Willie Cobb hit, "You Don't Love Me." This record was leased to Home of the Blues Records. After the Willie Cobb record I did a few more things on MOJO but just never got anything happening so I moved on.

I went to work for the Pepper Sound Studios writing, singing and producing radio spots and jingles.

I moved to Las Angeles in 1962 and worked as a studio musician playing the harmonica along side James Burton, Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Hal Blaine and Barney Kessel. My first session was with Herb Alpert. I played lead guitar on "Lonely Bull." I was later featured on records with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. Rick Nelson, Johnny Rivers, The Beach Boys and hundred of others. I worked on several records with Billy Strange and Lee Hazlewood. I worked on stage with Eddie Fisher, Pearl Bailey, Dean Martin, Janet Leigh, and Natalie Wood. I appeared on the final Steve Allen show, was featured on an ABC Scope, and I did the Ozzie and Harriet Show. I worked the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Las Angeles and alternated with Johnny Rivers opening other Whisky's across the United States. While living in Las Angeles I recorded six albums. Three for Mercury, two for GNP, and one for The Crown Label. I left Las Angeles in 1966.

Billy Lee Riley 1966-1979

Copyright Billy Lee Riley

I left Los Angeles in 1966 settling in Atlanta and reviving my MOJO label. I released one album and one single. The single was picked up by STAX in Memphis causing me to move again to Memphis where I was producer and artist on the HIP label, a subsidiary of STAX.

In 1968 I recorded a song called "Kay". It was an R&B version of the John Wesley Ryles country record. When I finished it I played it for Sam Phillips and he suggested I play it for Shelby Singleton who had just bought all of the old Sun masters and had formed the Sun International label. Shelby bought the record and gave me a job as producer and moved me to Fort Walton Beach, Florida to produce for his studio there. After a year in Florida, I found my self again in Atlanta.

In 1971 I recorded a session for Chips Moman in Memphis for his Entrance label distributed by Columbia Records. 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 the their distributors so I lost another hit. I followed Chips to Nashville hoping to record again but his record deal fell apart.

I left and came back home again after my divorce from my second wife. I remarried in 1975 and sort of retired from music for a while. then in 1979, I did the Memphis in May thing, got the bug and started touring Europe and have been doing so ever since. My shows in Europe are mostly my fifties act. I enjoy doing them and the fans are great, but I am ready to get back to my roots, The Blues.

Hear Billy Lee Riley on

"Hot Damn!" (Capricorn 314 534 765-2)
Distributed by Polygram
Released 1997

"Blue Collar Blues" (Hightone HCD 8040)
Released 1992

1 comment:

T. Tex Edwards said...

thanks, photo removed...