BILLY LEE RILEY
Born William Lee Riley, 5 October 1933, Pocahontas, Arkansas
Of all the artists who recorded for Sun in the 1950s without chart success, Billy Riley was probably the most talented. He was a versatile musical chameleon. He has been a session man on harmonica, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass and drums. As a vocalist he was equally at home roaring out hard driving rock ’n’ roll, moaning the blues and singing rockin’ tinged country. He had good looks and was a great live performer, but his main problem was probably the lack of an identifiable style.
Riley grew up in various Arkansas towns, in relative poverty. After two stints in the army, where he started playing hillbilly music, he moved to Memphis in 1955. His association with Jack Clement, as members of Slim Wallace’s Dixie Ramblers, led to a demo recording. It was intended to become the first record for a new label (Fernwood), but “Trouble Bound” would come out on Sun instead. Jack Clement had taken the tapes to Sam Phillips for mastering in April 1956. Impressed by what he heard, Phillips signed Riley as a singer and hired Clement as an engineer. For his second Sun single, Riley went into the studio on December 11, 1956, backed by Roland Janes on guitar, Marvin Pepper on bass, Jerry Lee Lewis on piano and Jimmy Van Eaton on drums. The result was the frenetic “Flying Saucers Rock & Roll”, a true rockabilly anthem. It gave Riley’s band their unforgettable name, the Little Green Men. They would soon become the de facto house band at Sun (with Jimmy Wilson on piano, instead of Jerry Lee Lewis), later augmented by Martin Willis on sax.
For his next single, Riley chose an old Sun copyright, Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s “Red Hot”, transforming what was basically a blues number into a rockabilly opus. Just when the single started to take off, Sam Phillips released “Great Balls Of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis and decided to concentrate his limited resources on promoting the Lewis record. Riley even overheard Phillips cancelling orders for “Red Hot”, telling distributors to work “Great Balls of Fire” instead. Riley went on a rampage in the Sun studio, but Phillips didn’t want to lose him and his band and managed to talk him around. But when Riley’s fourth Sun single, “Wouldn’t You Know”, suffered the same fate (it was released simultaneously with “Breathless” by Jerry Lee Lewis), he jumped ship for one release on Brunswick. He was approached by Dick Clark to record for Swan and by Steve Sholes to record for RCA, but instead he returned to Sun when Jack Clement needed a harmonica player for the Sonny Burgess instrumentals “Itchy” and “Thunderbird”. Two more Sun singles under Riley’s own name followed in 1959, “Down By the Riverside”/“No Name Girl” and “Got the Water Boiling”/“One More Time”, but again with no commercial success.
Billy then teamed up with Roland Janes for the instrumental single “Fireball Mail”/ “Catfish” on Jaro. The two men also started their own label, Rita Records, and had immediate success with “Mountain Of Love” by Harold Dorman (a # 21 hit in 1960). Riley himself made two singles for Rita, the blues number “Dark Muddy Bottom” (as Lightnin’ Leon) and the rocker “Too Much Woman For Me” under his own name (still Billy Riley at that time, his middle name Lee was added later). Riley had releases under many different names, for instance The Rockin’ Stockin’ (an instrumental Xmas single for Sun, 1960), Skip Wiley (the first version of “Fast Livin’” on Mojo, 1961), The Megatons (the 2-part instrumental “Shimmy Shimmy Walk” on Dodge, 1961, a # 88 hit) and Darron Lee (“I’ve Been Searching” on Myrl, also 1961). In 1962 he started doing session work on the West Coast, but continued to record under his own name for a plethora of labels, including Mercury, GNP Crescendo, Atlantic and the revived version of Sun Records. He tried all kinds of styles, but these 1960s recordings are largely uninteresting for the rock & roll fan.
His only chart entry came in 1972, with the Tony Joe White composition “I Got A Thing About You Baby” (# 93). But Chip Moman’s Entrance label, on which it came out, ran into trouble after Columbia ceased its distribution, which killed the record. Two years later, Elvis Presley scored a Top 40 hit with the song. For much of the 1970s, Riley worked outside the music industry.
The rockabilly revival brought Riley to Europe in 1979, for the first of many success- ful trips. He also returned to the studio and in the 1990s, Billy recorded several good rock and roll albums, especially “Rockin’ Fifties” on Icehouse (1995), with a much- improved remake of “Fast Livin’”. His last album was “Still Got My Mojo” on the Rhythm Bomb label (2009), recorded with European musicians. Billy Lee Riley died after being diagnosed with stage four colon cancer on August 2, 2009, in Jonesboro, Arkansas, aged 75.
More info : http://www.rockabillyhall.com/blr.html
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Martin Hawkins, Stuart Colman, Tony Wilkinson.
CD recommendations :
Dik, October 2015
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