Born on October 5, 1933, in Pocahontas, AR; son of Amos Riley and Mae Smith; married twice; current wife, Joyce; four children. Addresses: Record company--Icehouse Records, 1981 Fletcher Creek Dr., Memphis, TN 38133.
During the mid- to late 1950s, Billy Lee Riley synthesized the same blend of blues, country, and gospel that fueled the recordings of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, and Jerry Lee Lewis. However, despite cutting two of the hottest rockers of the era--"Red Hot" and "Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll"--Riley never enjoyed the national success of his more famous peers. Undaunted, the multigenre songwriter, guitarist, and harmonica player soldiered on through a music industry odyssey.
Born on October 5, 1933, to sharecroppers during the Great Depression, the part-Cherokee Riley began picking cotton at the age of six. "That's what left the blues embedded in me so much," Riley told Contemporary Musicians. "[H]earing it from the original blues men, not the recording artists--men out in the field. The hungry man, the working man on the cotton sack just singin'. They'll sing in those fields man, I'll tell ya. They talked to each other in song! You'd hear a guy way over here, man. He'd be singing [sings a bluesy phrase]. Man, pretty soon someone over there would answer [sings a melodic answer]. The fields were alive with music. Not with instruments, but with people's voices. They'd sing because that was the only way they had of releasing the things inside them that they weren't allowed to release in public. It was a release and that's what the blues and rock 'n' roll are all about, man."
Riley's father, who worked as a painter when he wasn't farming, gave Riley his first harmonica when he was six and first guitar--a used Silvertone--when he turned ten. Raised on a diet of cotton-patch blues and hillbilly radio, the youngster gravitated toward making blues with a country beat.
Started with Country and Gospel
At 15 Riley convinced his sister to sign a paper claiming he was 17 so he could join the Army. "I never did like it," Riley remembered. "I mainly did it for a place to live and something to eat!" After basic training, the young soldier took his guitar into a Seattle recording booth and made three acetates of his favorite Hank Williams and Hank Thompson tunes. Heard today, the scratchy sides reveal a surprisingly soulful style, one that he put to good use in Army talent shows.
After his four-year Army stint, Riley came home and formed a country and gospel band alternately known as the Arkansas Valley Ranch Boys and the KBTM Ranch Boys. Riley, who was working full time in a show factory, vividly recalls the hectic life of the struggling hillbilly band. "We had three radio shows going at the same time. We would go down on Sunday and record those, and work during the week.... We had two that we'd tape every week then we'd have the live gospel show with my bass player, his wife, and me. We'd get up at four o'clock every morning and go to the radio station and do a live gospel show. Then we'd go home, have breakfast, and go to work."
By 1956 Riley was ready to quit music and help his brother-in-law run a Memphis restaurant when a chance meeting changed his life and career. "One Christmas, I was back in Jonesboro [Arkansas] visiting my folks," Riley reminisced, "and, on the way back to Memphis, I picked up these two guys flagging down a ride. It was Jack Clement and his partner [Ronald "Slim" Wallace]! That's where I first met him was on the highway. We got to talking music and they told me they were building a studio over there, called Fernwood studios, and they had a band that played every weekend in Arkansas. When I picked 'em up, I was only going to take them a couple of miles to where my mother lived, but we got to talking, and it go so interesting, that I drove 'em all the way to Memphis. While we were talking they asked me if I wanted to play and sing in their band. I told 'em 'Yeah!' So I started singing on weekends in their band in Arkansas, then they invited me to cut a record. That's where I cut my first record in that little ol' garage studio."
"Trouble Bound" and "Think Before You Go" were supposed to be the first release on Clement and Wallace's new Fernwood label. However, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips heard it, bought the master, and signed both Riley and producer/songwriter Clement to his legendary label. Believing "Think Before You Go" too country, Phillips had Riley cut "Rock with Me Baby," an uptempo rockabilly tune that matched the brooding Presley-like blues of "Trouble Bound." Although the record didn't get much airplay outside Memphis, Phillips had high hopes for his movie-star-handsome newcomer.
Jerry Lee Lewis Was Part of His Band
Clement set Riley up with guitarist Roland Janes, who knew drummer J.M. Van Eaton and bassist Marvin Pepper, later replaced by Pat O'Neil. In the spirit of Riley's second single, "Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll," the new combo was dubbed Billy Riley and His Little Green Men. Decked out in suits made of green felt, the kind used on pool tables, and possessing a wild, crowd-stirring stage act, they quickly earned a reputation as one of the mid-South's finest show bands. Moreover, the core members ended up playing on roughly 70 percent of all the Sun and Phillips International releases, including all the biggest sellers destined to be waxed by their new pianist--Jerry Lee Lewis.
Riley recalled the impromptu "audition" for Jack Clement that resulted in "Crazy Arms," Lewis's first record: "Roland was in the bathroom, and I'm the only one on there other than J.M., and I got that last guitar note on there. Nobody even knew that record was being recorded at the time. Jack Clement had the machine going and we just sat there, messin' around, man." Looking for a place to fall into the song, Riley picked up his guitar and hit a clumsy chord just as Lewis ended the number. Released as is, "Crazy Arms" sold over 30,000 copies. Lewis played on Riley's "Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll" and "Pearly Lee" before concentrating full time on his burgeoning solo career. His replacement was a talented, yet eccentric young pianist named Jimmy Wilson.
Nearly a Star with "Red Hot"
Although "Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll" was a decent regional seller, Riley was looking to break nationally. Employing the same Little Richard-inspired rasp as on his previous single, his call-and-response reworking of Billy "The Kid" Emerson's "Red Hot" seemed to hold the key. No less a figure than legendary deejay Alan Freed assured him it would be a top-five record. Unfortunately, Sun was often hampered by limited financial resources that occasionally dictated tough choices. After Jerry Lee Lewis recorded "Great Balls of Fire," Riley actually overheard Phillips canceling pressing orders for his record in favor of Lewis's. Infuriated, Riley got drunk, broke into the Sun studios, and began to tear the place apart. Phillips, a master psychologist among record producers, quickly appeared and convinced the frustrated singer that he had better, more grandiose plans for Riley. Appeased, Riley walked away feeling like the biggest star on Sun, but eventually he lost respect for Phillips who reportedly told him later, "I can't let you have a hit record. If I did, you'd take your band and go out on the road."
Riley added saxophone player Martin Willis to his band and continued to cut hot percolating R&B ("Got Your Water Boilin' Baby," "Baby Please Don't Go"), rockabilly ("Wouldn't You Know"), and smoldering blues ("One More Time") but garnered declining sales. Irritated by the lack of promotion his discs received, he temporarily broke from Sun to cut a pop single for Brunswick, before shying away from promised deals with Dick Clark's Swan and Cameo labels and RCA. After a final Sun session where he and his group recorded a seasonal single as the Rockin' Stockin's, Riley parted company with Phillips for good.
Made Mark as a Harmonica Player
Riley recorded some first-rate R&B for the House of Blues label before he and bandmate Janes started the Rita label, where he recorded under his own name and as "Lightning Leon." Typical of Riley's luck during that period, he sold his interest in the company just before Rita scored a national hit with Harold Dorman's "Mountain of Love" in 1960. Riley's self-owned labels Nita and Mojo didn't improve his fortunes either. He made ends meet by imitating Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and others on jingles for 7-11 Slurpees; he would do another batch in 1968. The advertising money financed a trip to California in search of fresh opportunities.
Through former Sun A&R (Artist and Repertoire) man Charlie Underwood, Riley began to get work as a Los Angeles session musician. He played guitar on Herb Alpert's first A&M hit "The Lonely Bull," but made a greater impact with his harmonica playing. Hits by Dean Martin ("Little Ole Wine Drinker Me," "Houston"), the Beach Boys ("Help Me, Rhonda"), and Sammy Davis, Jr. ("But Not For Me"), all feature Riley's distinctive blues harp. When not recording solo LPs of harmonica instrumentals for Crown, Mercury, and GNP, he also played on recordings by the Righteous Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Glen Campbell, and Johnny Rivers.
Recorded under Different Names
The artist's studio achievements dovetailed with a series of successful live dates in Las Vegas opening for Pearl Bailey and as a regular on the Whiskey-a-Go-Go circuit, where owner Elmer Valentine began billing him as Billy Lee Riley. Always looking for that elusive hit; he cut a novelty horror LP for Capitol and recorded under the names Darron Lee, Skip Wiley, Sandy & the Sandstormers, and others. Doing business as the Megatons, Riley's 1962 instrumental "Shimmy Shimmy Walk" on Dodge Records was burning up the charts in Louisiana, but only hit number 88 nationally. Eventually Riley sold the masters to Chess Records who used them as backing tracks for their Surfin' with Bo Diddley album. Later, in 1966, his Mojo rendition of Wilson Pickett's "Midnight Hour" reportedly sold about two hundred thousand copies, but Riley felt industry politics kept the record from being properly charted.
During the late 1960s, Riley relocated to Florida and got deeper into the soul and blues bag. His satisfyingly funky version of John Wesley Ryles's country hit "Kay," ushered in his 1969 return to Sun Records, now owned by Shelby Singleton as Sun International. Recording a combination of funk and Creedence Clearwater Revival-style swamp rock, Riley created his second wave of great music, but sales did not follow. In 1971 famed Memphis producer Chips Moman signed him to the fledgling Entrance label and crafted the funk-inspired country pop single "I've Got A Thing about You Baby." Honest, heartfelt, and catchy, the record began garnering national airplay and it appeared Riley would finally have his hit. However, after Moman lost a key distribution deal, the record died on the vine. Elvis Presley ended up cutting a popular version clearly based on Riley's. At that point the singer, who was going through a divorce and custody battle, had had enough. He quit music, sold all his master tapes, and began working full time as a painter and contractor.
Rediscovered by Rockabilly Revivalists
During the early to mid-1970s, European audiences rediscovered Riley through the many compilations of Sun material issued by Charly Records. After Elvis Presley's 1977 death, interest in the Memphis pioneers was rekindled in America as well. Punk neo-rockabilly Robert Gordon cut faithful renditions of "Red Hot" and "Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll," and Riley's remake of Fats Domino's "Blue Monday" for Southern Rooster was ecstatically chronicled in Rolling Stone. Yet none of this translated into big dollars.
For a time Riley was bitter over being considered a "cult hero," but relished the idea of returning to music full time. He has become a popular fixture on overseas rockabilly festivals and in American neo-rockabilly clubs and has recorded new sides for that market since 1979. However, whenever he wants to make a true artistic statement, Riley always turns to his first and greatest love--the blues. His albums for Hightone, Capricorn, and Icehouse contain his finest, most compelling works. Singing more expressively than ever, the age defying Billy Lee Riley still aches to create fresh roots music with a beat.
by Ken Burke
Billy Lee Riley's Career
Three-year association with Sam Phillips' Sun Records, 1956-59; billed as Billy Riley and His Little Green Men, released "Red Hot" and "Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll," 1957; cofounded the Rita label, 1959; recorded for the House of Blues, 1960; formed the Mojo label, 1961; recorded three albums for Mercury, 1964-65; played the Whiskey-a-Go-Go circuit, 1964-67; appeared in the racing film Speed Lovers, 1968; recorded for Sun International, 1969-70; recorded for Chips Moman's Entrance label, 1971; recorded for Hightone, 1992; recorded for Icehouse Records, 1995; recorded for Capricorn, received Grammy Award nomination for Best Blues Recording, 1996; returned to Icehouse Records, 1999; rerecorded early Sun material for his own Sun-Up label, 2002.
Billy Lee Riley's Awards
Induction, Rockabilly Hall of Fame, 1996; Arkansas Walk of Fame, 2000.
- Selected discography
- Harmonica & the Blues , Crown, 1962.
- Big Harmonica Special , Mercury, 1964.
- Harmonica Beatlemania , Mercury, 1965.
- Whiskey a Go Go Presents , Mercury, 1965.
- Funk Harmonica , GNP, 1966.
- In Action , GNP, 1966.
- Southern Soul , Mojo, 1968; reissued, Cowboy Carl, 1981.
- Legendary Sun Performers: Billy Lee , Charly, 1977.
- Sun Sound Special: Billy Lee , Charly, 1978.
- Vintage , Mojo, 1978.
- 706 Reunion , Sun-Up, 1992.
- Blue Collar Blues , Hightone, 1992.
- Classic Recordings 1959-1960 , Bear Family, 1994.
- Rockin' Fifties , Icehouse, 1995.
- Hot Damn! , Capricorn, 1997.
- Very Best of Billy Lee Riley: Red Hot , Collectables, 1998.
- Shade Tree Blues , Icehouse, 1999.
- One More Time , Sun-Up, 2002.
- Escott, Colin, and Martin Hawkins, Good Rockin' Tonight--Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll, St. Martin's Press, 1991.
- Escott, Colin, and Martin Hawkins, Sun Records--The Brief History of the Legendary Label, Quick Fox, 1980.
- Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, second edition, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
- Knopper, Steve, editor, MusicHound Swing: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
- Mansfield, Brian, and Gary Graff, editors, MusicHound Country: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1997.
- McNutt, Randy, We Wanna Boogie--An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement, HHP Books, 1988.
- Morrison, Craig, Go Cat Go! Rockabilly Music and Its Makers, University of Illinois Press, 1996.
- White, George R., Bo Diddley--Living Legend, Castle Communications, 1995.
- Blue Suede News, #61, 2003.
- Blues Connection, Fall 1999.
- Brutarian Quarterly, #36, 2002; #37, 2003.
- "Billy Lee Riley," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 2, 2003).
- "Billy Lee Riley," Rockabilly Hall of Fame, http://www.rockabillyhall.com (July 2, 2003).
- Additional information was obtained from the author's various interviews with Billy Lee Riley c. 1998-2003, from which quotations used in this biography were drawn.