Thursday, 6 August 2009
Billy Lee Riley - Times Obituary
Billy Lee Riley was a rock’n’roll pioneer and a member of the famous Sun Records stable, where his label mates included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. His biggest hit came with Flying Saucers Rock and Roll (1957). Although he struggled to repeat that record’s chart success, he returned to popularity during the rockabilly revival of the 1980s and he toured Britain and Europe regularly.
Born into a poor, sharecropping family in Pocahontas, Arkansas, in 1933, he was taught to play guitar and harmonica by the blues musicians with whom he worked in the fields — to supplement the family income he had been picking cotton since he was only 6.
At 15 he lied about his age and joined the US Army, serving for four years from 1948 to 1952. On his discharge he returned to Arkansas and joined the Ranch Boys, performing hillbilly songs on a local radio station before he moved to Memphis to work in his brother-in-law’s restaurant.
He arrived at a propitious moment, just as black rhythm ‘n’ blues and white country music were coming together in the city to create rock’n’roll, and he made his first recordings in 1955 for the tiny Fernwood label, owned by “Cowboy” Jack Clement and Slim Wallace. The label recorded in a garage with only limited technical facilities and so to master what was intended to be Riley’s debut single, Trouble Bound backed with Think before Your Go, Clement took the tapes to Sam Phillips at Sun Records.
Phillips was so taken with Trouble Bound that he hired Clement to work for him and signed Riley to a recording contract, also employing him and the drummer J. M. Van Eaton and the guitarist Roland Janes from his backing group as members of the Sun house band.
Trouble Bound eventually appeared on Sun as a single in 1956, backed with a new cut Rock with Me Baby, after Phillips had rejected Think before You Go as too country. But it was Riley’s next release, Flying Saucers Rock and Roll, that took him into the American charts. Its timing was perfect, riding the crest of the rock’n’roll explosion and the growing fascination with UFOs and on the crest of the Soviet launch of the first Sputnik.
The record’s spectacular success led Riley to rename his band the Little Green Men and to dress them in green baize suits. With his film-star good looks and Presley-like stage moves, stardom seemed guaranteed. Yet the follow-up single, Red Hot, featuring Jerry Lee Lewis accompanying Riley on pounding piano, fared less well. In later years Riley claimed the reason was that Phillips and Sun failed to promote it properly because they were too busy pushing Lewis’s own Great Balls of Fire.
He continued to record for Sun until 1959 without further significant commercial success, although his 1950s Memphis recordings today are considered rockabilly classics and Bob Dylan has cited Riley as an early influence. After leaving Sun he started his own label before moving in 1962 to Los Angeles, where he became a studio session musician, playing on records by the Beach Boys, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin, among others.
He returned to Arkansas in the early 1970s and abandoned music to start a construction business. By 1978, however, Flying Saucers Rock and Roll and Red Hot had been rediscovered by a new generation of music fans.
After his early Sun recordings were reissued on the Charly label and hailed as lost rockabilly classics, Riley returned to performing and became particularly popular in Britain where the likes of Shakin’ Stevens helped to restore his brand of music to commercial favour.
He continued to perform and record regularly for the next 30 years. His 1997 album Hot Damn! was nominated for a Grammy award and his final release, Hillbilly Rockin’ Man (2003), on which he returned to his country roots, was critically well received.
He played his final show in June 2009 at the Rock and Soul Museum in Memphis, by which time he had an advanced cancer.
Billy Lee Riley, singer, was born on October 5, 1933. He died of cancer on August 2, 2009, aged 75.