Sunday, December 29, 2013

Billy Lee Riley - Sings The Blues

We are sad to report that another Sun artist has been lost. Billy Lee Riley (born in Arkansas on October 5, 1933) died on Sunday, August 2, 2009. I met him some years ago after a Memphis In May concert, where he played despite a bad hip.  I received his autograph and we talked.  Despite some health problems he was in great spirits at the time and told me he still enjoyed playing.  Sonny Burgess & the Pacers informed us recently that Billy Lee Riley was in poor health, battling stage 4 cancer. Despite that, his death was not expected. 
Billy Lee Riley recorded TROUBLE BOUND for Jack Clement and Slim Wallace. Sam Phillips of SUN Records obtained the rights and he released TROUBLE BOUND b/w ROCK WITH ME BABY on September 1, 1956 (Sun 245). His first hit was FLYIN’ SAUCER ROCK AND ROLL b/w I WANT YOU BABY, released February 23, 1957 (Sun 260).  
Billy Lee Riley told me that he was never happy with the way he was treated by Sam Philips, who according to Billy, stopped marketing him when he was on a break through with his 3rd record RED HOT b/w PEARLY LEE released September 30, 1957 (Sun 277).  Both sides of this record were backed by Jerry Lee Lewis on piano.  RED HOT promised to be a big hit record, but Sam Phillips switched  the marketing to GREAT BALLS OF FIRE by Jerry Lee Lewis. RED HOT was pulled without a lot of sales.  Riley recorded some more SUN Records but could not get a hit, much to Riley's frustration as the promotion for him had stopped.
Billy Lee Riley was an excellent harmonica, guitar player and singer and always drew large crowds with his driven, wild performances. Riley had a brief solo career with his backing band "The Little Green Men" and left SUN in 1960, starting the Rita record label together with Roland James. Together they produced the national hit record MOUNTAIN OF LOVE by Harold Dorman and then started two other labels--Nita and Mojo.
In 1962, he moved to L.A. and worked as a session musician with the Beach Boys, Dean Martin and many others.  In the early 70’s, Riley quit the music business and returned to Arkansas and went into construction.
In 1978, RED HOT and FLYIN’ SAUCERS ROCK ‘N ROLL were covered by Robert Gordon and Link Ray, which led to Riley’s comeback and further recording at SUN Studio and a full-time return to performing.  His album "Hot Damn" (Capricorn, 1997) was nominated for a Grammy.  In 2006, he released a country CD, Hillbilly Rockin' Man. The album “Billy Lee Riley Sings The Blues” (see photo) was released in The Netherlands in a limited edition.  This album along with the original “stampers” is on display in the Rock' n Roll & Blues Heritage Museum in Clarksdale.
Billy Lee Riley played rock and country, but he was a blues man at heart.

Not something I would usually post but there are some excellent blues tracks from the 60's that have been mistakenly attributed to black American blues artists.

1 comment:

LakerCrazy said...

Thanks X...Sad to hear of the passing of Billy Lee Riley.I used to work with a Rockbilly band and they wanted to cover "Flyin’ Saucers Rock ‘N Roll" after hearing Robert Gordon's version.I found them the original Billy Lee Riley version...and they were knocked out. Whenever they played it...the crowd went crazy.Jump forward to a couple of years ago, I was walking into see Imelda May & Darrell Higham (her husband) play a show when I noticed a guy struggling to carry 3 guitar cases in the show.I offered a hand...and to make a long story short he was personally delivering 3 Classic Fenders that Darrell had bought from him in LA. This was Imelda's last show before heading back to Ireland so hence the delivery. Got to talking to the guy and discovered he used to own a studio in LA in '60's...everybody played there...he said the best guitar player he ever heard play wasn't James Burton...but a guy I probably had never heard of....Billy Lee Riley! Rest In Peace Billy, your music will live forever.