Billy Lee Riley Biography

5 October 1933, Pocahontas, Arkansas, USA. One of the unsung members of the early Sun Records roster, Billy Lee Riley’s recordings for the label remain among the most uninhibited rock ‘n’ roll sides to be released during the mid- to late 50s.

Of Irish-Indian parentage, Riley was raised in rural Arkansas and by the age of 10 was working in the cotton fields to help put food on the family table. His father introduced him to the harmonica and guitar and by the time Riley entered the army (illegally) at the age of 15, he was proficient on both instruments. He played in a hillbilly band during his stint in the army and carried on performing following his discharge in 1955. While holding down a number of menial jobs Riley gained valuable musical experience playing with the country bands C.D. Tennyson And The Happy Valley Boys and the KBTM Ranch Boys. He was then hired as vocalist with the Memphis, Tennessee-based Dixie Ramblers, and cut his first solo demo with fellow band member, Jack Clement. The tape caught the attention of Sun Records boss Sam Phillips and landed Riley a recording contract with the rock ‘n’ roll era’s pre-eminent label. Joined in the studio by Roland Janes (guitar), Marvin Pepper (bass) and Jimmy Van Eaton (drums), Riley’s first recording for Sun was the Ray Scott-penned ‘Flyin’ Saucers Rock ‘N’ Roll’, a classic slice of rockabilly mayhem that spawned a number of inferior remakes. Riley’s version failed to make much of an impact, a fate that also befell his terrific take on Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson’s ‘Red Hot’. The latter featured pianist Jimmy Wilson, the newest addition to Riley’s backing band who were by now affectionately known as the Little Green Men. Riley and the Little Green Men were subsequently utilised by Phillips as in-house session players and as a backing band for many of Sun’s better-known acts, a situation that so frustrated Riley that he eventually quit the label to join Brunswick Records. However, after only one single for Brunswick Riley rejoined Sun and cut a number of tracks during 1958/9, still with no commercial success.

After leaving Sun for the last time in 1960, Riley joined former guitarist Roland Janes in launching the Rita Records label. He subsequently set up his own Mojo label and wrote and performed radio jingles, before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a session career. He worked with prestigious artists that included Herb Alpert, the Beach Boys, Sammy Davis Jnr. , Dean Martin and Rick Nelson, and also relaunched his recording career with a number of instrumental harmonica albums for the Mercury Records, GNP and Crown labels. He left Los Angeles in 1966 and settled in Atlanta, recording an album and single on his revived Mojo label. Stints with the Stax Records subsidiary Hip and Shelby Singleton’s Sun International followed, before Riley retired from music in the mid-70s and spent the next few years working as a decorator.

In the 80s Riley picked up his guitar again and began performing and touring throughout Europe, wowing receptive audiences with a set comprising classic rockabilly numbers. In 1992, Riley changed tack and recorded a blues album, Blue Collar Blues, for HighTone Records. Even better was 1997’s Grammy-nominated Hot Damn!, which took in rockabilly, country and blues in a rousing tribute to the artist’s musical roots. The next stage in Riley’s comeback, Shade Tree Blues, was released two years later by the Icehouse label. He continued performing and recording into the new millennium, and in 2003 released a country album Hillbilly Rockin’ Man.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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