Life of Riley

Sun Records' rock 'n' roll pioneer survives cult-hero status

Ask anybody who the hell Billy Lee Riley is and the response will range from a casual shoulder shrug to a mumbled "I dunno." Considering that Riley helped shape a crucial portion of 20th-century culture and define the very notion of rock 'n' roll, it's almost laughable how unheralded he is.

But Bob Dylan knew Riley stood without peer. At a time when Dylan was the most significant rock star on earth, he called Riley his idol.

In his day, Billy Lee Riley was one of the sharpest rockabilly tools of the 1950s, a "grad" from the same Sun Records rockabilly finishing school that spawned Elvis, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich and other larger-than-life marquee heads. Riley recorded arguably two of the most potent and joyful -- yet criminally neglected -- wonderwaxings of the era, the genre-defining "Red Hot," and the purposely imbecilic "Flying Saucer Rock 'n' Roll."

Red hot: The legendary Billy Lee Riley.
Red hot: The legendary Billy Lee Riley.


Scheduled to perform as part of Arizona's Rhythm & Rudes Scorcher on Sunday, July 22. The Silver Jets, Cattieness & the Revenge, Whitewall Slicks, Hot Rod Boogie, Easterling & Glidersleeve, and The Ba Da Bings are also set to perform. Shows begin at 3 p.m.
Rhythm Room

Between 1955 and 1960, Riley, with his band The Little Green Men, played on nearly every rockabilly side recorded at Sun Studios. He did tours with Sun Records' stars, riff-shouting his own spirited tri-chord blasts from atop concession stands at drive-in movie theaters, in high school auditoriums and at county fairs. Critics from the era reported that Riley's shows brimmed with unrivaled verve and energy.

In short, Riley was one of the first musicians to sop up R&B and blues from the black south -- his home turf -- and fashion it into rockabilly, America's first form of white rock 'n' roll.

Although he has been inducted into the Smithsonian Institution (for his pioneering role in rock 'n' roll), and nominated for a Grammy (for the 1997 blues fest, Hot Damn), the history texts have virtually ignored Riley.

Was Riley's rise to relative obscurity due to some beckoning arrogance, ebbing ambition or subliminal desire to elude the limelight? "Nah," he says, via telephone from his Arkansas home.

He'll tell you the orphic aspects of his early career link to Sun Records' honcho Sam Phillips. Phillips, you'll recall, is the Machiavellian Oz who had the genius and sense of timing to record the inspired musical epiphanies of bucolic kinfolk and turn them into the force of nature we call rock 'n' roll.

The story goes that in 1957 Phillips pulled the plug on Riley at precisely the wrong moment, and for no other reason than to jump-start Jerry Lee Lewis' recording career. (A year later, Lewis found himself labeled an incestuous, pedophilic bigamist, and his career swiftly tumbled.) For Riley, the momentum pistons were unquestionably flailing; girls were screaming, DJs were calling, and Southern racist mooks were howling their disapproval over another white guy playing the black music. In a career based on timing, Riley's could not have been healthier.

Legendary DJ Alan Freed declared that Riley's "Red Hot" would be a Top Five smash. In those days, a Freed prediction like that meant gold. The single had already garnered heavy airplay and myriad orders from record shops around the country.

"'Red Hot' was going to be become a national hit," explains Riley in the disarming cadence of a Southern preacher. "I had booked myself on Alan Freed's nationwide tour. I was in Canada at the time. When I called Sam one day, he told me to close out in Canada and come home and cut an album. So we did. But we never did finish the album.

"He got me off the Alan Freed tour and got Jerry Lee put in my place. He killed my record. I saw the orders, there were orders for a lot of records. He got on the phone right in front of me while I was standing there and called the distributor and said 'We're not shipping "Red Hot," we're shipping "Great Balls of Fire."'

Riley catches himself before launching into to a Sam Phillips-inspired tirade. Issues seem to exist that he'd rather not bring up. He offers instead a telling sentiment understood by anyone familiar with record-biz hierarchy: "We were doing more for Sam Phillips than he was doing for us."

Born in 1934 during the Great Depression, Riley grew up in rural Mississippi and Arkansas on predominantly black plantations and sharecropping farms. By age 6, the Delta Blues had seeped into the boy's brainpan; soon he was aping the singing and guitar-playing style of his young black friends.

"We lived on plantations right next door to the black families, which were all our friends, and we didn't know color, ya know," he explains. "We was raised not to see color, not to know it. They were human beings and friends and we all worked together, sang together, and loved each other. That's the way it was in those days."

The economics of tilling the soil foreshadowed what Riley would later experience in the record biz.

"We wound up farmin' and sharecroppin' and there again the land owner was gettin' all the money," he says. "That's all he wanted. We was supposed to be getting money and we wasn't, and we were treated just like the slaves, more or less."

During this time period, Memphis was the hub of mid-South musical activity. And unlike Nashville, it wasn't a company town, but a haven for hungry renegades eager to shake things up. So, after a stint in the Army, Riley moved to Memphis. In 1955, his obvious charisma and musical skills caught the eye of eminent producer/lunatic Jack Clement. Clement recorded Riley in his garage studio, and the tunes resulted in a deal with Sam Phillips and Sun Records.

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