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In the wake of deserting its black constituency to connect with a white audience, and later selling Elvis to RCA (for a paltry $35,000), Sun Records was ready for Riley. The upstart singer/guitarist fit Phillips' bright-young-white-boy-with-a-big-black-voice template. What's more, Riley could play damn near any instrument he laid his hands on. The music-biz lessons came hard and fast.
If you played in a band in the mid-'50s, it was a given that you wouldn't make a dime, unless, of course, you were a first-generation rock 'n' roll capitalist (label and publisher cheese, the ubiquitous managerial/agent riff-raff). Artist royalties came in the form of chicks, free booze, and a level of fame you might be lucky enough to grasp. Like many entrepreneurs of the era, Sam Phillips was notorious for scrimping on royalty payments. So, after countless backup sessions, the unfinished album, and the "Red Hot" debacle, a malcontented Riley split from Sun in 1960.
"We were all amateurs," he says. "We didn't know what we were doing. We didn't know at the time we were making history. All the record companies were making all the money, we wasn't making anything. We didn't know we was supposed to make anything. Nobody told us we was supposed to make money on all that. We were just supposed to have a good time. Rock 'n' roll, whiskey and women. . . ."
"What happened between me and Sam and all the other artists is the same thing that happened between the old black artists when Elvis came along," he continues. "When Elvis came along, Phillips dropped all his blues acts. Then with Jerry Lee Lewis, he dropped everybody and went with Jerry Lee."
During a roundtable discussion of rock 'n' roll pioneers filmed for an as-yet-unreleased documentary on Sun, Riley queried Phillips as to why he snubbed the "Red Hot" single 44 years ago. Phillips offered no apologies. "I asked him, 'Why did you kill my record? You know we had a hit record.' He says, 'Yeah, I know you had a hit record.' . . . That's it. And that part probably won't even make it into the documentary."
The bone-wearied trail to Rockstarville is haunted with seminal figures who never got their fiscal due or a secure place in the history books (start counting: Stoney Edwards, Hank Snow, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Thunders etc. . . .). Riley didn't spend his post-Sun years defeated and wallowing in self-pitying oblivion, nor did he switch to self-destruct mode and fall into the shadow of a tombstone.
Riley left Memphis for Southern California, quit drinking, and began his next act as a producer/label owner/session man. He formed Rita Records and co-produced a Harold Dorman million seller, "Mountain of Love." He was considered an A-list session man and his credits read like a veritable in-list of L.A. pop in the '60s: the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Rick Nelson, among others. His harmonica solos waft from Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. records. He has performed onstage with Janet Leigh, Natalie Wood, Eddie Fisher and Pearl Bailey.
By the mid-'70s, after a run of sour deals and industry downturns, Riley found himself back in Arkansas and out of the music game. A few years later the emotional sparks from a Memphis blues festival appearance lured him out of brief retirement.
Cut to 2001. At 67, with his wife of 24 years and four grown children, Riley enjoys a life-sustaining cult-level appreciation. He continually tours the U.S. and Europe. His records do well enough to extend beyond the nooks and crannies of the niche he's carved for himself.
Riley's voice still resonates as it did on the old Sun singles, graceful in a well-traveled timbre, peppered with patented '50s hepster inflections. He recorded 1999's Shade Tree Blues in the old Sun studio. The sound is a return to form, built upon spare, bluesy strokes that move between fourth-gear guitar/harp mop-ups and ironic heart-on-the-sleeve pity-parties.
It's a sound with a built-in historical context, one that recalls jukejoints in the racially segregated South where black and white dancers literally danced over partitions that separated them. A sound that shows how only the rarest of creatures can grow old gracefully and still play the rock 'n' roll, mining clichés without ever resorting to shtick.
Lester Bangs once said: "Sun Records at its peak was like punk rock at its best, the premise and principle of American democracy brought right back home. I/you can do it, too; anybody can do it."
Take away the fact that what went on at Sun studios altered the course of history in the Western world, and an understaffed and shabbily run operation is all that is left. But the shiny promise of Sun, the very idea of creating Elvises out of trailer-raised kids lost in truck stops was huge and fantastic. And no one who set foot in that tiny studio epitomized Sun's promise more than Billy Lee Riley.
These days, Riley insists he has no axes to grind, only the optimistic hope of one day seeing the primordial ooze of rock 'n' roll get re-examined, if only for the sake of setting the record straight.