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

Life of Riley

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."

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.

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.

"When people talk about Sun Records, they forget that we were even there," Riley says blankly, as if he is tired of yakking about it. "If hadn't been for us -- me and my band -- I imagine some of those guys wouldn't have made it. We were the music behind it. Me and my band as a group and as individuals, we played a bigger part in Sun happening than anybody around there."


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