Sun Records in Memphis is justly famous for discovering Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis and making their first hit singles. In the latter half of the 1950s, it was a very productive label and some of their most exciting records were made by Billy Lee Riley. Riley was to have a long and varied career but never became a chart name. He attributed that to being "in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people."
Billy Lee Riley was born one of eight children on a cotton plantation in Pocahontas, Arkansas in October 1933. The family was so poor that they often lived in tents. He heard hillbilly music on the radio and picked up the rudiments of playing harmonica and guitar. In 1946, they were on a plantation with three white and 36 black families and this led to Riley acquiring a love of delta blues. Riley had no birth certificate and when he wanted to enrol in the army in March 1949, one of his sisters testified that he was 18. He returned to civilian life in 1954 and played with country bands in Jonesboro, Arkansas and appeared on local radio.
In 1955, he married and moved to Memphis, where he worked in his brother-in-law's restaurant and then as a truck driver. He befriended Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, and his first Sun single was "Rock With Me Baby" and "Trouble Bound" in May 1956. When Elvis Presley heard "Trouble Bound", he remarked that Riley sounded like him.
Phillips appreciated his talent and had him play on other records as part of the house band. Riley himself used Jerry Lee Lewis on piano for a frenzied novelty, "Flying Saucer Rock And Roll", which was attributed, following a reference in the lyric, to Billy Riley and the Little Green Men.
Riley felt that his time had come with a scorching remake of Billy Emerson's "Red Hot", which also featured Lewis. It was shaping up to be a big seller but some radio stations were wary of the phrase, "Your gal ain't doodly squat", meaning "Your girl is worthless", and Phillips decided to put his promotional budget behind Lewis's "Great Balls Of Fire".
Riley was furious: he got drunk and set about wrecking the Sun studio before Phillips calmed him down with a promise that he would be the next Sun star. The next single, the echo-drenched "Wouldn't You Know", was a nothing of a song and only sold 3,000, around the same time that Riley was playing guitar on Lewis's million-selling "Breathless".
Riley was a handsome, charismatic performer who whipped the crowds and himself into a frenzy. After a particularly wild performance he was banned from the Arkansas State Fair but he returned the following year under a different name. In the early 1960s, the Beatles loved performing a frenetic "Red Hot", but they took their cue from Ronnie Hawkins' version.
Although Riley seemed a natural for rock'n'roll stardom, neither he nor anyone else had a career plan. After the disappointments at Sun, Riley took anything that was going, recording singles for small labels under his own name or such pseudonyms as Darron Lee, Lightnin' Leon, Sandy and the Sandstorms and the Rockin' Stockin's. He co-produced the 1960 hit, "Mountain Of Love" by Harold Dorman and he played guitar with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass on "The Lonely Bull", a million-seller from 1962.
In 1963, some instrumentals he had made as part of the Megatons were sold to Chess Records. The company removed his harmonica and added Bo Diddley's guitar, thus creating the album, Surfin' With Bo Diddley. In 1969, Riley recorded some singles for a reactivated Sun label, now owned by Shelby Singleton, but most of the time he was making ends meet by working as a decorator. He found a following in Europe by appearing at rock 'n' roll festivals. Robert Gordon with Link Wray revived both "Red Hot" and "Flying Saucer Rock And Roll".
In 1992, Riley opened for Bob Dylan in Little Rock, Arkansas and then later in Nashville. Dylan referred to him as "my hero". In 1995, he was the subject of the album, A Tribute To Billy Lee Riley. Riley made albums which he would sell by mail order from his home, including Hot Damn! (1997), Shade Tree Blues (1999) and One More Time (2002).
Billy Lee Riley, singer: born Pocahontas, Arkansas 5 October 1933; married twice (one son, three daughters); died Jonesboro, Arkansas 2 August 2009.