August 2, 2009 – Billy Lee Riley was born on October 5, 1933 in Pocahontas, Arkansas, and taught to play guitar by black farm workers.
After a four year stint he first recorded in Memphis, Tennessee in 1955 before joining Sam Phillips at Sun Studios. His first hit was “Flyin’ Saucers Rock and Roll” / “I Want You Baby” in early 1957 after which he recorded “Red Hot” /”Pearly Lee” released in September 1957 both backed by Jerry Lee Lewis on piano.
“Red Hot” was showing a lot of promise as a big hit record, but Sam Phillips pulled the promotion and switched it to “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis. Riley felt that his own chances of chart success were compromised when Phillips diverted resources to Lewis’ career. He had other Sun recordings and they, likewise, did not have a lot of sales as his promotion had stopped. Like other artists such as Sonny Burgess, Hayden Thompson, Ray Harris and Warren Smith, chart success largely eluded him.
Considered good looking and with wild stage moves, Riley had a brief solo career with his backing band the Little Green Men. Riley and his Little Green Men were the main Sun studio band. They were Riley, guitarist Roland Janes, drummer J.M. Van Eaton, Marvin Pepper, and Jimmy Wilson, later joined by Martin Willis.
In 1960, he left Sun and started Rita Record label with Roland Janes. They produced the national hit record “Mountain of Love” by Harold Dorman. He later started two other labels, Nita and Mojo.
In 1962, he moved to Los Angeles and worked as a session musician with Dean Martin, the Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, Sammy Davis Jr. and others, as well as recording under various aliases.
Leaving the Music Industry (for a while)
In the early 1970s, Riley quit music to return to Arkansas to begin his own construction business. In 1978 “Red Hot” and “Flyin’ Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll” were covered by Robert Gordon and Link Wray, which led to a one-off performance in Memphis in 1979, the success of which led to further recording at Sun Studio and a full-time return to performing.
Rediscovered by Bob Dylan in 1992, who had been a fan since 1956, Riley playing again, mostly rock and roll, blues and country-blues.
His album Hot Damn! in 1997 was nominated for a Grammy Award.
In 2005 at the age of 72 he was injured falling on a slippery department store floor which required two surgeries as a result, but a year later he released a country CD, Hillbilly Rockin’ Man.
The Rockabilly Hall of Fame reported in summer 2009 that Riley was in poor health, battling stage four colon cancer. His last public performance came in June 2009 at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street in Memphis, when he took part in Petefest 2009, honoring historian Pete Daniel, who had befriended Riley while helping launch the Memphis Rock N’ Soul Museum. Supported by a walker, Billy Lee rocked out on “Red Hot” and other of his old hits.
He succumbed to colon cancer on August 2, 2009, in Jonesboro, Arkansas. He was 75.
In 2015, Bob Dylan offered this tribute to Riley, thanking MusiCares for their support in Riley’s last years:
“He was a true original. He did it all: He played, he sang, he wrote. He would have been a bigger star but Jerry Lee came along. And you know what happens when someone like that comes along. You just don’t stand a chance. So Billy became what is known in the industry – a condescending term, by the way – as a one-hit wonder. But sometimes, just sometimes, once in a while, a one-hit wonder can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who’s got 20 or 30 hits behind him. And Billy’s hit song was called “Red Hot,” and it was red hot. It could blast you out of your skull and make you feel happy about it. Change your life.”