Billy Lee Riley, 75, Dies; Rockabilly Singer Also Multi-Instrumentalist

Singer Billy Lee Riley, shown performing in 1997, could play many musical instruments and once said he was in demand mostly for his harmonica skills.
Singer Billy Lee Riley, shown performing in 1997, could play many musical instruments and once said he was in demand mostly for his harmonica skills. (1997 Photo By Lici Beveridge Via Associated Press)
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By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Billy Lee Riley, 75, the growling rockabilly singer and multi-instrumentalist who accompanied Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich and others in recording sessions in the 1950s, died Aug. 2 at a hospital in Jonesboro, Ark. He had colon cancer.

Mr. Riley recorded for the Memphis-based record label Sun Records, which discovered and nurtured such talents as Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. The Sun label originated a style known as rockabilly, a hybrid of country music and jump rhythm-and-blues. While not as well-known as others on the label, Mr. Riley was cited by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen as among their favorite performers from that era.

He was best known for the 1957 regional hits "Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll" -- which inspired the name for his backup band, the Little Green Men -- and "Red Hot," both with Lewis on piano. The songs were later recorded by rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon, who closely copied Mr. Riley's arrangements and got the song "Red Hot" onto the national charts in 1978.

As a backing musician, Mr. Riley supplied whatever was needed -- guitar, bass, drums or harmonica -- for recording sessions at Sun. He played upright bass on several of Lewis's hits, including "Great Balls of Fire" and "Breathless."

"Riley was just a damn good rocker," Sun label owner Sam Phillips told music writer Colin Escott in the book "Good Rockin' Tonight," a history of Sun Records, "but, man, he was so damn weird in many ways. He interested the hell out of me, but he was not the easiest person to deal with. When he took a drink he'd become almost a different person."

Phillips often found that the small Sun label had more business than it could handle. As the song "Red Hot" was beginning to break nationally, Mr. Riley overheard Phillips on the phone telling a distributor to cancel an order for the record and to put its promotion behind "Great Balls of Fire" instead.

The phone call offended Mr. Riley. He left the studio but returned drunk. After he kicked a hole in an upright bass and poured wine all over the studio's tape console, Phillips was called in to control the enraged musician.

"We went back into his little cubbyhole," Mr. Riley told Escott, "and talked til sunup. Sam said, ' "Red Hot" ain't got it. We're saving you for something good.' "

Billy Lee Riley was born Oct. 5, 1933, in Pocahontas, Ark., to a sharecropping family. He learned guitar and harmonica from black fieldhands.

After serving in the Army, he settled in Memphis and joined a country band, Snearly's Ranch Boys, where he impressed songwriter "Cowboy" Jack Clement. Clement recorded Mr. Riley for his Fernwood record label but sold the tapes to Sun in 1956. Clement would go on to work at Sun as Johnny Cash's producer.

Mr. Riley moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s and continued to work in recording studios behind such performers as Herb Alpert and the Beach Boys. He said he was mostly in demand for his harmonica work. But eventually lack of attention for his own music drove him back to the Memphis area in the 1970s, and he stated a construction business.

His first two marriages ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 34 years, Joyce Riley; a son from his first marriage; two daughters from his second marriage; a daughter from his third marriage; and two grandchildren.

In the 1980s, when such revivalist acts as Gordon and the Stray Cats brought rockabilly to a new audience, Mr. Riley toured France and England on the strength of his reissued recordings.

"We get the royal treatment over there," he told The Washington Post. "They make us feel like we did in the '50s. The screamin' and hollerin' like we had back then. People trying to get autographs. That's what we have missed for a long time over here."

His later albums "Blue Collar Blues" (1992) and "Hot Damn!" (1996) received favorable notices from rock critics.

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