Billy Lee Riley, Red Hot Rocker
Billy Lee Riley is a rocker. Not just some weak-voiced country singer trying to swing, but a soulful, powerful, rockin' man. Indeed, there is something different about the music of Billy Lee. Something that pushes the novice and veteran rockabilly enthusiast to a frenzy. His music is explosive, unchecked, rebellious, hard-edged. He forged it in Memphis in the mid-1950s, when he was hired as a session player at Sun Records. Riley thumped the bass on Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls Of Fire" and on numerous other records. He even played drums, guitar and other instruments. But he did not make his name from behind the scenes of the record business. He made it as a performer. "My band was the Sun sound," Riley told Associated Press reporter Joe Edwards in 1984. "We've never gotten credit for that, but it's a fact. I was doing what Elvis was doing before Elvis did it: mixing blues and hillbilly, putting a laid-back, funky beat to hillbilly music." In those days, Riley was rather extroverted. His stage antics became local legends. When company owner Sam Phillips needed another rockabilly for his Sun label, Riley was a natural choice.
Billy Lee Riley was born on October 5, 1933 in Pocahontas, Arkansas to a sharecropper family at the end of the great depression. His carear has spanned 5 decades and he has made his mark in each one of them. In the 50's he recorded Flying Saucer Rock and Roll which was his first hit record. Recording at Sun Studio's in Memphis, Tennessee, Riley ended up backing up many of the performers who came through the door to do session work at Sun. His guitar and harmonica work was called into play for any performer without a band. Joining him during these sessions were Roland James and J.M. Van Eaton. These three formed a group called the Little Green Men the name drawn from Riley first hit.
During the 60's Billy Lee moved to Las Angeles. The first year was hard but eventually he became one of the hottest session men in LA working with such greats as Herb Alpert, Sammy Davis Jr., The Beach Boys, Pearl Bailey, and many more. Riley say's that working with Sammy Davis Jr. was one of the high points of his long carear.
The 70's found Billy Lee with a new audience. Europe had discovered Rock and Roll and the original rock and rollers were hot comodities. The Europeans loved the real stuff and they wanted it in the flesh. The music that had been just rock and roll was now called Rockabilly and the Rock and Rollers from the 50's could play all they wanted if they were willing to go abroad. England, France, Sweeden, Germany, were all part of the tours. Just about everywhere on the European continent there was some kind of Rockabilly Festival. There were Sweedish Rockabilly Bands, and English Rockabilly Bands, German, Austrian, etc. all on stage playing the music and getting into the style of the early rockers.
The 80's brought more touring in Europe, with long sabitcals in Newport. Billy Lee began playing the music he grew up on. The music of the plantations, call it Gut Bucket Blues or Deep Blues, or Delta Blues it was the foundation for Rock and Roll and it was the foundation for Billy Lee Riley's new carear in the Blues. Billy Lee's choice to turn to the Blues genre was not a big step for him; the Blues were always part of his performances but now they were the major part.
In the early 90's the Smithsonian found Billy Lee and interviewed him for their archives, he released his first all Blues CD "Blue Collar Blues" in 1992, and he does a lecture concert series all over the world about the Blues and the Delta and growing up as a sharecropper. Catch his act you'll be glad you did.
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