Billy Lee Riley (October 5, 1933 - August 2, 2009)
was an American rockabilly musician, singer, record producer and
Born in Pocahontas, Arkansas, the son of a sharecropper, Riley
learned to play guitar from black farm workers. After 4 years in the
Army, Riley first recorded in Memphis, Tennessee in 1955 before being
lured to Sun Studios by Sam Phillips. He recorded "Trouble Bound" for
Jack Clement and Slim Wallace. Sam Phillips obtained the rights and he
released "Trouble Bound" b/w "Rock With Me Baby" on September 1, 1956
(Sun 245). His first hit was "Flyin' Saucers Rock and Roll" b/w "I Want
You Baby" released February 23, 1957 (Sun 260) with backing piano by
Jerry Lee Lewis, after which he recorded "Red Hot" b/w "Pearly Lee"
released September 30, 1957 (Sun 277).
"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. The record was pulled without a lot of sales. He had
other Sun recordings and they, likewise, did not have a lot of sales as
his promotion had stopped.
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, Roland
Janes, J.M. Van Eaton, Marvin Pepper, and Jimmy Wilson, later joined by
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.
In the early seventies, 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
played rock and roll, blues and country-blues.
His album Hot Damn! (Capricorn, 1997) was nominated for the Grammy.
He was injured falling on a slippery department store floor in 2005,
requiring two surgeries as a result. In 2006, 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 4 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 "My Gal" and
other of his old hits. He succumbed to colon cancer on August 2, 2009 in