Gary: “Listen to these recordings. Jerry Lee is on piano, Roy Orbison is there, Sonny Burgess and so on; they all contributed. It’s sad that Billy Lee Riley is gone because he should have been bigger than he was.
It all had to do with money, which Sam Phillips did not have, so he decided to concentrate on promoting Jerry Lee’s Great Balls of Fire.
It is possible that you have never heard some of these songs; they were, and are, extremely hard to find.
Billy Lee Riley:
Born in Pocahontas, Arkansas, the son of a sharecropper, Billy Lee 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.
Considered good looking and with wild stage moves, Riley had a brief solo career with his backing band “The Little Green Men”.
Billy Lee Riley and his Little Green Men were at one time the main studio band (session players) for SUN. They were:
- Billy Lee Riley (lead vocal),
- Roland Janes (guitar),
- Jimmy Wilson (piano),
- Marvin Pepper (bass),
- J.M. (Jimmy) Van Eaton (drums), and later joined by
- Martin Willis (sax).
According to no less an authority than Jerry Lee Lewis, J.M. Van Eaton is “…THE creative rock’n’roll drummer….”! The man who provided the bluesy backbeat and energetic fills for countless sessions at SUN Records, his drumming is no less than the very heartbeat of rock’n’roll music itself.
“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. Riley had other SUN recordings and they, likewise, did not have a lot of sales as his promotion had stopped.
In 1960, he left SUN, and started Rita Record label with Roland Janes. 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 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.
Riley was rediscovered in 1992 by Bob Dylan, who had been a fan since 1956.
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 “My Gal” and other of his old hits.
Sadly, he succumbed to colon cancer on August 2, 2009, in Jonesboro, Arkansas.