Archive for August 6th, 2009

6th August
written by Matt The Cat
Billy Lee Riley
1933 – 2009

On Sunday Morning, August 3rd, 2009 rockabilly and Sun Records legend Billy Lee Riley passed away from cancer of the colon. He was 75 years old and the epitome of what it means to be a rock n’ roller. Born into a large, poor family in Pocahontas, Arkansas on October 5, 1933, Billy Riley spent his whole life working hard to make that dollar. He began playing in various country bands after being discharged from the Military in 1954. He was a part of the famed Dixie Ramblers which also included future Sun Records engineer, producer and artist Jack Clement.

In 1956, Riley found himself on Sun Records as owner Sam Phillips reissued a song Riley had cut for the legendary Fernwood label, “Trouble Bound”. Sam placed “Rock With Me Baby” on the flip side and Sun Records 245 was issued in May of 1956. Sam then released the immortal “Flying Saucers Rock n’ Roll”, which will still burn your ears when you hear it today. By this time, Billy Riley and his band had evolved into the Sun Records house band, playing on records by Jerry Lee Lewis (including “Great Balls Of Fire”) and Sonny Burgess And The Pacers’ “Thunderbird” and “Itchy”.

Billy Lee Riley and His Little Green Men cut the definitive version of Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s “Red Hot”, but Sam Phillips failed to put any money behind it and opted to promote “Great Balls Of Fire” instead. “Red Hot” is definitely one of the greatest rock n’ roll songs of all-time as it defines the rockabilly sub-genre with all of it’s wild and crazy, guitar-driven stomp. It’s no wonder that Billy Riley felt shafted that Sam refused to promote what would become a Sun Records classic. 52 years later, we all know who laid that sound down and I have no doubt that Billy Lee Riley will be remembered FOREVER for his contributions to rock n’ roll.

Billy Riley was laid to rest in Newport, AR on Tuesday, August 4th, 2009. His longtime friends and fellow rockabilly legends Sonny Burgess, James Van Eaton and Roland Janes attended the small ceremony.

Many of Billy Riley’s contemporaries will pay tribute to him with a benefit concert for his family on August 30th at 1pm at The Silver Moon Club in Newport, AR. Performing at the show will be: Sonny Burgess and Pacers, WS Holland and band, Carl Mann, Ace Cannon and band, Dale Hawkins, Teddy Riedel, Larry Donn, Travis Wammack, Smoochy Smith, JM Vaneaton and many more. If you would live to make a donation to Billy’s widow, please click HERE for more information.