Billy Lee Riley | Rockabilly musician | Obituary

Pioneer of rockabilly and star of its revival

A Memphis contemporary of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Lee Riley was a pioneering rockabilly musician who missed out on fame. Riley, who has died aged 75, began recording for Sun Records not long after Presley and before Lewis. Handsome, reputedly the wildest live performer of all the rockabilly singers and with a distinctive sound of his own, Riley was the equal of his contemporaries.

Riley was born in Pocohontas, Arkansas. Aged three, his family moved on to a plantation. He grew up playing with the children of black sharecroppers and claims he learned to play the harmonica when he was six. He left school to work in the fields with his parents when he was eight. These experiences shaped Riley's feelings for the blues.

When he was 15, he joined the US Army, serving for four years. Discharged, he formed a band and began working in a shoe factory. Married in 1954, he and his wife moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and opened a restaurant, but it was closed after a gunfight. Riley then held a variety of jobs until on Christmas morning, 1955, he picked up two hitchhikers, one of whom turned out to be Jack Clement, an aspiring music producer. Clement invited Riley to record at his Memphis studio and, in March 1956, Sam Phillips, the visionary producer behind Sun Records, heard it and signed Riley as an artist and Clement as a producer.

Riley's six Sun singles captured the essence of what is now called "rockabilly". Most spectacular were two 1957 singles, Flyin' Saucer Rock'n'Roll and Red Hot. The latter looked to give Riley a national hit, but Phillips chose to delete it and concentrate his promotional funds on Lewis's Great Balls of Fire. Riley was furious and briefly quit Sun. Yet with no other offers he returned and he and his musicians remained the Sun studio band. By 1960 Riley had left Sun and set up his own label, Rita, scoring a US pop hit with Harold Dorman's Mountain of Love.

Bad business deals saw Rita go bankrupt. In 1962 Riley shifted to Los Angeles, where he enjoyed a lucrative career as a session musician, playing guitar and harmonica for everyone from the Beach Boys to Dean Martin.

He released seven albums of his own during the 1960s but found few takers. Relocating to the south, he worked as a freelance producer for the Memphis soul label Stax. Frustrated with his lack of success, Riley left the music business in the early 1970s and went into construction. He stayed with this until the American rockabilly revival singer Robert Gordon recorded Flyin' Saucer Rock'n'Roll and Red Hot in 1979, so introducing Riley to a new generation.

Riley soon found himself playing to international audiences as demand for the surviving 1950s pioneers increased. He released several albums – 1997's Hot Damn! was nominated for a Grammy award – and he headlined at London's Barbican Centre in 2005 as part of the It Came From Memphis festival.

Riley found playing only rockabilly limiting, claiming his first love was the blues music he had learned as a child picking cotton. He is survived by his third wife, Joyce.

Billy Lee Riley, musician and producer, born 5 October 1933; died 2 August 2009


Garth Cartwright

The GuardianTramp

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