Billy Lee Riley (born October 5, 1933 - August 2, 2009) was a Rockabilly musician, singer, record producer and songwriter .
Born in Pocahontas, Arkansas, the son of a sharecropper, Riley learned to play guitar from black farm workers. In March 1949 Billy Lee joined the Army. (He was only 15 and didn't have a birth certificate, so he conned his sister into signing papers stating that he was 17.) During his four years of active duty Riley won three first place talent show awards from the Army service club. After his honourable discharge from service, he went back home to live with his family in Jonesboro, Arkansas where he immediately put together a hillbilly band, and began playing local high school dances, radio broadcasts and night clubs.
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). Like other artists such as Sonny Burgess, Hayden Thompson, Ray Harris and Warren Smith, chart success largely eluded him.
"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 Martin Willis.
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 respectively, 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.
He was injured falling on a slippery department store floor in 2005 and that has required two operations, then only just a few months later Billy had a hip replacement followed by multiple bypass surgery. 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 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," honouring 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 Jonesboro, Arkansas. (Info mainly from Wikipedia)
The late, great Billy Lee Riley, Lincoln Center, New York City backed by Lee Rocker on bass, Jim Weider and Billy Burnette on guitars, and Randy Ciarlante on drums.