R.I.P. Billy Lee Riley | Rock Candy

Monday, August 3, 2009

R.I.P. Billy Lee Riley

Posted By on Mon, Aug 3, 2009 at 9:02 AM

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Pocohontas native and Sun Records great Billy Lee Riley, who'd been battling cancer since May, died early Sunday at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro. He was 75.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal summed up Riley's gifts aptly in an obit yesterday.

Riley is considered by many to be Sun Records' lost giant. A true multi-threat, he possessed the myriad musical gifts of Carl Perkins, the unhinged spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis, and the punkish insouciance of Elvis Presley -- yet fate never rewarded Riley beyond cult acclaim.

Fate or, some might argue, Sam Phillips. The Sun Records owner enjoyed a hit with Riley's atomic age classic "Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll" in 1957 (thereafter Riley's band went by the Green Men, and at least for a time, according the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, wore green suits made of billiard tablecloth until the dye from the cloth started staining their skin). But just as Riley's follow-up, "Red Hot," began to gain steam, Sun and Phillips put all their promotional might behind Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire."

Despite that setback, Riley continued to record for years, with Sun for a time, then  with Mercury, Atlantic, Hip and his own Rita and Mojo labels. In the '60s, Riley moved to the West Coast and became and in-demand session man, playing on recordings by the likes of the Beach Boys, Dean Martin, John Prine and Wilson Pickett.

More recently, Riley made his home in Newport, recording occasionally and touring often in the festival circuit. In March, he and Sonny Burgess played Juanita's.

There'll be a Billy Lee Riley Memorial Benefit show on Sunday, Aug. 30 at the Silver Moon Club in Newport, beginning at 1 p.m. It'll feature an all-star line-up: Sonny Burgess and the Pacers, WS Holland and his band, Travis Wammack, Carl Mann, Smoochy Smith, Ace Cannon and his band, Jr Rogers, Warren Crow, JM VanEaton, Dale Hawkins, CW Gattin, Teddy Reidel, Jeannie and the Guys, Matt - Jim & Tim the Blues Bros. Band, Teddy Hill, Larry Donn

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