Helped develop the Sun Records sound
Billy Lee Riley, a rambunctious performer who helped develop the Sun Records sound as a studio musician for other headliners, died Sunday in Jonesboro, Ark. He was 75.
Riley’s singles included “Red Hot” and “Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll,” the latter of which led him to call his band “The Little Green Men” for a time. He had been suffering from colon cancer, and it had moved to his bones, his wife, Joyce, told The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee.
“He was actually feeling better lately. So the very end was unexpected. But, he went peacefully,” Joyce Riley said.
Riley was one of the early performers who recorded at Memphis’ legendary Sun Records, but he was overshadowed by his cohorts, including Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Among many other songs, Riley and his band played on the original Sun recording of Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.”
Riley’s voice at times had a cadence similar to Presley’s but early on he sang with more of a growl. His voice softened in his later recordings, which focused more on blues. A 22-song compilation, “Red Hot: The Best of Billy Lee Riley,” is among the records still available.
Born in the town of Pocahontas, Riley grew up in a sharecropper family in northeast Arkansas and learned guitar and harmonica from other families.
In the early 1960s, Riley took his talents to California, where he worked as a studio musician for The Beach Boys, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. He also played bass, drums and sang.
Riley continued to perform, touring in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s to receptive rockabilly audiences. He kept performing late in life, including a June gig in Memphis with Sonny Burgess, another northeast Arkansas native and Sun performer.