If you aren't already familiar with Billy Lee Riley, this new album Hot Damn! invites you to join in-the-know music fans and discover a cult legend who is still blowing away audiences around the globe.
Filled with rhythm & blues ("I'm Him," "Fine Little Mama," "Rock Me Baby"), uptempo rockabilly ("Too Close Together," "Go On Pretty Baby,"), and smoky ballads ("Winter Time Blues," and the standout "Rainy Night In Georgia"), Hot Damn! gives full voice to Riley's blues background. "It doesn't matter what I'm playing -- country, rockabilly, whatever -- there's a blues flavor to it," Riley admits with a laugh.
For his Capricorn Records debut, Riley chose to record at the old Sun Studios at 706 Union St., Memphis, Tennessee -- where he first began his recording career in 1956. "I'm more comfortable recording there than anywhere else. You don't have all these high-tech people running around and telling you how to play. I wanted this album to feel as close as possible to the way we played music on the front porch or under the shade tree."
With that in mind, Hot Damn! was recorded using old RCA mics and a live, raw style reminiscent of the 1950s. "We would have a ball at every session," says Riley. "I made a point of not overproducing this album, because the blues has to have a natural, honest feeling. We overdubbed guitar and harmonica, but my vocals were cut at the same time as the rest of the track -- all recorded live. It's the only way you can capture that feeling."
Perhaps more than any other song, the deeply personal stance of Hot Damn! is exemplified by the slow blues grinder "How Come We All Ain't Got The Same," in which Riley reminisces about his childhood -- growing up dirt poor, amid the inequity and intolerance of the rural South.
Born 1933 in Pocahontas, Arkansas, Riley spent his early years living on plantations near Osceola and Forrest City -- small rural towns in the Arkansas Delta region near the Mississippi River. Riley's father, a house painter by trade, would work in the cotton fields to feed the family during lean times.
Young Billy Lee began playing harmonica at age six, and learned blues guitar in his early teens. "Blues is the music I grew up hearing on the plantation. There were black families and white families all living together, far from town. We were poor, and playing music was our main form of entertainment."
In 1956 Riley began recording for the Sun label, and went onto become, as journalist Robert Palmer noted years later in Rolling Stone, "the unsung hero of Sun rock & roll." In addition to his own hit singles -- such as "Red Hot" and "Flying Saucer Rock'n' Roll" (featuring a then-unknown piano player, Jerry Lee Lewis) -- Riley played a decisive role in shaping most of the Sun Records hits of that era. With his band the Little Green Men (the name was inspired by the "Flying Saucer" hit), Riley backed Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other Sun artists -- predating the legendary "house bands" of the 1960s such as Stax/Volt, Motown, and Muscle Shoals.
On his own, Riley earned notoriety throughout the South with his wild live performances, and in the late'50s his shows were banned by various town councils and college administrators who worried that Riley's raucous "devil's music" would corrupt the souls of innocent teenagers.
In 1959 Riley left Sun, but continued to perform and produce music throughout the 1960s working with everybody from Albert Collins, Willie Cobb, and Johnny Rivers, to Herb Alpert, Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., and The Beach Boys. But in 1973, Riley retired from music. "I just couldn't relate to what was going on in music, so I went back to Arkansas to raise my children." The retirement was short-lived: an impromptu 1979 show at the annual "Memphis In May" rekindled Riley's interest in music, and he has been steaming ahead ever since.
Today, Riley still gives scorching live performances in front of rabidly appreciative audiences at various American colleges and throughout Europe (where Riley and his Little Green Men are regarded with particular reverence). Each time he steps onstage, Riley puts every ounce of energy into his music -- and gives the type of show that left audiences stunned and exhilarated in the 1950s.
Idolized by generations of rockabilly and blues artists (Bob Dylan also happens to be one of his biggest fans), Riley now reveals his raw blues roots on Hot Damn!. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the porch swing creaking in the background, and feel the warm Delta breeze on your cheek. And if you're not careful, you might just find yourself the newest convert in Billy Lee Riley's ongoing musical invasion.