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"His band was just a Rockin' mother!" - Sam Phillips
Billy Lee Riley is one of the most important founders of the original Rockabilly sound. His band was the first to record what became the Rock n' Roll sound, by adding piano, and sax to the Rockabilly mix of guitar & drums. Riley and his "Little Green Men" recorded the true ground zero of what we know today as Rock n' Roll, building upon earlier works like Brenston and Turner's "Rocket 88."
"As far as I'm concerned, our band is the beginning of Memphis Rock n' Roll, I had the real heavy drums, horns, and piano.We had the original Rock n' Roll. We were the first ones that did that. - Billy Lee Riley
Riley was highly influential as leader of "The Little Green Men," which were featured on most of the Sun records recorded from 1956-1959. Working together, and as extras, this group became the Sun sound.s
"You don't need piano and horns with Rockabilly" - Sam Phillips
The original Little Green Men were J.M. Van Eaton on drums, Roland Janes on guitar, and Marvin Pepper on bass. Soon, Jerry Lee Lewis joined in on piano, along with Ace Cannon, and later Martin Willis on sax. Pat O'Neil on bass, and Jimmy Wilson on Piano, would eventually replace Pepper, and Lewis. Riley provided the vocals, and harmonica, later replacing Janes on guitar.
"Artists that didn't have a band would use the Sun house band, which was in essence, Riley's band." - Mark Bell, Sun Studio Director.
This group forged the new sound of Rock & Roll from the Country, and Blues combination of Rockabilly, by adding the first Rockabilly piano (Jerry Lee Lewis, and later Jimmy Wilson) & sax (Ace Cannon, and later Martin Willis)
"Martin Willis is the greatest horn man that ever lived!"- Billy Lee Riley
Jerry Lee Lewis grew out of this band, which created, and defined the sound behind many of the major artists at Sun, or sometimes worked as extras for those that had their own bands, including Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Sonny Burgess, Warren Smith, and others.
Sam didn't want piano on his songs until Jerry Lee came along." - Billy Lee Riley
Billy Lee was born October 5, 1933 in Pocahontas, Arkansas. Riley is part Indian blood, and like the others at Sun, heard the Black Blues in the cotton fields, and White Country music on the radio.
Like many of the Sun artists, Riley was born dirt poor, and at one time lived with his family in an army tent.
By the age of 6, he began playing the harmonica, and had mastered the guitar by age 11. Amazingly, Riley recorded his first record at age 15.
"Riley was going (driving) 80 mph, opened the (car) door, and put his foot on the pavement. Ripped the sole off his shoe and almost broke his leg!" - Smoochy Smith
-Billy Lee Riley in 1956
If you wanted to hear the Blues, you had to go to the porches of the Black families in the evening or just pick cotton along side one of the singers." - Billy Lee Riley
In Forrest City, Billy Lee was taught by several local Bluesmen, one of whom was Jericho "Lightning' Leon" Carter. Carter gained his moniker from surviving a thunderbolt which struck and killed a mule he was leading. Carter died in 1947, but Billy Lee sometimes preforms under his pseudonym "Lightning' Leon out of respect for his early mentor. Riley's publishing company bears Carter's name today.---
After an Army stint from 1949 - '53 he married and settled back in Memphis, where he joined a Country band with Jack Clement and Slim Wallace. Clement and Wallace formed Fernwood Records in 1956 with Riley as the first recording artist on the Fernwood label cutting "Think Before You Go," and "Trouble Bound."----------------
Jack Clement brought the acetates to Sam Phillips who had the only lathe in Memphis to cut the masters. Sam hired Clement as a producer, and gave Billy Lee a recoding contract.
"Riley saw Perkins bass player Clayton climb all over his bass during performances, and suggested Peppers do the same for him. Marvin tried, but fell through the Movie screen at the Malco, which cost Riley $500." - Smoochy Smith
In May of 1956 Riley cut his first Sun single, "Rock With Me Baby." January 1957 saw the release of "Flying Saucer Rock n' Roll," where Riley's band got their name the "Little Green Men." With Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, and Roland Janes on guitar, and J.M. Van Eaton on skins, Riley had the hottest band of the day.
Sun owned the copyright to Billy "The Kid" Emerson's "Red Hot", and with Janes, and drummer J.M. Van Eaton pounding the skins, Riley delivered what is probably one of the finest examples of boot stompin' pure Rock N' Roll ever to hit tape at Sun. Unlike Presley's close cover of Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right," Riley's version of Emerson's "Red Hot" is hardly even recognizable as the same song.
"You Can't Say that "Red Hot" is Rockabilly." - Billy Lee Riley
"The only Rockabilly I cut was "Trouble Bound," and 'I want You Baby" - The rest was Rock N' Roll." - Billy Lee Riley
Like Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin'," cut five months earlier, Riley's "Red Hot," and "Flying Saucer Rock n' Roll" were true original Rockabilly cuts, a type of music that was never before heard. Both were rougher sounds than Presley's earlier Rockabilly cuts, like "That's All Right."
Note the interesting difference in styles of the two Sun cuts of "Red Hot." Emerson is a polished and refined Black Bluesman experimenting by injecting a Country beat into his otherwise smooth Blues. Riley's later remake of Emerson's work is an prime example of Sun artists contorting their Blues and Country roots into Rock n' Roll.
Riley's cranking voice pared with Van Eaton's beat along with the Little Green Men were really hot that day, and Rock n' Roll never sounded better. However by 1958 "Red Hot" had only sold 37,000 copies, as Phillips had told distributors to push "Great Balls of Fire" instead of "Red Hot."
"Red Hot" remains a classic to this day, on par with any of Sun's greatest work.
With Roland Janes, Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, John "Ace" Cannon on sax, J.M. Van Eaton on drums, and Pat O'Neil on Bass (Martin Willis on sax joined after Red Hot), Riley cut Pearly Lee in late January 1957.
Riley could step in to any session and make it sing classic Rockabilly hits. Like Howlin' Wolf, Riley's love was the harmonica, however, he can be found on guitar, vocals, bass, as well as the harp, on many Sun cuts.
Riley is a master of the harmonica, once in a California session, he played holding six harmonicas at once between his fingers. "Because of modulation" Riley would say. Riley plays bass on Ray Smith's "Rockin Bandit," and on other Sun recordings.
Ironically titled "Wouldn't You Know," the song was cut November 25, 1958, with Riley and The Little Green Men. Along with other great talents, Riley watched as Phillip's limited resources pushed Jerry Lee's record sales at the expense, and fame of many other highly talented Sun artists like Cash, Burgess, Perkins, Orbison, and Warren Smith.
"He (Sam) devoted 99% of his time to Jerry Lee." - Billy Lee Riley
Riley still had the best band in the business, and Phillips worked them hard on "Got Your Water Boilin' Baby" and "One More Time."
"Riley was just a damn good rocker, and his band was just one Rockin' mother." - Sam Phillips
Billy Lee and Roland Janes
One speculated reason Phillips pushed Jerry Lee's records over Riley's was that if Riley did well he would have to go on tour, effectively leaving Sun without a staff to back up the myriad of Sun artists that did not have their own band.
"Sam jokingly said he couldn't let me get a hit 'cause You'll leave and take the band, and I won't have anyone to record with," - Billy Lee Riley
After '59, Riley played lead guitar, and Charles Underwood, engineered Herb Alpert's "Lonely Bull Album in the Nashville West California Studio. Along with work with Alpert, Riley also cut steady session performances with the Beach Boys, Dean Martin, Johnny Rivers, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, John Davidson, Ricky Nelson, and others.
Riley and Roland Janes released Harold Dorman's huge million selling 1960 hit, "Mountain of Love." on their own label Rita Records.
End Billy Lee Riley Tour