The Billy Lee Riley Interview!
By Ken Burke
"Memphis 1955 on Union Avenue
Carl and Jerry and Charlie and Roy
And Billy Riley too..."
- Johnny Cash, I Will Rock'n'Roll With You.
More than a cult hero, less than an icon Billy Lee Riley is the best former Sun artist to never have a national hit record. Passionate, sexy, funny, and rhythmic, his waxings of "Red Hot" and "Flyin' Saucers Rock'n'Roll" encapsulate everything which is good about 50s rock'n'roll. The frantic growl may have owed something to Little Richard, but the attack and attitude was pure Memphis-era Riley.
The moviestar handsome Riley and his band The Little Green Men (J.M. Van Eaton, Roland Janes, Marvin Pepper, Martin Willis, and Jimmy Wilson) quickly won a reputation as the best show band in the Mid-South, but neither their wild onstage histrionics nor their musical excellence translated into hit records.
The booming success of labelmate Jerry Lee Lewis (who briefly played piano for Riley's group) resulted in Sam Phillips pulling support from Riley's record to feed the fires of Lewis's career. Subsequently, Riley and his band earned eating money backing nearly every act who recorded at Sun. So indispensable were their talents that Phillips reportedly said to Riley "I can't let you have a hit record. If I did, you'd take your band and go out on the road."
Eventually, a disillusioned Riley left Sun to embark on a rather remarkable music industry odyssey which continues to this day. He has recorded for dozens of different labels, under many different names, and cut everything from pop to blues, to novelty tunes and instrumentals, and tons of good ol' rock'n'roll. After moving to California during the early 60s, he became a much sought after session man, playing harmonica behind the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, the Beach Boys, Johnny Rivers and many others. Riley has even sold tapes to Chess on which they overdubbed the Surfin' With Bo Diddley album.
Though a favorite on the Whiskey-A-Go-Go circuit, Riley quit music during the early 70s. He reemerged after the death of Elvis to fresh audiences craving to see what they missed the first time around, and he does not disappoint. Of all his contemporaries, Billy Lee Riley has the most gas left in his tank. Whether he is rockin' hard onstage or emoting gut-bucket blues in the studio, Riley continues to tap into what makes him and his music unique, even vital.
The following is a distillation of three lengthy phone conversations which took place while Riley was preparing and recording his new LP Shade Tree Blues. I found him to be honest, articulate, and the possessor of a rather wry sense of humor. We started at the beginning.
KB: I've read that you are of Native American ancestry, is that true?
BLR: I've got some Cherokee blood in me. Both sides of my family have some Indian in them, I don't know how much. I wouldn't even know how to measure it.
KB: In a previous conversation, you mentioned that you picked cotton.
BLR: Yeah, I was raised on plantations, farms -- just like everybody was back in them days, all the poor people. We were all sharecropping farmers. That was our way of making a living.
KB: Were you picking cotton at a young age? Tell us something about that.
BLR: Oh yeah. I was about six years old. Cotton picking - well, we used to do it by hand. We'd grow the cotton in the fields and cotton would clump on what they called "cotton stalks" which would grow about waist high. Then it would bloom and then the blooms would turn into cotton bowls, and the bowls would open, then the cotton would come out, and we would pick it out of the bowls and put it in the sack. Then we'd weigh it and put it in the wagon.
KB: And you got paid by the pound?
BLR: We got paid by the hundred pounds. Back when I first started picking, it was fifty cents a hundred, and it would take most people all day to pick a hundred pounds of cotton.
KB: I take it you were picking cotton alongside black people?
BLR: We lived on plantations where black and white people worked together. We didn't see color. We lived together, we played together, we visited each other, all on one big farm with a bunch of integrated people.
KB: This sounds like a corny question but I have to ask -- is that where you picked up your feeling for the blues?
BLR: Yes, that's exactly where I got it. When I was very young, that was the only music that I heard. The only music you heard on radio back in those days was hillbilly and pop music - and we didn't have a radio. Sometimes we did, but mostly we didn't, so the only music I heard was from the people who were actually playing it, sitting on there front porch, and whatever...
KB: When did you first start playing this music yourself?
BLR: Well, I started playing harmonica when I was six years old. My dad gave me a harmonica, and I got my first guitar when I was ten years old, but it was a couple of years before I learned to play it.
KB: What kind of guitar did you get?
BLR: A Silvertone - used. Paid ten dollars for it.
KB: How long were you on the plantations?
BLR: We left the farm in '47 when I was thirteen years old.
KB: Were you able to attend much school?
BLR: Three years. Our schooling was very limited. We went to school only when there was no work to be done. We had summer school and then winter school. We worked when we were planting in the Springtime and up into the summer. Once the crops were all planted and we were waiting for harvest, we'd go to school for about two or three months. Then, when the cotton was ready to be harvested we'd have to come out of school and work until all the crops were in. Then we'd go back to school.
KB: Did this seem unusual to you?
BLR: It didn't seem unusual - it was normal for us. It was the only way we knew. We didn't know any better. We thought everybody did that. A lot of people went North to get those good paying factory jobs, but a lot of us couldn't, we were sort of tied down in the South - there was poor people, and then there were us! (laughs) It's kind of funny today. But I have no regrets at all, I'd go back there today if I could and relive the same life.
KB: When did you go into armed services?
BLR: I went into the service when I was 15 in 1949.
KB: What? How did you manage that?
BLR: I lied about my age. I didn't have a birth certificate, so I told 'em I was 17 and got my sister to sign saying that I was 17. After that I spent four years in the service.
KB: Which branch?
BLR: The Army - and I never did like it. I went in mainly to have a place to live and something to eat!
KB: What happened to your folks at that time, were they still around?
BLR: They were still around, living in Arkansas. My dad, by trade, was a painter. So, when we weren't farming, he painted houses. After we left the farms, that's what he got into. A funny thing happened the day I went in to the service. I was visiting with my sister in Oceola and my mother and father were living in Pocahontas. The day I was at the bus station, I had already took my examination, and I had my ticket and I was getting on the bus to go. My father was coming to Oceola from Pocahontas looking for a place to live, and as I was getting on, he was getting off the same bus. (laughs) And he threatened to tear up my ticket. But he couldn't do it - it was government property. He was very unhappy about me going into the Army, but there wasn't no war going on.
KB: You were part of the peacetime militia then?
BLR: Well, I was - then in 1950, war broke out in Korea, and they gave me an extra year on my service.
KB: Did you serve in Korea?
BLR: No, I never went over there, but they gave everyone in the service an extra year of duty, so I had to serve four years instead of three.
KB: What was your job in the service?
BLR: I drove a truck. Delivering troops, taking troops out on the field. I had three or four vehicles assigned to me. I had a jeep to carry the officers around. I drove a two and a half ton truck and carried the kitchen out into the field whenever they were doing field stuff.
KB: Our mutual friend Tommie Wix said you recorded your first acetates around this time.
BLR: When I was 15, and first went in the service. After I left basic, I was in Seattle and I did three acetates. You'd go into a little booth, and they had guitars there, and you sang whatever you wanted to sing. It went right through the microphone right on to the acetate.
KB: What songs did you do?
BLR: I did some Hank Williams things "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." I did a couple of Hank Thompson things "Green Light" and others. I did six songs, but I can't remember what they all were now.
KB: Where are these acetates now?
BLR: The Hard Rock Cafe has one. The Smithsonian has one, and Tommie Wix has one.
KB: Well, that kind of a nice deal. A major corporation, a major museum, and a major collector?
BLR: (laughs) That's right. I gave that one to Tommie many years ago.
KB: You mentioned Hank Williams and Hank Thompson, who were some of the other people you liked back then?
BLR: Up until I got into it professionally, I didn't know too many names. We lived in a very rural area, the only time we saw shows was when tent shows would come through. They'd set up out in the country and have several different acts - sometimes they'd be country, sometimes minstrel, whatever...
KB: Were minstrel shows still working in the 40s and 50s?
BLR: Out where were, yeah. When we listened to the radio, of course I would listen to country music. So I listened to Hank Williams and the Grand Ol' Opry and all the guys before Hank Williams way back in the 30s. We only had battery radios in those days and a lot of times on a Saturday night, a lot of people would gather together in one house to listen to the Grand Ol' Opry. If the battery went dead, you had NO radio - so people would kind of ration that battery. (laughs) See, we didn't have electricity.
KB: When did you first start thinking of a career in music, was it during your time in the Army?
BLR: Well, I always dreamed of being in the business, but when I was in the Army, I was in some talent shows on base. I was in three different talent shows and I won first place each time - just me and my guitar, singing a country song. That kind of put the "bug" in me. Then when I got out of the service, the first band I formed was a hillbilly band.
KB: What was it called?
BLR: It had two names. One was The Arkansas Valley Ranch Boys and The KBTM Ranch Boys! The reason it had two different names was because we had two different radio shows. We usually named a band after the radio show or the radio station. So KBTM wanted to call us the KBTM Ranch Boys, so that's what we used. We had three radio shows going at the same time. We would go down on Sunday and record those, and work during the week. So, we'd take a coffee break when we thought the show was about to come on, and run out and sit out in our car to listen. (laughs) And then, we'd get back to work. We had two that we'd tape every week, then we'd have the live gospel show with my bass player, his wife, and me. We'd get up at four o'clock every morning and go to the radio station and do a live gospel show. Then we'd go home, have breakfast, and go to work.
KB: That surprises me. I see less gospel music in your catalog than from other guys of your era.
BLR: I wasn't in to gospel music. I think a lot of the other [original rockers] talking about gospel - that's just to make themselves look good. I don't think they were into gospel anymore than I was - that just makes 'em feel good to say that. We were not involved in church and all that like most people. I'm not saying I never did go, because I did, but we were not members of any particular church per se and I didn't know anybody that did.
KB: So, how did you get to do the gospel radio show?
BLR: Well, I heard gospel, I even wrote some gospel songs. And this guy wanted to do it, and shoot - I was all for it.
KB: So you had three jobs in radio with your band? What kind of day job did you have?
BLR: I was working in a shoe factory.
KB: Man! Where did you get the energy?
BLR: (laughs) I was young. We also played at nights and on weekends on stage shows at high schools and club dates, like that.
KB: Was your sound different back then?
BLR: Back then we just sounded like any regular hillbilly band. We had a steel guitar, a bass, lead guitar, and rhythm guitar, and we weren't different from anybody else. My singing was a little different. Even though I was doing country, I still had a little bit of blues sound in me, even back then. Because I had played blues all my young days.
KB: Did you ever take any heat for sounding black?
BLR: Nope. By the time I got into rock'n'roll in 1957, most of that had already been accepted and all off the blues I was singing was in an area where there wasn't nuthin' but blues. So it didn't make any difference. It was a regional thing - everybody did it. So there wasn't any problem. Nobody ever said anything to me about it. I never did have any trouble over singing in my style.
KB: That's really good to know, because I've read all these stories about some of you guys went through hell for sounding black.
BLR: Elvis did. Elvis took a lot of flack, man. Most of these other guys wanted to sound like Elvis, so they say "Yeah, we took it too." I think a lot of that, just like a whole lot of history from the 50s is so distorted right now. It's hard to find the real truth. Everybody's telling stories "Aw we took a lot of flack, they didn't want us playing black music." I never did see that happen. The only one I ever did hear of that happening to was Elvis. I didn't see anybody else having problems with it and I doubt if they did. Elvis said he had problems with it, so to be like Elvis, everybody else claimed to have problems too.
KB: How big of a factor was Elvis Presley's success in your pilgrimage to Memphis?
BLR: Well, he had nothing to do with me going to Memphis. I went to Memphis because my brother-in law and I bought a restaurant. I wasn't even in music when I went to Memphis. At that time, I played music, but I wasn't trying to make any money at it. But I did play it, that's how I met Jack Clement, the guy who cut my first record. One Christmas, I was back in Jonesboro [Arkansas] visiting my folks and, on the way back to Memphis, I picked up these two guys flagging down a ride. It was Jack Clement and his partner! That's where I first met him was on the highway. We got to talking music and they told me they were building a studio over there, called Fernwood studios, and they had a band that played every weekend in Arkansas. When I picked 'em up, I was only going to take them a couple of miles to where my mother lived, but we got to talking, and it go so interesting, that I drove 'em all the way to Memphis. While we were talking they asked me if I wanted to play and sing in their band. I told 'em "Yeah!" So I started singing on weekends in their band in Arkansas, then they invited me to cut a record. That's where I cut my first record in that little ol' garage studio. "Trouble Bound" and "Think Before You Go."
KB: I have a compilation of your early stuff on the Charly label, and it says that you played all the instruments on those songs. Is that true?
BLR: No, I couldn't have. See, that's why I'm telling you - people are telling a bunch of lies when they tell these stories. You have to think back. In 1957, there was only mono. There wasn't even a two-track machine, and you can't overdub unless you have at least two tracks. We only had mono and we almost didn't have that in that little studio. We had one track and about four mikes plugged into that one track. With that set-up you couldn't overdub, you'd have to have at least another track, or another machine, to do that. On that first session, we had Roland Janes on guitar, me playing rhythm guitar, and another guitar player on there, two bass fiddles - upright bass players on there, and a drummer. There ain't no way in the world I could play all that stuff. I would've had to overdub six times on one mono tape. So, 60% of all that stuff Charly prints, you can flush it! That stuff is written by Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins. They'll call you up and ask "What's your name?" Tell 'em "Billy Lee Riley," and they can write a whole story on that. I don't have anything to do with those guys. The last time Colin Escott called me, I told him that it was just best that he get out of town, that I didn't want anything to do with him. I didn't like the things he was writing and I wouldn't give him anything. So we've never spoken again and I never intend to speak to him again. And it's not only me, but several of the old guys feel the same way because he wrote a bunch of crap that just wasn't true.
KB: I'm sorry to hear that.
BLR: You see, they messed up a lot of good history. And ever since I've been back in the business full-time, I've been trying to straighten that up. The first time I went to England, they used all those same notes that you brought up to me, and I had to deny 90% of it. And that makes them unhappy, but I'm going to tell you the truth regardless, you know? I'm not going to let you believe something that's not true about me. I say "You can believe what you want to believe, but I'm going to straighten my part of it up." That's what I've been doing, and so far, everything that I've told is the way it is. There's an awful lot of records out, people think it's me, and I've had to straighten all that out, saying "I don't know where that came from." I don't know how they would pick records with other people's names on it and think it was me.
KB: As I understand it, these session notes are very difficult to verify, and in some cases, the labels never kept accurate notes. And what happens is, somebody will give the writer information wrong or second hand information, which they repeat without checking.
BLR: Oh yeah, like them guys in Europe. You can tell one of them a story, and by the time it goes the full circle, it's been written into four or five books! (laughs) And, the artists tell a lot of things too, to make themselves look good. They want their life to look good too. So, it's not just the writers.
KB: Were there any other artists on the Fernwood label or were you the only one?
BLR: I was supposed to have been the first one out on Fernwood, but I never went on that label. I only recorded there. But when they took my master to Sam Phillips' studio to master it, Sam bought the master. So, therefore, I was never on that label. But there was a LOT of good people on the Fernwood label, it became a pretty big label after that. Thomas Wayne had a big hit, "Tragedy." So, I wasn't on that label, but I was the first one they recorded in that studio.
KB: Fernwood's sound, with the echo and the slapback, that was real close to Sun's, wasn't it?
BLR: It was about the same thing. We didn't have echo in there, we had to take our tape to radio station to put echo on it. And the second song, after Sam bought the record, he didn't want "Think Before You Go," he wanted another rocker. So I wrote "Rock With Me Baby." And, we actually went to a radio station and recorded it so we would have that echo.
KB: Did you do two versions of "Rock With Me Baby?" Isn't there one with a sax on it?
BLR: No. That's "Dance With Me Honey." They [Charly] call it "Rock With Me Baby #2." But that's a whole different song.
KB: Tell us how you met the original members of your band The Little Green Men.
BLR: The original Little Green Men were Marvin Pepper, Roland Janes, J.M. Van Eaton, and Jerry Lee Lewis. I didn't even know Roland until I met him through Jack Clement when he set up my first session. And Roland knew J.M. Van Eaton. He got us all together and we went out to where J.M.'s little band was playing. And we decided he was a good drummer, so we hired him. He had his own little band in high school and I think he started working with us right out of high school. Marvin Pepper was the bass man.
KB: I'm not trying to start any trouble here at all, but in Jerry Lee Lewis' autobiography, he claims he didn't play on "Red Hot" or "Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll."
BLR: (laughs) Well, I'd take what's in his book with a grain of salt. But he didn't play on "Red Hot," he played on "Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll." And he knows it too, because I did a show with him on his 40th anniversary. And one of the things -- they had people who had been associated with him through the years stand behind the stage, and use a mike, and say something to get him to try and identify who you were. Well, when they handed me the mike I said "Jerry Lee, it's been a long time since you and I have talked, but if you'll remember, you used to play in my band." And he said "Billy Lee Riley!"
KB: So he knew.
BLR: Yeah, he knew. Jerry Lee would probably tell you that today. That was probably written during them days when Jerry Lee gave nobody credit for anything.
KB: So who played piano on "Red Hot" then?
BLR: Jimmy Wilson. Jimmy Wilson came to work for me right after Jerry Lee went off on his own.
KB: To me it seems like Jerry Lee on "Red Hot."
BLR: Jimmy Wilson was a lot better than Jerry Lee Lewis, all-around. He was the better piano player. He could play like Jerry Lee, then he could turn around and play all around Jerry Lee. Bach, Beethoven, and a bunch of stuff we didn't know. He was one of the greatest piano players in Memphis at that time. But he was crazy - we couldn't control him.
KB: What do you mean when you say you "couldn't control him?"
BLR: (laughs) He was just one of those kinda guys.... a weirdo. He knew it and everybody else knew it, but he was a good guy.
KB: (laughs) Well sir, how did this weirdness manifest itself?
BLR: To give you one story, he used to live in the apartments right over Sun Records. We came back from Canada one time and he brought a pet raccoon back with him. And, one night that raccoon was kinda restless and kept him from sleeping. So he just pinned him to the floor with a bayonet from a rifle. The next morning, he woke up and the raccoon was still alive, so he took him downstairs and beat him to death.
KB: Oh my god....
BLR: And he'd buy old antique relics, German guns and things from these surplus stores. They'd have barrels all fixed so you couldn't shoot 'em. Well, he'd dig out all that steel and buy bullets and shoot these guns. He shot an old wooden bridge in two one time.
KB: What is it about piano players and guns?
BLR: (Chuckles) I don't know, he sure was crazy, but a great piano player.
KB: So what happened to Jimmy Wilson?
BLR: I have no idea. The last time I saw him, he was in California in the 60s, and he got married to Nudie's daughter until her daddy ran him off. The last time I heard from him he was in Bakersfield, California. I heard not too long ago, that he had passed away since then. My other bass player, Pat O'Neil - who took Marvin's place, he died also. So there's two of 'em that have died. There was a big story in Goldmine recently about my sax player Martin Willis, several pages, and they had pictures of all of us in there. But they put the wrong caption under a picture of me and my band on stage -- the caption read that it was Conway Twitty and his band. They ran a retraction.
KB: How did your band achieve that unique chemistry you had in the studio?
BLR: The only way I can say it is: we were all just in tune with each other. It was a "feel" thing and we just all felt the same thing. We didn't go in there with anything planned, we'd just go in and start jammin'! It just so happened that all of our minds were tuned together, and it just came out that way. I don't remember none of us actually trying to get that sound. None of us were great musicians -- we were playing the best we could play, and that's how it came out.
KB: Your sound was different than everyone else's there -- I've always considered you to be more of an R&B guy.
BLR: Yeah, more or less. I never considered myself a "rockabilly," I always thought I was "rock'n'roll."
KB: Who called the shots in the Sun studios? From all the things I've heard, it sounds like you pretty much had your own way as far as song selections and arrangements.
BLR: Yeah, we pretty well did that. Sometimes Sam would pick a song, and if you didn't want to do it, you didn't have to. He picked "Red Hot, " and I was very happy that he did. But we could do anything we wanted to, there was no pressure there. Sam, in his own way, was producing, but it wasn't really producing per se. He was just sitting up there and having as good a time as we were. (laughs) And probably just as drunk as we were - or drunker. It wasn't like it is today. There wasn't that much emphasis on going in and cutting a hit. We went in to have a lot of fun just playin' music. Jammin'!
KB: Was the growl you used on "Red Hot" and "Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll" inspired by Little Richard?
BLR: Well, once I started doing Little Richard's songs, I had to growl to do 'em, and I kind of liked that sound, so I just kept doing it. Of course, I don't have to do it - I can do just about any other style.
KB: Oh yeah, absolutely!
BLR: But, on some of the loud stuff, I felt like they needed [that growl]. Like on "Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll," that was a pretty high energy thing, so on those type of records - I did my best to scream. But there were other songs where I didn't need to do that, like on "One More Time" and "Wouldn't You Know," stuff like that.
KB: "One More Time" is a helluva blues song.
BLR: That's one of the best songs I did at Sun.
KB: I've read where Jerry Lee Lewis has said that he was always a country singer who did country music speeded up. Were you basically always a blues singer who just did the blues with a big beat?
BLR: I tell ya, that's about it. Most of my stuff were from blues songs, all I did was change the tempo and the arrangements on 'em. Most of the other guys who came to Sun were country singers who came there and changed. There's a fine line between our kind of rock'n'roll and country. It's a mixture and a tempo thing. You can take any country song and make a rockabilly tune out of it. It doesn't matter what it is. I proved that when I was being interviewed by the Smithsonian. I took a song like "Tennessee Waltz" and sang as country, then blues, then rockabilly and it worked all three ways.
KB: Did they film you doing this? When will we be able to see this?
BLR: It's only going to be shown on exhibit - it's not going to be on the air. I've got a big exhibit with them. They just bought a bunch of stuff from me.
KB: When is this exhibit going to open?
BLR: Well, I think it's it's going to open in Memphis this year or next year. It'll stay there for a while, then it's going to Washington permanently. Part of that exhibit with my things is on the road right now. And sometime before I leave this ol' world, I'm supposed to be part of the ceremony for that.
KB: Let's talk a little more about the Sun days. Was Jerry Lee Lewis OK to work with in the studio? Did he do what you told him to do?
BLR: Back in the 50s, Jerry Lee Lewis was very hard to get along with. Jerry Lee did things his way, and that was the only way that he ever did do anything was his way. Nobody told him what to do. If he was in a good mood the sessions went real well. If he wasn't in a good mood, the sessions didn't go too well. It was strictly up to him, and we knew that, and we just did what we were supposed to do. We didn't step on his feet.
KB: But you were the leader of your group.
BLR: I was the leader of my little group, but when we went into the studio as session men for somebody else, everybody was on their own. We didn't go in as The Little Green Men, we just went in as individuals. So, I wouldn't dare go in there and tell anybody what to do. Early on, Sam didn't even want me to hire Jerry Lee, he said "You don't need no piano in a rock'n'roll band." This is before he even heard Jerry Lee Lewis. I was the first one who met Jerry Lee when he came to town, as far as musicians were concerned - and that's why he went to work for me. So when I told Sam about him he said (perfect imitation of Sam Phillips) "Man, you don't need no piano player. " I said "Yeah, I do and this guy's great." Sam said "I don't care how great he is - piano players belong in jazz bands. Dixieland, country..." I said "I'm going to put him to work anyway." When I told him I was going to use him on the "Flying Saucers" session he said "all right," but he didn't want to use him, and he wouldn't let him take a solo - he just played rhythm. He told him "All I want you to do is play that pumpin' rhythm." That's where he got "pumpin' piano," that's where the name came from. Sam didn't really even know who he was at that time - and Jerry Lee's first record ("Crazy Arms") was an accident .
KB: That's the one where you were in the bathroom.
BLR: Roland was in the bathroom, and I'm the only one on there other than J.M., and I got that last guitar note on there. Nobody even knew that record was being recorded at the time. Jack Clement had the machine going and we just sat there, messin' around man. I was standing there beside the piano with an upright bass and I didn't even no how to play it, and I wasn't miked, and I was thumping around trying to figure out how to fall in with Jerry Lee - and that wasn't working By that time, Roland had come out of the john, and I laid the bass down, and he came over and picked the bass up like he was going to play it. He's sat there trying to hit a note or two, so I picked up his guitar and I was going to play along with J.M. and Jerry. But by the time I got ready to play, Jerry ended the song. I hit that one note - that one little chord, and that was about it. So, I was on that record, which was an accident. We were there for something else, we weren't there for a Jerry Lee session. Jerry Lee was just going to be part of the band.
KB: Really? You know, the common story is that Jerry recorded that at his audition.
BLR: Jerry Lee did not have an audition with Sam Phillips. He cut "Crazy Arms," Jack Clement showed that to Sam, and Sam liked it. After that, he called a session and we went in and did a session on Jerry Lee. But nobody even knew the tape recorder was on, and after it was over Jack yelled out "That's a hit!" And all of us were amazed, and Jerry Lee said "You didn't record that did you?" Jack said: "Yeah." And Jerry said "Hey man, we can do that better than that, let's do it again!" Jack said "No man - it's good, we're going to leave it like this." He wanted to do it again, but that's the only take there was of "Crazy Arms" that I know of -- they may have come in later and done some more -- but that take is the one they released.
KB: Eventually, everything you guys recorded during the Sun days was released -- and there's another version of "Crazy Arms," but it's from much later.
BLR: Jerry cut a lot of sides over there. We used to go in and say all night over there. We'd get into a groove and cut things in one or two takes all night long - then sometimes we'd go in and get nothin'.
KB: For your own sessions, did you work the same way as Jerry Lee? No arrangements, just jamming?
BLR: When Willi [Martin Willis] started playing sax for us, that's when we started putting some arrangements to things. Martin Willis was very talented - and before he came we'd just get in there and jam. But Willi was quite a perfectionist, and he liked everything to be done just right. I give him credit, because he would usually come up with our intros and solos, and knew when we should do this and do that.
KB: Whose idea was it to just let the piano chord hang there at the end of "Flying Saucers Rock'n'roll?
BLR: Sam's. He kept turning the pot completely up until it faded completely out, he said he though it sounded like a flying saucer taking off.
KB: Was Sam Phillips' greatest contributions at Sun in the area of engineering or as a producer?
BLR: Well, I give most of my credit to Jack Clement. Jack cut most of my stuff. In fact, he cut most of everything after he got there. Jack understood everything that was going on - he's a genius when it comes down to it. He knew what he wanted before he even came into the studio. The only thing I actually remember Sam Phillips having anything to do with was "Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll" and "Red Hot." And, of course, the other sides of those two records, but that was the only time I remember Sam even being in the studio when I was recording. After Jack came around, Sam wasn't there much.
KB: I'm trying to match this up. Here's a guy you picked up hitch-hiking -- how did he get the wherewithal to become a great studio producer?
BLR: Jack had been involved in music since he was young, but up until [the Sun days] , he hadn't been old enough to do it. But once he decided to start Fernwood and all that, he knew where he was going. He's gone all the way to the top! He's produced some of the greatest acts in the world, and discovered some of the greatest acts in the world. So, Jack was just a natural producer.
KB: Did he ever play bass on any of your stuff?
BLR: He never played on anything of mine, but he was a good rhythm guitar player. He plays mandolin -- and he's a heckuva songwriter.
KB: Why didn't Jack Clement write songs for you?
BLR: He wasn't really writing the type of stuff I was doing. He took credit on three of my songs, which he wasn't supposed to -- but back in them days, I didn't pay too much attention to what was going on. And when they turned the writer's stuff into BMI, he had his name on there somewhere. It didn't matter to me at the time. At that time, I wasn't looking at the money part of it -- we were just having fun. That was back during the days when everybody got cheated.
KB: I think that "Red Hot" and "Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll" are two of the greatest records of the rock'n'roll era.
BLR: Thank you. Some say they're classics. They've inspired a lot of artists. As a matter of fact, Bruce Springsteen said he cut his teeth on "Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll." He said he grew up on my stuff.
KB: Praise indeed from The Boss.
BLR: And Bob Dylan said he considers me his hero. I opened some shows for him, and that's the way he introduced me "My hero." That was good. Y'know, Bob is a guy that a lot of people don't understand, and I didn't until I met him. Once I met him and sat down and talked with him - he turned out to be a good guy. I've worked with him and worked with his son. I just opened the Hard Rock Cafe in Memphis with his son, Jacob.
KB: How did that go?
BLR: Great man, Jacob's a nice guy. Real nice young guy - he told me "I've known about you ever since I was a baby. I remember when I was just two or three years old walking around wearing Billy Lee Riley T-shirts." (laughs) So there's a lot of good people in this business, and there's some that ain't worth a crap. That's the business, man - and that's the way it is.
KB: One of your outtakes at Sun seems like an early version of "Red Hot," it's called "She's My Baby."
BLR: That's a later version of "Red Hot." I did that drunk one night. I was in the studio and I had been trying to cut an album, and everybody got completely off the subject, and we began drinking and having a party. So, I was pretty high that night, and couldn't think of anything to sing so I just started singing that. I didn't even know it was put on tape, and I didn't know it'd ever be released.
KB: It says on these album notes that Carl Perkins' band members Clayton Perkins and "Fluke" Holland played on that.
BLR: No. Nobody played on my records except The Little Green Men. Brad Suggs was not on any of my sessions. "Smoochy" Smith was not on any of my sessions. Every session I did at Sun Records had Roland Janes - there were one or two that even he wasn't on, but there was J.M., Martin Willis, me, Jimmy Wilson -- just my band.
KB: Were you a bit of a rounder during the 50s?
BLR: I was crazy ! Wild -- I drank a lot in the 50s, and I was wild. I thought all there was to life was wine, women, and song -- and I had my share of all of it! That was one of my biggest faults. I put all of that before my career and it hurt my career. Of course that's a long time ago.
KB: But you still have a career.
BLR: Oh yeah -- I'm having more fun and probably making more money now than I've ever made in the music business. And, I feel a lot better about it. I can control it. I can do it when I want to, I'm not pushed, and I do it on my own terms. That's the way I like to do it. I don't like to be put in a corner and be told that I have to do something.
KB: Why aren't you on some modern independent label like Hightone or Rounder?
BLR: Well, I was working on a deal with Hightone, but it didn't come through.
KB: Are there any other labels you'd consider?
BLR: There's so many labels, man. I know hundreds of 'em. When I'm ready with my next album, I'll pick out three or four. Alligator, Blind Pig would be good labels. I'm not really worried about it.
KB: Are you happiest when you're recording?
BLR: Oh yeah. When I get into that studio, I'm in another world. I love it. When I'm performing, that's the real me.
KB: What was the disagreement you had with Sam Phillips concerning "Red Hot" and "Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll"?
BLR: He didn't promote it -- he sabotaged the record. He dropped my record for "Great Balls Of Fire." That's why I had my greatest disagreement with him. Of course, we still worked together after that, but it never was the same. But yeah, he had deliberately quit selling my record - right in front of me, with me standing there listening to him - he canceled my record. So when he did that, I lost respect for him. He just forgot everybody but except Jerry Lee Lewis, and that doesn't make me feel bad at Jerry Lee! That had nothin' to do with how I felt about Jerry Lee. Whatever I felt about Jerry Lee would be personal. That's what caused me to leave Sun. The same thing with Johnny Cash and everybody else. At one time, they've all made the same statement.
KB: Was this something you guys talked about while it was happening?
BLR: Heck yeah, we weren't afraid to talk about it. Everybody knew it. Sam denied it. Sam'll deny it to this day, but he knows it's true. But it backfired on him. He dropped all of us for Jerry Lee, then Jerry Lee put the bomb on him. He went over to Europe and screwed himself up and lost his popularity on Sun Records, then he fell. So, what goes around, comes around.
KB: You and your band left Sun to go to Philadelphia at one point, right?
BLR: In 1958, I decided I wanted to go up and talk to Dick Clark. So, we got the band together and drove up there, we went unannounced, didn't even know if we were going to get in to see this guy. But we did, I went in to talk to him, and he was about ready to go on his show - and he knew who I was. He wanted to sign me up for one of his labels, Came, Swan one of them. And, he actually called a studio and set up time, and told the engineer to be there at three o'clock that afternoon because he had a band coming over there that he wanted to record. We got halfway over there...then decided to come right back home to Memphis! We were kids and we were scared. Scared to go out on that limb, see. I told the guys "Aw man, let's go back to Sun. We'll feel better." It was strictly a fear thing as far as I was concerned.
KB: Are you sorry that's a road you didn't take?
BLR: Oh gosh, I'm sorry that I didn't make a lot of moves that I had a chance to make back in them days. I could've been on RCA. Steve Sholes himself, when he was president of RCA in New York, set up a session in Canada for me. We went in there and sat around for an hour waiting for their engineer when I started getting that old feeling again "Aw, we don't need RCA." So we got up and left. So I lost that.
KB: Did you ever end up recording anything for RCA? I've read that you had recorded "Rock'n'Roll Money" for them.
BLR: I recorded "Rock'n'Roll Money" in '83 and RCA was going to but it. I lived in Nashville then, and I flew to New York and they flipped over it and they were going to buy it - but it wasn't finished. And, the guys who was producing and putting the money behind it, he and I had a falling out because of somebody he had working for him. This guy was trying to tell me how to sing rockabilly - and he wasn't but 20 something years old. Anyway, it just fell through, and he wouldn't finish the record, and we lost it.
KB: I know Jerry Lee Lewis ended up recording that song.
BLR: Yeah, he recorded it after me. My version is on Icehouse Records.
KB: So you ended up back at Sun, but things weren't the same?
BLR: Yeah, I went back and cut two or three more things. I left them in '60. I think my last record with them was late '59.
KB: Which one of your singles do you think should have been your breakthrough?
BLR: Oh "Red Hot" should've been, it was already headed that way. Alan Freed told me that "Red Hot" was going to be a top five record. He told me "This is a hit record, man. If ever I saw a hit record - this is it." So, Sam Phillips and Jud Phillips got to him and got with his manager - see, he'd already booked me on a nationwide tour. That's the reason I had closed out to come home, so I could cut an album. Sam told me to. I shouldn't have ever told Sam I had the deal, because when I told Sam I had a deal, he went right to work to get me off the tour and have Jerry Lee put on the tour in my place. That's the tour that Jerry Lee and Chuck Berry was on together and fought so much and caused a riot which made them cancel part of the tour. So, that was another big mistake they made because they wouldn't do right. When I got back to Memphis, that's when I found all this stuff out. That when me and Sam -- that's when I went and tore up the studio. Did the studio in.
KB: I've read that you poured whiskey all over the console.
BLR: (laughs) I did that too. They had a big bass fiddle, I walked through that and tore a big hole in it. Poured whiskey on the piano and consoles. Tipped over the filing machines where he had all his tapes, they went all over the floor. I wrecked it pretty good! Then Sam came down, and took me back into his little cubby hole, and charmed me into believing that I was going to be the next Elvis Presley so, I would be quiet. But he never did anything for me. And he knows it and he admits it. When we opened the Hard Rock Cafe in Memphis, he was there that night, and I walked over and spoke with him, and he told some other people - while I was standing there, he said "Billy Lee Riley should've been one of the biggest artists I had. I wish I had done more for him. should've done more for him, he was a great talent!" So he admitted it.
KB: It was a little late, but that was a nice for him to say.
BLR: I don't hold any regrets. What I do with people I can't along with is, I just stay away from them. I don't hold anything against Sam. If he needed me, I 'd be right there. I'm sort of this way: I don't blame anybody for anything good or anything bad that's happened to me. I'm in control of my own self. Whatever happens to me is strictly up to me. I don't blame anybody, really. Sometimes I blame myself for listening to certain people that steered me wrong. Nobody makes you do anything. I didn't have to stay with Sam. I could've left Sun, I had several chances. So I can't really feel that down. It's more like I'm disappointed, because he did have something with me - he could've made some money with me. It's not like I could've made money and he couldn't. We could've all had a good thing going. He just didn't do it that way.
KB: But "Red Hot" was a pretty good seller in the Mid-South wasn't it?
BLR: It sold good regionally. "Flying Saucers" sold more. Both of 'em were good regional sellers, and hit top five and even number one in a lot of places in the South. That's how it worked just before a record would break onto the national charts. And if all those things would've gotten reported, and Sam would've gotten behind 'em, they probably would've hit the national charts. Then, it would've happened, because these records were what was happening at that time. "Red Hot" was - and still is, a heck of a record! I don't care where you play it. Before I opened shows for Bob Dylan, I was a guest on one of his shows and I sang "Red Hot" and the people went crazy man. They didn't know I was supposed to be there - he called me out from the wings and I did "Red Hot" with his band - and them people was climbing up on the chairs. So the song is a heck of a song - it always was and always will be.
KB: Did you ever see a royalty check from Sun?
BLR: Never. Never, ever got an accounting.
KB: Just about everything you ever did at Sun has been released on Charly, Bear Family, AVI, and Collectables, and I have read that you don't get a dime from any of those companies - is that true?
BLR: We hadn't gotten anything. Just recently we started getting something, but there's an awful of of money owed to me. There's no telling how many hundreds of thousands of dollars are owed to me that I'll never get. But, for some reason, last year they started giving us small royalty checks. But it is nothing at all compared to what they owe. They've sold millions of records on me since they started reissuing -- singles, box sets, double box sets, triple box sets, LPs. AVI's was a heck of a selling record before somebody else picked it up. Another label here in the States had a record out with just two of my cuts on it and I made more royalties from those two cuts than I made of any LP -- so it sold a lot of records. So if that sold a lot of records, than all of my other stuff must be selling a lot. I think this new reissue of Collectables is going to bring me some royalties too.
KB: I'm glad your stuff is back on an American label. The AVI disc was great, but I think they went out of business.
BLR: Well, they sold to MCI or somebody - then they just sat on the masters. Now this Collectables disc is almost the same album, it's got two or three different things on it, but it's basically the same album. AVI's had the best sound and I was happier with that than any reissue they've ever done on me. It was a fantastic record, man.
KB: Do you think Sam Phillips was just spreading himself too thin - or was it just a matter of him not wanting to spend money?
BLR: Oh, he hated to spend money. He and Jud Phillips fought all the time because he expected Jud to go out there and perform miracles, but he wouldn't supply him with the funds. I've heard oral fights between the two of them many times because he was tight on that money. He didn't really spend that much money on anybody -- not even Jerry Lee Lewis, and he spent more of Jerry than he did anybody, and that wasn't much. Jerry Lee is mad at Sam Phillips too.
KB: Jerry Lee recorded more at Sun than anybody, but it's hasn't been until recently that he has sued for back payments.
BLR: It takes a lot of money to sue. I had thought about it on a couple of occasions, I had talked to attorneys, and it takes a whole lot of money. There also a whole lot of time involved. AND - it's a big deal, it don't happen overnight.
KB: Even though you weren't paid what you were due - do you have anything positive to say about Sam Phillips?
BLR: Well, like I said, I don't hold anything against him. I'm still a friend of his. But the truth is truth. I know in his mind he believes what he says is true and that's fine, because I know what I'm saying is true. I think we've always been friends, and I hope he doesn't feel any other way about me. We've always respected each other, he just made some mistakes. I think he knows that but he probably won't admit it.
KB: And you don't hold anything against Jerry Lee?
BLR: No. If I had been in Jerry Lee's place and Sam had picked me to be the one to promote, I'd of been the one. Jerry Lee was in the right place at the right time with the right sound. And Sam thought he had the next Elvis Presley -- and he probably would've had if he'd of handled him right, or he could've had it with me.
KB: If he had run things differently, do you think the Sun label would've kept going longer than it did?
BLR: He didn't really have the money at the time, but if he had the money and really worked with all of his artists... he had the best stable of artists in the business in the 50s, he could've almost had a major label. With just what he had, he could have made that label into one of the biggest rockabilly labels in the world and really put Memphis on the map. Right now, as far as music is concerned, Memphis gets no recognition. It's like all of us, it got lost, because Memphis people don't know how to promote music.
KB: Do they still know how to make it?
BLR: Not anymore. When we were there back in the 50s, if Sam Phillips had been as smart as Berry Gordy, he could've been as big as Berry Gordy. He had artists who were just as good - though they were different. His stable of artists were equally as good as Berry's, and he could've gone just as far if he had acted like Berry and given everybody a fair chance. But he couldn't do it. When Elvis came by, he dropped all this blues singers. He had some of the greatest blues acts there was, and when Elvis came by - he just garbaged all the blues acts. And with Elvis, well, he could only handle one person at once. He just couldn't take on more than one act.
KB: Tell me about the green suits that your band The Little Green Men wore.
BLR: (laughs) We just decided that if we were going to be Little Green Men, we oughta wear green suits. We found a tailor down on Main Street in Memphis, picked out the material for them - they looked like they were made out of pool table cloth. After we got 'em made, we found out they weighed about a hundred pounds! They were nice looking, but they were almost like felt, and they were bright Kelly green. They looked good on stage - but the first time we were out , we got mobbed in Mississippi, and got a few buttons tore off. We used to get mobbed a lot.
KB: What other type of promotional stunts did you do at Sun?
BLR: Well, we did a 72 hour marathon back in '58 at the Starlite club in Frazier, Tennessee. And we actually stayed on stage for 72 hours, and we had the world's record for a while, until somebody in Canada did 80 hours and knocked us down.
KB: How did you guys manage that?
BLR: There was always somebody in the club, so we had to do it. We took our food on the stage, we had people cater food to us, making sure we had plenty of coffee. We got some TV coverage, a lot of good press in the papers. We got some publicity out of it, not as much as I though we'd get. We really didn't get the type of national coverage that I wanted - we got coverage, but not the type that helped us.
KB: Did that bother you at the time?
BLR: It didn't mean nothin' to us; we were just crazy kids, and it was good at the time.
KB: How did you stretch out your set?
BLR: We didn't have "sets," we just stayed up there. We played a lot of instrumentals - long ones. (laughs) I'd sing until I got tired. Then, we'd just play, get something to eat, sat on the floor and played. I tell ya, when it was over...we were ready to go home. The funny part about it is, when I got home and went to bed, I couldn't go to sleep!
KB: I take it you and the Little Green Men played your fair share of package shows.
BLR: Yeah, we played a whole lot of package stuff. We played with the Sun package with all the different Sun artists. Sometime it'd be Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Warren Smith, Jerry Lee Lewis. We'd usually have a headliner and some of the lesser knowns. Sometimes they'd mix us up with some of the Nashville guys. We'd do shows with guys like Ferlin Husky, Hank Snow and whoever.
KB: Did the Nashville guys give you a lot of crap about being rock'n'rollers?
BLR: No, they was real nice to us. They enjoyed it, and we backed a lot of them. Any band that wasn't self-contained, we backed 'em. Ferlin Husky, Brenda Lee, a bunch of folks. Ferlin was the only one on that particular show who actually thanked us. All the rest just walked off the stage, except for Ferlin who complimented us.
KB: I've read stuff that says the Nashville guys hated all you Memphis guys.
BLR: I don't think that's true. The fact is, they all tried to imitate us at one time. Marty Robbins did rockabilly, even Ernest Tubb did a little rockabilly. So there wasn't any jealousy, it's just that Country really wasn't happening at that time. Country had been around for such a long time, then all of sudden our music started to take over, and for a while there they tried to get in on it. I think they're more jealous nowadays - of each other. They're all a bunch of jealous musicians, afraid the other one is going to make a dollar more, have a bigger stage, and be noticed more. I don't particularly care too much for Nashville people now.
KB: What was your typical set like back then? Did you do just 3 or 4 songs?
BLR: No we did about 30-35 minutes, about 8 to 10 songs.
KB: And you did your current singles and what else?
BLR: You know it's strange, but we very seldom did my singles. I did mostly other people's songs other than mine. If I thought one of my songs wasn't as strong as some others, I wouldn't do 'em. I'd do Chuck Berry and Little Richard songs, things I could really build a show with. Of course all the rest of 'em did their own stuff, but I did other people's songs - I did a variety show. I gave the fans a whole lot of stuff and we always stole the show! No matter who the headliner was, we got the greatest raves.
KB: So you guys were the hot regional act?
BLR: We were hot everywhere we'd go. We went places with one thing in mind: To make everyone else look bad! We didn't care who was on stage, we knew we were gong to wipe 'em out! That was our main objective. I don't know of anyplace we ever played where we came in second.
KB: When I spoke with J.M. Van Eaton, I mentioned that the group seemed awfully loyal to you. When you left Sun to go to Philadelphia, they followed right along. I asked if it was just a matter of loyalty and he said " Yes, and the fact that we thought he was really going to make it. Plus, when we were splitting the money, there was a bigger piece of the pie to be had than if we just were side men." Was that your idea from the beginning, to give everyone a vested interest in your future?
BLR: Well, we were a group - we weren't just me. Later, when it came down to the fact that I didn't make it and wasn't going to go as far as some of the other people, they started looking for greener fields, and I did too. So we eventually broke up. Roland left before anybody. Roland left as soon as Jerry Lee offered him a job, about 1957. He worked for Jerry more than he worked with me - he just started out with me.
KB: Were you able to replace him as a guitarist?
BLR: Yeah, with me! I did my own guitar work. When Roland played with me, I played rhythm, I had a big old Martin. When he quit, I went and bought me a new electric guitar and I've played lead ever since. I don't play much now, even though I endorse for Gibson, and I've got a house full of guitars. Now, I mostly play [lead guitar] when I'm doing blues shows. But if I'm doing rockabilly or rock'n'roll, something I have to bring a lot of showmanship to, a guitar just gets in my way. But I've played lead guitar on a lot of my own records and a lot of Jerry Lee records, even though Roland was there too. When I wasn't playing lead, I was playing second guitar behind Roland. I played basson a lot of Jerry's stuff too.
KB: Stand-up bass?
BLR: No, regular electric. I played bass on some of Charlie Rich's stuff and most of Bill Justis' album, and a lot of recordings where I didn't know who the artist was. Whenever they couldn't find a bass man, they used me. I even played banjo on a record once. Rhythm banjo - I tuned it up like a guitar and began strumming away.
KB: How'd the record turn out?
BLR: (laughs) Turned out OK. It was the first and last time I ever played a banjo though. Just trying to get in on a session and make that $10.
KB: Was that your regular pay?
BLR: Sometimes you got $2 an hour, sometimes $10 a session.
KB: Did you get paid right after the session?
BLR: On most 'em. Everything except Sun's stuff. And we'd go in after he would release the record, turn the stuff into the union, then we'd go pick our checks. Then we'd bring 'em back to [Sam Phillips] and he'd pay us $2 an hour. He'd never pay us union scale, we turned the checks back over to him. So he kept the money, we got a little bit, but he wouldn't pay us scale.
KB: This is the very first time I've heard something like this - it doesn't sound right.
BLR: Well...it happened. We'd endorse the checks back to Sam Phillips and he'd pay us 2 bucks an hour or $10 a session whatever was going at the time.
KB: How did he get away with this?
BLR: Because we let him. The musicians union was more lax than any other union, even though it is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. It wasn't handled like other labor unions, so they got away with murder, man. Also, none of the clubs were union, and we had to work, and the union turned their heads.
KB: I'm going to ask you to speculate a little. If Sam Phillips had spent some time and money on you, and you had the type of success that Jerry Lee Lewis had as far as sales go, do you think you would've been able to handle it.
BLR: I think I would've been dead by now. I'm saying that because I really believe that. Y'see, in the 50s, I was young and very gullible and I drank like a fish. I wasn't an alcoholic, I was a sot. I was a drunkard.
KB: What's the difference?
BLR: Well, an alcoholic is an alcoholic, and a sot is an idiot. That's what I was, I was just an idiot. Alcohol, I just couldn't hold it, and I got myself into a lot of trouble. But I think if I would've been successful back in the 50s, I was already drinking - maybe I would've gotten into the drug scene. And I might've drugged myself to death.
KB: Would the music have changed any had you been more successful?
BLR: I don't think so. If I'd have been really successful, I mean really big national name back then - when the music changed, I'd of probably went country.
KB: Why didn't you ever go country like so many other artists from the Sun era?
BLR: Well, I didn't want to go country, for one thing. I'm a good country singer, I'll be honest with you. I'm a good country singer and a good country writer. I'm an honest songwriter, I write good stuff that brings tears to your eyes. I'm not bragging, I'm just saying that I can do it. But I can't market it. Right now, what I've got to do in the short time I have left on this earth, is find me a road, get on it, and stay on it. Blues is the best road I can be on right now. I can sell blues. I can be accepted by blues people, because I've been considered half blues all my life. These days, I can't sell country - because country music don't want no 65 year old singer. So, that's why I didn't do it.
KB: Did you have any trouble getting paid in the clubs?
BLR: Sometimes we got paid and a lot of times we didn't. A lot of times we'd go out on tour and not get paid. When Bob Neal was booking us out of Memphis on the Sun package, sometimes he'd leave and not pay us. I remember going to his house at three o'clock in the morning, getting him out bed, to make him pay us. Sometimes people would give me hot checks and run off and there was nothin' we could do about that. The union wouldn't do nothin'. That was just a different time - different era.
KB: Does that affect how you deal with promoters and business people now?
BLR: It sure does. I do it completely different now: I get paid or I don't work.
KB: Do you get paid before you hit the stage?
BLR: In Europe I do. Over here, I don't - but I make sure that I'm going to get my money. I haven't had any problems getting money, this time around, from anybody.
KB: What about the Home Of the Blues label? Where did you do for them?
BLR: That's a label that's been around Memphis for a long time, man. They have a Home Of the Blues Record shop and they also cut blues records. It was owned by a Jewish lady, and I went to her and told her I wanted to cut a record - and I cut "Flip, Flop, & Fly" and "Teenage Letter" for her.
KB: When was that?
BLR: That was probably about 1959. That was right after Sun.
KB: Then you moved on to run your own label?
BLR: Yes, Roland and I started our own label, Rita Records. We put out two or three mediocre things. Then we put out "Mountain Of Love" by Harold Dorman, which was a hit.
KB: I actually have a copy of your "Too Much Woman For Me" on Rita, which is a pretty good hook song.
BLR: Jack Clement wrote that one. We didn't put a whole lot of time into it. At that time, I was more interested in producing than I was being an artist. But, it wasn't a bad song, it was more r&b.
KB: What was your goal with that label? Were you just looking for the freedom to do what you wanted?
BLR: Yeah. We went into the business, we didn't have any money. We raised $5000 and started that label and then lost it all. See, we had a lot of good chances to go with some other labels, and my job was to sell the records. That's what I wanted to do - I was also out voted on that, because I could've sold [the label] to Capitol. Capitol wanted it, Columbia wanted it, there were some big majors who wanted ["Mountain Of Love"]. And then, NRC in Atlanta wanted it, and they were friends with Bill Justis and Jud Phillips. So, they talked Roland Janes and the other guy into letting it go there, because they needed a hit so bad. But the one thing [my partners] didn't know was that [NRC] was in the red. And when we gave 'em that record, and the money started coming in, the stockholders grabbed their money and left. I became friends with one of the stockholders over there later, and he told me the whole story about it. So I went down there to see what was going on between the lines, and I saw that they were going to take our money and declare bankruptcy. So I came back to Memphis and I told Roland and our other partner about it, and they didn't believe me, so I said well "I'll tell you how sure I am, I sell you my part for a thousand dollars." So I made more than anybody off of [that label]. They filed bankruptcy not too long after that and cleaned 'em out. But "Mountain Of Love" was a smash hit - a classic, man. Before Harold Dorman died, the last time I talked to him was about 12 years ago, he said that record had sold over seven million copies.
KB: Why don't sales figures like that get reported?
BLR: Because of the reporting people. The RIAA is the one who reports true sales, but there are a whole bunch of people in competition with them who don't tell the truth about that. That's how a lot of that stuff gets up there, they say before his record even comes out "This guy's record sold a million - gone platinum." If you check into that, you'll find that record hadn't sold 50,000.
KB: Did you have any connection to Rita's sister label, Nita?
BLR: I owned Nita Records by myself. I also owned Mojo.
KB: Were those around the same era?
BLR: Nita was right after Rita and Mojo came right after Nita.
KB: During what period of time did you record as Lightning Leon?
BLR: That was on Rita in like '61.
KB: When you were recording under other names like Skip Wiley, Darren Lee, and Lightning Leon, were you recording in a different persona or were you just being Billy Riley and putting a different name on the label?
BLR: What was happening...anytime I would do a speculation, I'd put another name on it. I had one name and style established as Billy Riley, and I just didn't want to do some of these off-the-wall things to interfere with what I already had going. And should one of those records had hit - I probably would've changed the label to read Darren Lee AKA Billy Riley. But since that didn't happen, I just left it like it was. Those were spec records.
KB: How well did those records do?
BLR: Not very good. (laughs)
KB: So where'd you come up with the name "Lightning Leon?"
BLR: That's an old friend of mine, who I used to know when I was doing the blues as a kid. He was an old friend who played guitar and harmonica.
KB: At what point in your career did you start including your middle name in your billing?
BLR: That was at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in 1964.
KB: Did you do that because you thought it would look better on the marquee?
BLR: I didn't do it, the guy that owned the nightclub, Elmer Valentine, when he found out I had a middle name, he said "I want to use that because I 'm trying to get the old Southern sound in here. And a middle name makes you sound more Southern. So I want to use Billy Lee instead of just Billy." I said "That's fine. Don't make no difference to me."
KB: I read somewhere that you did commercial jingles.
BLR: I did that right after I left Sun. Just before I went to California, as a matter of fact, it was the last part of '61 and the first part of '62. I wrote, recorded, produced, and played on jingles at Pepper Sound studios, for three or four months.
KB: Was that a decent living?
BLR: Oh, I made good money. If I had stayed there I'd of made real good money, because I was getting paid for everything I wrote, produced, played on. My jingles - I had one in particular that was real good.
KB: What products did you pitch?
BLR: Anything they wanted to sell. (laughs) The one that did so well was up in North Carolina for some barbecue place, and it was really a hot jingle. (laughs) They liked it so well, that they hired me on the spot.
KB: Do you ever think about going back and listening to those old jingles?
BLR: I wish I could hear 'em. I did a lot of spots for 7-11. See, I had a lot of voices, and so I did a whole a whole segment of 7-11 Slurpee commercials in all different voices; Jerry Lee, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and everybody who had a distinctive voice. They went over so good that I did several segments of them. Later, in '68, when I moved back to Memphis from California, one of the guys who used to work for Pepper was doing commercials in Dallas. And he found out I was in Memphis and they flew me to Dallas and I did a whole new segment of 7-11 Slurpee ads.
KB: How did you feel about this stuff at the time?
BLR: It was fun, man, it was fun! (laughs) I got a chance to do everything. I produced, promoted, wrote, arranged - I can't write a note of music, but I'd sit down with a writer and arrange a whole string section, horn sections, and I'd tell the writer exactly what I wanted to do. I've done it all.
KB: When did you decide it was time to leave Memphis?
BLR: Well, my father died in '61 and in '62, I just wasn't getting anywhere. The band was broke up and everybody was doing everything else, and I was dating this girl who was a close friend of Stella Stevens. Stella wanted her to come out there, and she kinda talked me into going out there. She went out ahead of me, and I packed up the car and drove out there in '62. I just went to see what I could do out there.
KB: Was it easy for you to make a living out there?
BLR: It was hard at first. The good thing about it, Charlie Underwood [writer of "Ubangi Stomp"] was already out there. I only had about seven or eight hundred dollars when I got there, that was my last money I picked up at the studio. So I stayed at his house for a while, and he got me in on some ten dollar sessions and stuff like that to help me along. Then Herb Alpert came along and "Lonely Bull," and I got to play lead guitar on that.
KB: You were the lead guitarist on "Lonely Bull" by Herb Alpert?
BLR: Yep - and I only got $15. After that, I started doing session work. I did a lot of sessions out there.
KB: What do you remember about working the Sammy Davis Jr. session?
BLR: I remember it as one of the greatest thrills of my life! Sammy's producer, Bumps Blackwell, used to use me quite a bit for harmonica and guitar stuff. He kinda liked me. Back in those days, for a single session, you did three songs. You did the A-side, the B-side, and then a song you called the throwaway. Just too get that extra song, and maybe later they'd put it on an album. But it was just a term we used "throwaway song." So Bumps said "Sammy's doing three songs he wants to use a harmonica on the third song." So, I came into the Capitol studios, and he had a full orchestra in there, strings, brass - big band. He was doing his thing, and I was just sitting in the corner real quiet with about ten harmonicas in a little brown bag, just sitting there waiting. So finally, they got ready for me - and nobody even spoke to me except Bumps Blackwell, because they were all busy. So, when Sammy got ready for the third song, he came out and said "Where's my harmonica man to do the last song?" I said: "Over here." He said "Well OK, c'mon over here. You can just blow in my mike, we don't even have to set up a new mike for you. We just have a few interludes. I'll just back off and you can blow into my mike." I said: "OK." So, I stood beside him while he was singing "But Not For Me." When it came time for me to do something, I turned loose and played some good ol' funky harmonica. And [Sammy] just stepped back and he said "Hold everything. I want the band to stop, everybody stop right now." He said "I'm going to change this up! Me and my harmonica man are going to do this song." He was crazy about it, man. So he changed that whole arrangement to where he gave me the lead on harmonica - and it turned out to be the A-side of his record. Then, he got on the phone at about 2 o'clock in the morning and woke Bobby Darin up - because Bobby Darin had put it out before, and he played it to him over the phone. "See here Bobby, if you'd this record this way, you'd of had a hit record!" And he did have a big record on it - all because of me. He just treated me so nice - he was the nicest guy I ever met. He was so thrilled to have that harmonica on there.
KB: Was that on Capitol or Reprise?
BLR: Reprise. I played for Dean Martin on that label. Most of the time you didn't see the artist, that was rare. Sometimes the artists were there and sometimes you'd do the tracks and they'd come in later.
KB: What about Dean Martin, did you get to see him?
BLR: I didn't see him in the studio. I did his tracks and he came in later. I met him and did a show with him.
KB: On one of your album covers, it says you once opened for Dean.
BLR: Yeah, we did a thing at the Moulan Rouge, a big benefit show for Pierre Salinger. He was having a big 2 or 3 hundred dollar a plate dinner. And, I was one of the acts on that show with Dean Martin, Janet Leigh, Natalie Wood, Eddie Fisher, and a whole bunch of 'em.
KB: What hit records did you play on by Dean?
BLR: "Little Ol' Wine Drinker Me" and "Houston." Both of those. Dean was a nice guy, he was a sot - but a nice guy. I've always liked him, but meeting Sammy Davis Jr. and Audie Murphy was two of the highlights of my life in Hollywood. There was so many phonies out there that I wasn't too impressed with Hollywood.
KB: Tell us about meeting Audie Murphy. [Murphy won the Congressional Medal Of Honor during World War II and went on to be a star in cowboy pictures during the 50s and 60s.]
BLR: Well, he was a songwriter, and he came in on a session that we were doing one night. And when I was a kid - he was my hero; I saw his movies all the time. The day he walked into that session, that was the only time that I was completely overwhelmed. I couldn't wait to get over there and shake his hand. I told him "Man, you've been my hero for YEARS, ever since I can remember." It was a thrill.
KB: What kind of songwriter was he?
BLR: He wrote country songs. I can't remember any of the titles, but I'm pretty sure he wrote some hits. He was a good songwriter.
KB: Which Beach Boy record did you play on?
BLR: "Help Me Rhonda."
KB: The album version or the single?
BLR: The single. You have to listen real close to hear me, they got me pulled down in the mix, but I played on it.
KB: Did you get a chance to meet Brian Wilson or any of the band?
BLR: No, because they weren't even there when I did that track. That's just how it was back then.
KB: Who else did you work with?
BLR: I worked with the Righteous Brothers on their stuff - I forget what I did exactly, but it was some work for some soundtracks for them.
KB: What about Pearl Bailey?
BLR: I did shows with Pearl Bailey. I didn't actually record with her. She was one of the greatest people I had ever met. I went out and did my show before her, and she stood there in the wings and listened to my whole show, which she didn't usually do. And when she came out, she hugged me as tight as she could and said "I want you to know that you have more soul than anybody I ever met!" She said "You are wonderful!" I thought it was real nice - she paid me a real big compliment. That was around '65.
KB: What did you do on Ricky Nelson's recordings?
BLR: I played harmonica - there was so many things I did for him I can't remember. That was around '65.
KB: The story that we've all been told is, once the Beatles and the British Invasion acts came to America, all you guys from Memphis were thrown out of work. Was that true?
BLR: Not necessarily. They changed things -- made it hard for everybody. It was harder to find a job, but I was playing things they weren't playing -- the Whiskey A-Go-Go type stuff. I was working.
KB: Tell us a little about the Whiskey A-Go-Go days.
BLR: That was a great job. Johnny Rivers started playing there first. The idea was brought over from France, somebody had been over there and had seen it. And it had trios playing and there was a small dance floor. You could get a lot of people in there, but it was kinda tight. Very intimate. Rivers started out playing there and Trini Lopez was playing at PJs - both were doing the same thing, but the Whiskey was happening . So, I knew the bass player in Johnny Rivers' band, and Rivers was fixing to go on the road and open some more clubs. The band didn't want to go with him. Well Joe Osborne went with him, but the drummer wasn't going. So Joe said: "Why don't you go down there and audition for Elmer Valentine. I think you can get that job as soon as Johnny leaves. We'll go down there and audition with you." So I said: "Fine, man." So I auditioned and got the job, and I had to hire a bass man, but the drummer stayed there, and he was pretty much educated on what to do there, so he taught me the ropes. So I started playing there, and heck - the guy really liked me, so I started following Johnny . Johnny would open a club in Atlanta and I'd go in after him, same with New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, everywhere there was a Whiskey A-Go-Go. He'd open the club, leave, and I'd go in after him. I stayed in that circuit for about a year and a half.
KB: Was that a good money circuit for you?
BLR: It was the best money circuit at the time, that I had ever had.
KB: How much recording did you do under your name at that time? The only thing I've been able to find is a little four song EP of you live at the Whiskey, and this style just fits you like a glove.
BLR: There was a whole album out on GNP called In Action. That's what Go-Go was, just three piece stuff, and you could just about sing anything to it. I did a lot of country songs, I did Beatles stuff, Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry. During that time, doing that kind of music, you could do all kinds of stuff - just about anything would fit. I did folk, I did everything, man. And it was an easy job. You sat up on a stool and every body sat up there and played. You were on 30 minutes then you were off 30 minutes.
KB: Did you play much harmonica onstage?
BLR: I had me special harmonica rack to fit on the vocal mike, and when I got ready to play a harmonica solo - I'd just blow it. And on that Go-Go stuff, I did lead guitar on everything. All the stuff I did with Mercury and other labels too.
KB: Who came up with the idea for you to do the harmonica LPs, which featured instrumental versions of contemporary hits?
BLR: Billy Strange and another guy. Mercury wanted them to do harmonica versions of the Beatles' songs and just a regular album. So, I was the only harmonica player around at the time. That's the reason I got all the work. This guy called me for a session for two albums - and that's a lot of money. Before we were finished they came up and said "We haven't got a name to put on this LP. Would you mind if we put your name on it?" I said "Naw." They said "Well, we'll put your name on here as the artist and get you a contract with Mercury." I said "That's good. It'll give me a chance to do something with Mercury." That's how that happened - it was an accident. I went down there to be a session musician, and I came out of there as an artist. After that, Nick Venet recorded a live thing on me at the Whiskey A-Go-Go.
KB: Didn't you do an earlier harmonica LP for Crown?
BLR: Yeah - that was produced by Gary Paxton, the leader of the Argyles, who did Alley Oop." That was a terrible album. We did things like that just to make a living, man. He needed a harmonica player, and I went down there and didn't even know what they were playing, and the stuff that ended up on the album wasn't even my kind of stuff. I just faked my way through it and they released it. That was another thing they just put my name on because they didn't have a name to go on it.
KB: There was some pretty tricky melodies on these harmonica LPs. Do you read music?
BLR: Nope. I'd listen to it right there in the studio and then I'd play it. That was kinda hard to do, because I didn't know that many of the Beatles' songs at the time. I learned my parts in like 2 or 3 minutes. Sometimes I'd have to use three or four harmonicas on one song, because I couldn't reach all the notes otherwise. If you'll notice, on the back of one of those album covers, I'm holding three harmonicas - and that's the way I would have to hold those harmonicas when I played on the session. I had to jump from one to another, I'd play a little bit then I'd have to modulate into another key. When they took that picture - that was during a cut. (laughs) I had to play a lot of times like that. Their songs were pretty complicated if you're not playing chromatic - and I'm usually not a chromatic player. I played a chromatic harmonica on one of Johnny Rivers' songs.
KB: Which one was that?
BLR: I played on "Mountain Of Love," which was a big hit for him. I played on a whole album with him, but I don't remember the titles.
KB: What was Johnny Rivers like? Did you guys get along?
BLR: We hated each other! He was very jealous of me when I went to the Whiskey A-Go-Go. Before I went to the Whiskey A-Go-Go, Joe Osborn invited me down, said: "Why don't you come down some night and play harmonica with us onstage." I said: "Man, Johnny don't want me up there foolin' around." He said : "Aw, don't worry about it. I'll get you up there." So, I took my harmonica down there one night, and he got Johnny to call me up. And I got up there and the crowd just went wild, and that made Johnny mad. Made him jealous. So he wouldn't let me play with him no more. Then when I started playing there, he got real upset. He came down there one time when I was playing - he had closed out of one club and got back early, and came back before I closed out. So, he came out there on a Saturday night, and it was raining real hard. We had the club packed - completely full, and three hundred people were standing outside in the rain, waiting to get in. And Johnny had to stand outside for a little while and that made him mad. So he came in and was raising Cain and Elmer Valentine was saying "Hey man, don't he sound good?" Johnny said "Well, I could sound good too if you'd give me some good mikes, like you gave him!" Elmer told me "He was really mad because you had a house full - you had more people than he'd ever had in there." In Atlanta, I still hold the record for attendance at the Whiskey A-Go-Go, I had more people in there than anybody.
KB: Didn't Rivers get turned down by Sun Records?
BLR: Yeah he couldn't make it there. He was just jealous, not just of me, he was just jealous of anybody he thought had a chance to do something.
KB: He had a string of hit records at that time - what did he have to worry about?
BLR: Yeah, he had a bunch of hits, but I guess he was afraid that I was going to get some of the gravy. There's a lot of people like that, people who are consumed with professional jealousy. That's how it is in Nashville - they're eat up with it.
KB: I'm looking at this photo of you during the 60s, and you were one handsome cat. How come you didn't end up in the movies?
BLR: Well, I've had chances. I lost one chance, I could've been in "How The West Was Won," but I turned it over to somebody else to get it for me and they goofed up. Believe it or not, man - I wasn't real outgoing like I am now. If I'd of been then, like I am now, I would have been in the movies. Tuesday Weld was one of the stars out there that had the hots for me, and she wanted to date me, and I didn't care nothin' about dating her.
KB: Most guys would've jumped at the chance.
BLR: I dunno, she was just not my type. She used to come out to the Whiskey. A lot of the stars used to come there to see me. Steve McQueen was there a lot, he was a part-owner. It was a hang-out really, for a lot of actors and actresses. I got to be good friends with John Hamilton and Clint Eastwood was a good buddy of mine at one time.
KB: What was the most unusual session you played on during that time.
BLR: That had to be the one I did with Dick Contino. I played on an album with Dick Contino, he played accordion. He was an Italian dude. I played lead guitar or what the called "first chair." (laughs) I played first chair and lead guitar with people like Barney Kessel. I'd play lead and Barney played rhythm.
KB: Was that a jazz session? Pop?
BLR: No, they were trying to do a rock'n'roll thing, that's why they called me in. I also played a lot of sessions with James Burton and Glen Campbell.
KB: What was Glen Campbell like before he made it?
BLR: He was a halfway nice guy, but he wanted you to know, in so many ways, that he was completely better than you. I was never a big fan of his, though I worked with him a lot. Leon Russell was a nice guy. He was a piano player in the group when I was doing all that session stuff. I was working most of the time with Glen Campbell, James Burton, Hal Blaine, Leon Russell, and people like that.
KB: Would you take session work like that today?
BLR: Absolutely, if they paid me right. I'll work with anybody. I just want to get paid for my work.
KB: How did you come to record for Gene Norman at GNP?
BLR: He knew me, he knew about me at Sun, and he knew what was going on over at the Whiskey. And when I came back into town, and the Whiskey had gone long-hair and they weren't doing my type of music anymore, I started working other clubs. Well, he came down one night and asked if I was interested in recording. He rented the studio and just set it up like a nightclub, put tables in there. He served drinks to the 25 - 30 people he had in there for an audience, and we sat up there just like we did on stage and like a live album. That was the In Action album, and the other one - the harmonica album, we just did that in the studio.
KB: What was Gene Norman like to work with?
BLR: Great, man. He was just fantastic. He treated me great - and he wanted that album to strictly be me. He didn't want nobody shining in here but me. He told me "You just do it your way. I ain't gonna tell you nothin'."
KB: Did you have any trouble going from an environment at Sun and some of your own labels, where you called all the shots, to a more strictly controlled situation in California?
BLR: I had no problem with that whatsoever. You see, I also did some producing out there for Capitol, I produced a "monster" album for them. You know when they had "Monster Mash" out? Well, they had me produce a whole album with a monster theme, it's called "Monsters Holiday," or something like that. I got paid good for that.
KB: Who was on that album? Who sang on it?
BLR: I hired all the old guys, James Burton and all them guys. It was an instrumental LP. It was filled with all ghoulish songs (laughs) - all crazy stuff.
KB: Tell us something about your time in Atlanta. I have an LP which you recorded in 1966 which was basically the Whiskey A-Go-Go sound.
BLR: Yeah, that sound stayed in style for a long time. After I got back to L.A., and the Whiskey A-Go-Go's had changed. I was called to do a job in Atlanta at a place called The Pussycat Lounge. While I did my stint there, the Brave-Falcon approached me, and they wanted me to come out there and play. So, I agreed to do that, and when the guy at the other club found out I was going to work for the Brave-Falcon, they had my car set on fire! I had a Cadillac and someone came to my door one morning and asked: "Do you own that brown Cadillac? It's on fire." I had to have all of the interior redone and everything. They didn't burn the whole thing up, mostly the seats.
KB: Tell us more about the Atlanta era.
BLR: Well, when I wound up in Atlanta, I stayed there for quite a while, and I produced that record you have, and then I produced some more things. There was a movie I sang in, Speed Lovers. It was racing movie with Fred Lorenzen. 90% of it was stock footage. I sung the title song and sang two songs in the movie. So, the guy that backed the movie, I got him to back me and that's when I produced that album at the Brave-Falcon, on Mojo Records.
KB: Did you produce some other things there?
BLR: I also produced "Midnight Hour" which was a good seller for me.
KB: Wasn't there a bit of a controversy concerning that record?
BLR: Yes. "Midnight Hour" sold a lot of records and I was trying to get a major label on it, and I almost had it - I should've took the first offer I got. Capitol wanted it and I could've got $20,000 up front. Then Atlantic wanted it and I hung on to it and hung on to it, and I hung on to it too long, because there were seven cover versions of it that come out. One of 'em was on Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss's A&M, and it was the only one that was really hurtin' me. The rest of 'em wasn't doing anything. Jerry Moss was putting out so much advertisement that it was hurting me - but they weren't selling any records, and I was. I done sold 150 - 200,000 records. I looked at the Billboard one morning, and Billboard had their version at #58. So I called Jerry Moss and I told him the situation: "You guys got all this money and all this stuff. And we were one-time friends, and I even recorded for you for 15 bucks." and I reminded him of "Lonely Bull" and all that. Then I said: "I've got this record out, and I don't have all kinds of money, but I've got a hit record going. Why don't y'all just pull yours, yours is the only one that's bothering me. Just pull it and let me have this one - y'all go cut something else on your group." He said: "Naw, we ain't gonna do it, man. We're gonna go on with this." I said: "Well, I'll tell you what - I'll spend every dime I've got, matching you to keep you from selling." So, when I saw that in Billboard that morning, first thing I did was call the pressing plant. A guy named Jack and me were good friends, and I asked him "Are you pressing this thing on Herb Alpert's label?" He said: "Yeah!" I asked: "How many have you pressed? He's #58 in Billboard." He said: "I haven't pressed nothin' but a thousand records. I've only pressed samples." I asked: "Well then, How'd he get in Billboard?" He said: "Politics. Bought his way in." So, I got on the phone and called Billboard - and here I am, I'd been buying full-page ads in Billboard and Cashbox every week, $1200 a smack. (laughs) I was running out of money and some of my distributors were paying me, and some of them weren't. Regionally, I was in the Top five almost everywhere - #1 in some cities, and I was ready to hit the national charts and I couldn't get in there because of Herb! So, I called Billboard and I talked to the head man and I asked him: "How come Herb's record is #58 and mine's not even in there? I've talked to the man that's pressing - the same company presses my record. I'm selling records and he's not." He said: "Well, you know how it is." I said: "Yeah, I know how it is. He's paying for it! Look, I'm buying ads in your magazine every week - how come you can't put me in there? I can prove that I've sold records." And he said: "He's selling records!" I said: "Man - he's not selling records. I'll tell you what I'm going to do. Next week, I'm buying a full page in Cashbox and I'm going to tell 'em exactly what you're doing, because I've already checked and I know that Herb Alpert hasn't pressed but a thousand records." He said: "You can't do that." I said: "I'll show you what I can do. I'll put it in there and I'll expose the fact that somebody's paying you to put that record in there." He said: "Wait a minute! I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'll put you in here next week at 58 and I'll raise him up." I said: "No, that ain't going to work! If you put me in there, I want to be the only one in there, because I'm the only one actually selling records. You either take them out or you keep everybody out." So, the next week, Herb Alpert's record wasn't in there - but neither was mine. But I did beat him down, I got Herb's record out of there.
KB: What happened to the record after that?
BLR: Well, then all the radio stations got so confused by so many covers that they just quit playing them all. So, I lost my record man, because of Herb Alpert.
KB: Tell us a little bit about the Mojo label. I've seen a listing in some jazz catalogs for a Mojo label -- do you still own that label?
BLR: I still own my Mojo label, but [the jazz label] is another Mojo. I never did have the name copyrighted. That other one's probably not copyrighted either. If I wanted to release something on mine, I could.
KB: So that's a dormant label now?
KB: Do you own all the masters.
BLR: Nope, I sold all the masters. I sold everything. I was going to get out of this business at one time, that's the reason I sold everything.
KB: Tell me about recordings at some of these other labels. What about Hip?
BLR: That's Stax. After I left Atlanta, I came back and leased a record to Atlantic. And I started working for Stax as an artist. The first thing I recorded was "Who's Making Love To Your Old Lady" country style. Of course I had the Stax band plus John Huey on steel. I did that and they didn't know what to do with it. But then, Steve Cropper came up to me and said "I've got a song I want you to do for Stax." And he produced "Family Portrait." So, I just started working there, producing, writing, and recorded 3 or 4 things over there.
KB: I've got one here on Hip called "Show Me Your Soul."
BLR: That was from that "Southern Soul" album. When I played it - Stax liked that. The people singing behind that is Isaac Hayes and David Porter. So they pulled that and made a single out of that - they never did put no other side on that. That song was the only side.
KB: Let's talk about those recordings you did during the late 60s in Florida, according to the notes on the Charly LP I have, you played all the instruments on those. Is that true?
BLR: When you read that on any of them, don't believe it.
KB: You've never played all the instruments on a record?
BLR: I've done one thing where I did all the instruments, it was released but it's very rare, and nobody has one of them. The name I used on it was Sandy & The Sandstormers. It was on ERA Records and was called "Flutterbug and The Sandstorm." I was Sandy & the Sandstormers and the instruments I played on it were bass, guitar, I think harmonica, and a cardboard box! (laughs)
KB: How did it sound?
BLR: Sounded good - the guy bought it.
KB: What would you have done if you'd had a big hit with that record?
BLR: I would've changed my name and cashed them checks! (laughs)
KB: For the record, how many instruments do you play and what are they?
BLR: I play guitar, harmonica, and bass. I play a little bit of piano, but not enough to claim that I'm actually a piano player.
KB: To me, your Florida recordings are the perfect example of Billy Lee Riley music.
BLR: It's a whole lot of different stuff, everything from country to r&b.
KB: Yes. It seemed like your sound grew up so you were able to compete with groups like Creedence Clearwater Revival.
BLR: We did a lot of that type stuff, "Working On A River," which I'm thinking about redoing for my new album.
KB: Another one I like from that era is "Pilot Town."
BLR: That was written especially for me - God, that was a hard song to sing. What we were purposely trying to do, and what I told Shelby Singleton I wanted to try, was touch every base on those sessions. I had about four other artists that I recorded and we did Creedence style, r&b, teenybopper bubblegum stuff, and everything else. I did a whole lot of stuff down there. Gosh, I walked into Shelby's office with about 15 different masters at one time. And he released some of them, but he waited until later to put the rest on some reissues. I don't know what he did with the stuff on the other guys, but I never did see any of it on the market. But I produced all that stuff, I produced for Shelby Singleton for a whole year. And that's when I produced "Tallahassee," "Old Home Place," and I can't remember what else...
KB: You did "Kay," which is one of my all-time favorite performances by you, and a funky disc in it's own right.
BLR: Well "Kay" is what got me in - when I cut "Kay," Sam Phillips told me to take it over to Shelby. That's what I did and Shelby bought "Kay" and then gave me a year's contract to produce for him.
KB: Whenever I hear your version of "Kay," it just sticks in my head for days.
BLR: It was a good shot. I did all the arranging and I had part of the Memphis Symphony, the Memphis Horns - I had the cream of the crop on that one. You know that was first a country song.
KB: Was that by John Wesley Ryles?
BLR: Yes. He did his with Nashville, I did mine with Memphis. I did it Stax style.
KB: After recording for so many labels and being so successful in clubs, what made you decide to quit?
BLR: I got to where I couldn't relate to it. My ex-wife and I divorced and I had two small children, 2 years old and 5 years old.
KB: What year did you quit music?
BLR: '73 was when I really quit. My last actual record was in '71 on the Entrance label.
KB: "I've Got A Thing About You Baby?" I love that record.
BLR: That's right - it was a Chips Moman record. Entrance was a subsidiary of Columbia, and that record was fixin' to happen big. Then Chips and Columbia had a falling out, so they sabotaged my record. [Writer's note: Elvis Presley hit the charts with a version of this song which doesn't deviate much from Riley's version.] That's my luck. Anyway, I had these two children, so I knew I had to get out of the business and settle down, so I came back to Arkansas and went to work as a house painter. I used to do it with my dad and it was the easiest thing to get a job at. So, I came back and settled down, went to court and got my children, and raised them. After they got bigger, I got back into the music business part-time. 1991 is when I got back into it full-time.
KB: While you were still working part-time as a musician, you did a recording on the Southern Rooster label, which got a good write-up in Rolling Stone. Whose label was that?
BLR: That belongs to Sam Phillips. We did "Blue Monday" and Good Ol' Rock'n'Roll."
KB: There's some real nice funky guitar work on that - whose playing that?
BLR: Me - I'm playing guitar on that.
KB: That record got national attention, how well did it do?
BLR: I don't know, I never did get paid for it.
KB: Did you record other stuff at that session?
BLR: We put some other things down, but they didn't get released.
KB: Here's a story I'd like you clear up for me. In Nick Tosches' book Country: The Biggest Music In America, the author covers Jerry Lee Lewis' Southern Roots session and mentions you. It says: Billy Lee Riley, the man who cut "Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll for Sun in 1957, materialized, looking like 5,000 concentrated volts. He spread his hands before him as if holding a birthday cake. "Man, I got me a pill this big, and when I take a bite the damn thing grows right back." Did that happen?
BLR: (laughing heartily) No! That's the first time I heard that. (laughing) I didn't even know what pills were back in those days.
KB: Were you oblivious to all the things that artists like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were into with the amphetamines?
BLR: I knew that Johnny Cash was doing something - I didn't know what he was doing. I knew that Charlie Rich and Bill Justis was popping pills. But I didn't know about anything but drinking - I just drank a lot and I didn't know anything about pills. I was scared of 'em - I've always been scared of 'em. I'm scared to take pills from doctors when I have to. I never have been a pill man.
KB: I can't tell you how comforted I am to hear that. Y'know Billy, when you read all these stories, it hurts sometimes to learn one's heroes have these problems.
BLR: Well, it hurts me to know that people get all these chances to do things, they go out and become famous and make all this money, and then they blow it on stuff that goes up their nose. And I wouldn't have snorted cocaine if you had paid me a million dollars. Or take a pill off the street - no way. I did try marijuana and it made me so sick I couldn't stand it. A guy gave me some, and I tried it - had some in a little jar that he had given me. And I flushed that stuff down and when I told him about that he almost cried. I said: "Man - I don't want that crap! That'll just make you sick."
KB: The first time I ever saw you in person was in 1979, at a benefit for Don Ezell at the Western Steakhouse in Memphis. You weren't even scheduled to perform but you got up and set that joint on it's ear.
BLR: I didn't know I was going to do anything, I wasn't even in the business then.
KB: I remember you being so friendly. You were sitting there next to Tommie and Howard Wix talking to everybody, and I noticed that Charlie Feathers was off by himself.
BLR: Yeah, off in a booth alone. Y'see, Charlie was going to sing, but after I got up there Charlie wouldn't do it. He left after that. Charlie was that kinda guy. I've known Charlie since the 50s. I never did a show with him, but the only thing that Charlie ever did for me - or anybody else, was downsize us. (laughs) He was good at that - always putting everybody down. But nobody paid any attention to him, we understood him.
KB: He seemed to have an inferiority complex. He had to tear other people down to make himself look bigger - which he didn't need to do, because we all liked his stuff.
BLR: He was good, he had some great stuff out there. We did Memphis in May, he went on before I did. When I went on, we just tore the place up. I'll just be honest with you. It was outside, there were thousands of people there. I had three encores and they were screaming for another one when I left. And Charlie Feathers was sitting down there beside a friend of mine who heard him talking to somebody else. So here I was singing, everybody's going out of their minds, and Ol' Charlie's sittin' there saying: "Riley just ain't got it no more." (big laugh) So what Charlie said never really did bother me. I liked Charlie, I understood him. A lot of people didn't.
KB: When you were recording for Southern Rooster and came out with a new album on Mojo in 1979, did you find that people were more interested in you since the death of Elvis Presley?
BLR: No, the reason I even did that [the Mojo LP Vintage] - they asked me to do Memphis In May in 1979. And I didn't really want to do it, I'd been off the stage for so long, and I didn't know if I really wanted to get back into it. Jerry and Knox Phillips talked me into doing that, and we got a band, and I went up there and did it, and was very successful. And, just before that happened, I had an offer to go overseas, and I turned 'em down. I was really scared to go to Europe. But then, when I did Memphis In May, and everybody liked it so well, I turned my head toward Europe, and I told 'em I was ready to come over. I went over there for the first time on a month-long tour, that was in the Spring. Then in the fall I went back over for another month. [Performing] sort've got back in my blood and I started doing quite a bit of it. I was still working a job, but I was also playing every chance I got.
KB: Were you surprised at the interest in your old material? Had you forgotten about your Sun sides by that time?
BLR: Yeah, I had forgotten all about it. What surprised my mostly was the interest in Europe. Man, them people over there - even today, they just love it! Every since 20 years ago, since I first started going over there, they treated me like royalty! Like I was Elvis Presley. They made you feel like you was somebody - so it was great over there.
KB: A long, long time ago, Tommie told me that you got stiffed by some European promoter.
BLR: Yeah - the guy still owes me about $7500. And I never saw him again. (laughs) He gave me half my money and told me I'd get the half later. That's what caused me to change my rules. I get paid before I ever go on stage. Most of the time, I get my money as soon as I get there and see the promoter. So, I haven't been and I'm not gonna be cheated out of anything else over there.
KB: Tell us about the Reunion At 706 album you recorded with J.M. Van Eaton.
BLR: That was in '91. After I moved back to Arkansas in '90. So one day J.M. called me and we got to talking and said "Man, why don't we go in the studio and cut something just for our own pleasure? Just because we hadn't worked together in 30 years? Just some of the stuff we used to do in the 50s, and if we get a chance to sell it we will, if we don't, we won't." So we did. We split the money and went in and recorded 706 Reunion. We got some good response to that - but the one thing that's holding it back from actually selling, is there's no original material on there.
KB: That's on the Sun-Up label. Who owns that?
BLR: That's mine. There is a guy interested in [the 706 Reunion LP] - we'll never get what we need for it, but eventually when somebody gives us the right price for it, we'll re-release it.
KB: For someone who wasn't that interested in the music business at the time, you were in pretty good voice.
BLR: Well, once I get to playing I always change. My whole attitude changes. Once I got into the studio, it felt so good that I just really got into it.
KB: Tell us about your album on Hightone, Blue Collar Blues. How did this come about, and was your deal with Hightone just a one-shot deal?
BLR: Yeah, it was a one record deal, with an option. It wasn't an intentional deal. This is how I figured it out, and I think this is the way it really happened. I couldn't swear to this, but everything points this way. The guy who produced that, I met him when I was doing the session with Sammy Davis Jr. in '64. And he's been a big fan of mine ever since. One of the owners, Bruce Bromberg. What happened - when J.M. and I cut 706 Reunion back in '91, I sent Hightone a copy of it, and he loved it. He said: "Man, you guys have still got it." So I said: "We ought to get together and maybe cut an album." He said: "Maybe we will." I must of dealt with him, down almost begging him, "Let's get together and cut an album. I want to cut a blues album." So, he kept putting me off. He had 900 reasons why he couldn't do it. But in the meantime, somebody had produced an album on Sonny Burgess, and Hightone had bought it. Well, [Bromberg] kindly felt bad about that. So, this is my theory, when I called him and said: " I was talking to Sonny Burgess and he's got an album out with you. What happened man, I thought we were going to cut one?" Well, he gave me all kinds of reasons, then he called me a few days later and said: "Well, we've decided we're going to cut an album." So, I think he just kinda felt bad. Had Sonny not cut his album, they probably wouldn't have cut one on me. It was a situation like, here he is, one of my biggest fans, so how am I going to feel that he released a record on Sonny Burgess and not one on me. So, he decided to do it, and he spent a lot of money on it, and it's not a bad album, it's just not me.
KB: I'm surprised to hear that because I think it's one of your best.
BLR: I didn't have anything to do with it, that was his idea, it's not really my true voice on a lot of that stuff, because he wouldn't let me sing the way I wanted to sing. So, it came out, they didn't promote it, and it didn't happen. There were two or three songs on there that did well, but it just wasn't happening. [Hightone] is mainly a compilation / catalog company, anyway. They cut these things, put you an album out, then they put it on the shelf. Then every so often, they'll take a couple songs out of it, and put it with a bunch of other things and they'll sell five - ten thousand. It's not enough to pay 15 guys royalties off of, so they keep it all, and they'll say "Well, we don't pay any royalties under X amount of money." See, if you put all those together, they've made a bunch of money, because they don't pay none of the artists. I mean, that's the way all of 'em are, it's not just them. That's the way all compilation companies are, it's all in marketing. That's the way it works.
KB: Tell us about the album on Icehouse Rockin' Fifties. J.M. Van Eaton thinks it's one of your best LPs ever. Certainly it's one of your rockingest.
BLR: Well, that could've been better. That was made up of stuff I had in the can. Some of it we did at Sun studios. Some were other things we had in the can, and others were only demos I had done in Atlanta. I just put all that stuff together, made me an album, and I took it over and let Johnny Phillips listen to it. I said: "Do you like it?" He said: "Yeah." "You want to buy it?" He said: "Yeah." I said: "OK, give me some money." He wrote me a check, released the album, and that's all there was to it.
KB: I notice that you remade T. Graham Brown's "Rock It Billy, Rock It," which you first did on the Blue Collar Blues album.
BLR: Yeah, that's a bad version though, because I did that in Little Rock with a band that really wasn't up to par. A guy had a studio in his house and I was way in the back bedroom singing, and he was back in another room with his equipment. It's just stuff I had, and I didn't know if I could sell it or not. There's things on there that normally I wouldn't release. Like "Born To Be A Rockin' Man," that's terrible. (laughs) I was kinda hoping that before someone got to that song they'd be tired of listening and shut it off. I'm not happy with a lot of things on that, but I knew the record wasn't going to do anything. I knew that Phillips wasn't going to push it.
KB: I've heard you say that you can't sell a rockabilly album. What did you mean by that?
BLR: Oh, I can sell a rockabilly album to fans on the internet and at shows, but I can't sell one to a label. They won't give me anything for it. They'll take it, but they won't give me anything. They'll say: "Yeah, we'll give you a thousand bucks front money." I'm not giving anything up for a thousand dollars front money. I'd rather take it out and burn it. Because I get paid pretty good for stuff I sell. I've already paid all my dues. Right now, I'm not bitter or nothing, I just feel like - those guys have got a lot of money, and they're going to make a lot of money off that record. If they don't sell but 5000 of 'em, they're going to make some money. So, I want some of it or I don't want them to have my record. I wish I were in a financial position where I could say: "Man, I'd love to just record albums and not worry about making money, just so the fans could have albums!" If I had the money, I'd just cut 'em and give all my fans a new record every six months. But I don't have that money. So when these people want to put out something to make money off of, I want my part of it first. Because I'm the one that went in the studio and paid the money to do it.
KB: I noticed that the Rockin' 50s album didn't make it onto the Tower Records website.
BLR: No, it's not there. That's what I don't understand. I don't understand why they pay money to buy these things, but they never do nothin' with 'em. The record was good enough that he could've sold some records on it. All he had to do is put it out there. Y'see, I've got enough fans everywhere that he could've made some money on that record. He did not even try, man. That record probably never got any further than his store in Memphis. I don't know of anybody else that's got it.
KB: Well, it's on the internet, I found it on Compact Disc Connection, which services foreign markets as well as America. Tower has your other records like Hot Damn.
BLR: I knew that Tower had that. I promoted Tower, called them up and stuff, but I knew they were going to carry it anyway because they carry Capricorn.
KB: You've often mentioned that Hot Damn is your favorite album up to this point. Tell us how that came about.
BLR: Well, I'd been wanting to cut a blues album for many years. A real, honest blues album - something that didn't have to be perfect, but was just honest. Nobody would do it. In '94, I started thinking about that record. So, I started cuttin' that record in the middle of '94. I went to a lot of studios. At first I was going to do a pure acoustic thing - just me and my guitar. I went up into a Missouri studio and I worked all night - and I'm not happy with it. So, I went to another studio in Memphis. Beale Street studios. Big big hi-tech studio. Well, that didn't work. Then I thought: "Maybe I'll just do it with me and the drummer. Maybe that'll work." This is over a period of time. The drummer didn't understand what I was doing. Now, J.M. [Van Eaton] and I could have done it, but I just didn't think about it. I went to two or three other studio, I even went to Sun. Still determined to do an acoustic session. But it still didn't work - I just couldn't get into it. I told James Lott "It's not working, let's forget about it." He said: "Look, let's just book some time, and I'll get a band together that can play what you want. We'll have a session and if you don't like it, don't worry about it." So he got these guys together and it worked ! And I was thrilled to death, man. But then we couldn't get studio time. We'd get a night here and a night there, and it took me forever to cut that album. (laughs) it took me forever, it seemed like. When this was finished I said "This is the best thing I've ever done." So, I was going to release that record on my own label. That was my whole intention. [Hot Damn] was strictly a project for my own enjoyment. But when I got down with it I said "Man! This is good enough to sell ! So I sent copies to four or five companies. The first one to call me was [Capricorn] and he said: "Man, I want to talk to you about this album. I want it." A year later, it came out. By the time it came out, they had some other stuff going that was really hot and they about forgot about me. But they never really put a real promotion budget on it - they probably spent $5000 on the record total, which is not anything near what you have to spend to promote a record.
KB: So were you able to promote it effectively?
BLR: Everywhere I promoted, it was effective. That's why if they'd have put some money into it, it would've sold. We'd of won the Grammy on it. It was up for a Grammy, but I couldn't get them to help me promote it to the people who vote. I needed a whole lot of ads. You need to run ads for about two months before voting time. I needed to make sure that every blues magazine and every blues person in the world knew about that record. Well, I got a lot of votes, but I didn't get enough. If I'd of had the money to promote it, I'd be staring at a little Grammy here. There's a man in New York at the Grammy association, the big man, I talked to him. He's the one that nominated me. So, [Hot Damn] had something. That just thrilled me to death and I thought: "Well, I know I'm going to win." But every body else was buying ads and buying ads, man. And I didn't have any competition. The same bunch wins every year, it's either John Lee Hooker or Buddy Guy. It's the same three people that win, and the only reason they win is because there's no competition. Then I came out and I had something completely different from all of 'em, and it started a new blues revolution in a lot of areas. That's why I could've [won the Grammy], but I didn't get no help. And they could've got me a hit record, but they had two more New Wave albums that was happening - rockin' stuff, and they were selling thousands and thousands of records. But they didn't even get nominated. So, Capricorn was selling so many records and making so many dollars on these other albums that, man, I just got lost. To tell you how lost I got, they had people working in promotion who didn't even know who I was! I called promotion one time to talk to my people and I said "My name is Billy Lee Riley." and they asked: "Who are you with?" I said: "Well, I thought I was with Capricorn." And a lot more people have told me that they have called Capricorn about me, and they didn't even know who I was. How are you supposed to feel about people like that? But I worked hard on that record, and it was just all in vain. They never followed up nothin'. I was on the cover of this one blues magazine and they wrote a great story on me. They sent a copy to Capricorn and they never even responded.
KB: Usually when that happens, the record company coughs up a little ad dough.
BLR: They wanted an ad, but they wouldn't give him one after they got in touch with [the label]. They gave me a cover story and Capricorn wouldn't even buy an ad. Then I got into a state of mind where I was going to quit. I got this close to a record and I couldn't get it to happen. I thought: "Apparently, it's not supposed to happen, so maybe I should just give it up."
KB: I don't think you should quit.
BLR: Well, apparently I didn't, because I'm back in the studio. (laughs) One of these days though, I'm going to have to stop. I tell you another thing that I would like to have more of - I would like for my fans to actually buy my records more. When I advertise in magazines, I don't get much response from fans that I know get these magazines, and I don't understand that. I do sell quite a few records through those, but not what I would expect to. I'd like to have more fans who a really fans - because I treat my fans right. I treat 'em like they want to be treated.
KB: Tell us about your latest recording project. Where are you recording it?
BLR: At Sun, with the same guys we used on Hot Damn.
KB: What kind of music are you doing and how much have you gotten done?
BLR: Blues, it's an all-blues album, but I'm recutting some of my stuff from the 50s too. I've about 18 or 20 songs to choose from for the album. We've got 7 or 8 of 'em all finished except for mixing. We're going back in next week to try and get all the overdubbing done. I'm hoping to have this thing finished before I leave for overseas. I'm gonna make me another blues album, and I'm also gonna cut me a couple of rockabilly albums. I'm going to rerecord my 50s stuff, and put about 16 or 17 songs on a disc, and do a new a new rockabilly album.
KB: Do you think you'll have copies ready to sell by the time you go on tour?
BLR: I'm not going to start anything on it until I come back from Europe.
KB: Any nibbles from other labels?
BLR: I haven't talked to anybody yet. I might keep it for myself, maybe put it on my own label, and sell it mail order or maybe even on the internet. Hightone had shown interest. I tried to make a deal with them before I cut the session, and they wouldn't do it. So I'm going to count them out - just because I want to. Because they showed interest then they backed down on me. So I'll go some other way.
KB: What's the attraction of running your own label?
BLR: If you have the money to do it, the greatest attraction is that you don't have to put up with everybody's crap. (laughs) You do it your way and you don't have to answer to anybody. Everybody has their own way of doing things - and I know how to do this, but I can't do it without money. It takes a lot of promotional money and that's why I have to deal with other people. If I had all the money I needed, I wouldn't deal with anybody.
KB: Do you understand the industry as it is today? If you had the funds could you compete in today's industry?
BLR: Yeah, because I wouldn't fool with the Top 40 market - that's all sewed up. I would go back to the old way of doing things. I'd work the Americana stations and I'd forget about this Top 40 stuff, and if it did cross over and Top 40 picked it up, that'd be good too. But I would go the other way, do it exactly the way we did 40 years ago. It works, because I've done that, but I just didn't have the money to keep going with it. But, I don't like nothin' about the way the mainstream record business is run today. because it's not a record business, it's just a marketing thing. Half of the artists don't have the talent, and music people don't run the industry anymore.
KB: When did you first notice that happening?
BLR: I guess it got really strong in the 70s. It's all like Wall Street. And the artists, they're not having fun, they're not doing music, they're making business deals. It takes all the joy out of it. They're too worried about the dollar. Of course you got to make the money, but first you have to create an enjoyable environment. There's none of that in the new music. There is in my type of music. That's still there. But in pop music and all this big stuff, everybody's fighting, trying to get them awards, and there's so much professional jealousy that it's nothin' but a big race to see who can do better and get more than the other one. Then they all sit up there and say how well they all love each other, "We're all comrades." You know, that type of thing. But they're not - they all hate each other.
KB: (laughs) That's my take exactly.
BLR: That's it, man. They hate each other. The greatest evidence of that was the trouble and strife between Billy Ray Cyrus and Travis Tritt. That's just a small example, but they're all that way. They're all just fightin' each other tooth and nail.
KB: I, for one, liked "Achey Breaky Heart," despite what Travis Tritt said about it.
BLR: I did too, and I was for Cyrus because he was the underdog. Everybody in the business thought he was a phony, but he was the only one in the business that wasn't a phony. He was a doing a legitimate thing, man - and everybody else was sitting up there putting him down.
KB: So there's no place for individuals in country music?
BLR: No, man.
KB: Are you allowed to be your own man on the blues circuit?
BLR: You can do anything you want to do. You're free to do what you want to and nobody bothers you. And that's the good thing about it - that's the way music used to be. That's the way it should be. But that's why a lot of people aren't getting any breaks, because music's not that way anymore. You've got to conform to the way they're doing it or else you're not going to get anything done. I don't see it that way. I don't care about selling no 10 million records anyhow. I'm not trying to make a hundred million dollars a year - don't want it. I really mean it, man. Nobody in the world needs a hundred million dollars. I don't care who you are. Because the government is going to get most of it, your payroll's going to get bigger, and you'll wind up with not much more than when you were making less. That money just causes problems. All I want is enough money to do what I want to do, and be comfortable. And, it don't take much for me to be comfortable.
KB: Tell us more about running your own label. At a certain level, is there a greater financial advantage to do it yourself?
BLR: Yeah, absolutely. You have nothing to pay. If I deal with a "somebody else," I only earn a royalty which I'll probably never get. Before you get the royalty, they'll spend it all, find ways to charge things back to you. About all you'll get is what they give on the front, then if you have a hit record, that'll get you a lot of work. But, if you have your own label, you get all the money. If that record sells a hundred thousand, you'll make more money off of that than you will being with somebody else and selling two million. You'll make more money and actually, you'll have more fun.
KB: I've talked with some younger acts who come into the business with a game plan. They say "No, I'm never going to give up my publishing. I'll make the label lease my masters so I can control the sound and own the record." In the end, they all end up capitulating with the system.
BLR: (laughs) If you say you're not going to give up publishing, you're not going get a deal. When you sign with somebody they're going to want some publishing. Because there's money to be made in publishing - more than there is in records. And in publishing, you don't have to work for it. it's just gravy. I always would make publishing deals. I get front money for my publishing deals - and nine times out of ten, that's all I ever will get. But, I'm prepared to do that.
KB: You run your own publishing for your own labels, right?
BLR: I've got two publishing companies. I've got my stuff and I publish other people's material. I've got Lightning Leon publishing with BMI, and the one for my ASCAP writers - Daddy Keys. But I don't use that one as much because I don't like ASCAP.
KB: What's the difference?
BLR: Well, you can join BMI and you don't have to pay nothin' and they treat you a lot better. ASCAP, you got to pay to be a member, and they're just not as nice people. I don't like 'em. I'm going to get rid of my ASCAP stuff.
KB: Billy, do you have a booking agent?
KB: Do you have a manager?
KB: So you manage and book yourself?
BLR: I do it all. I use a lot of different booking agencies - I go through a bunch of people when I'm working. I mean, I've got a lot of people that I work with - but I wouldn't sign with any booking agency that was a major booking agency.
KB: You mean you wouldn't sign with someone like William Morris?
BLR: Well, I would, but they wouldn't sign me.
KB: Because you're a blues artist?
BLR: No, it's because I don't have anything that they care about. They're not interested in somebody like me, they want these younger people.
KB: Does having all this experience in the business help you?
BLR: It helps me as far as I'm concerned, but a lot of people in that end of the business don't like me because I know the business too well. They like to deal with people who are green, so they can rook you into a lot of things. They can't do that with me, therefore they only deal with me when they have to. (laughs) They don't deal with me if they don't have to. It's just like in Europe, man. I'm the only person that's working, in my circuit, that demands to be treated like a human being. When I go over there, when they book me as a rockabilly star, then they got to treat me like a rockabilly star. I'm not a star and don't claim to be, but that's what they're booking me as, so I'm not going to go over there and stay in some dirty hotel and be treated like a piece of crap. When I go over there, I stay in the finer hotels, and I'm driven around in finer transportation. And I won't be treated like a flunky - and they don't like that, because that costs money and they'd rather keep the money than give it to the artist. I've got a certain price I charge for shows in Europe and I don't come down. When they call me and I give 'em my price, and they try to get me cheaper, I say "I'm not interested. Call me back when you get some money." I'm not flexible on my price with anybody. What I charge is what I charge. Everybody knows that. So, if somebody calls me about a job, they know what they're going to have to pay. And that's just because I have my own ideas about things, and I'm not going to keep paying the dues that I've paid for the last 30 - 40 years.
KB: If you were a young artist today would you pay the same dues?
BLR: If I were a young guy just breaking into the music business, yeah I'd do it. I would pay my dues again - you have to. That's part of the business. You have to work your way up. Today, because of marketing, these country acts don't have to pay no dues. They take these pretty boys and these good-lookin' chicks off the street, put 'em in a studio and pretend that they can sing, and they dress 'em up real pretty, and they make a video on 'em and they sell sex. That's all they do - they market that, they don't market the song, they market sex. The looks and all that. All the guys in the country business are hunks and all the girls are pin-ups. That's the first quality you have to have. Singing comes way down the list, about 4th or 5th. You got to be able to sell yourself on the screen. So, I really don't like what music has come to today. And right now, I'm doing the only kind of music that somebody my age is allowed to do.
KB: Are there any current acts that you like?
KB: With all the things that you've learned, do you think you could manage a young act?
BLR: I could do that and I would like to do that. But if I took on an act, it would have to be the kind that could make some money, like a good country act. Even though I'm not country. That's where all the money is. If I could find me a young 22 year old girl or boy that was handsome or beautiful, and had just a little bit of talent and some class. You know, you've got to be educated now, at least have some college. You can't be like we used to be. You can't be an old country boy anymore. They don't allow that, you got to be "city" country. If I found somebody like that, I'd take them to Nashville in a New York minute for a session and then sell it. I could sell an act like that and I would. But that's the only kind of act that that I would get deeply involved in.
KB: What should new acts know about publishing and management? If they have to make a deal with the devil - what type of deal should they make?
BLR: You've got to make up your mind what you want to be, a singer or a songwriter. If you want to be a singer, man, the first time around to get you a deal, get it all the way. If I was 20 years old and I wrote a whole album of knocked out songs and I went to a label and they said: "Man, we like your singing. You could be the next star, but we're going to have to publish your songs." I'd say: "Man, give me a piece of paper to sign as quick as you can." BUT, if I wanted to be a writer, I'd say: "Well, I'll tell you what. I'll make a deal with you on the writing. I'll split the publishing with you." I would tell them first: "I'll give 25% of the publishing." If they say: "We gotta have half." I'd say: "Well, you can have half, but give me a deal." Then, once you get in there, once you make it, you can do what you want to do. You can control your publishing. But when you're out there on the street, man, you got to pay your dues - let people crap on you for a while. (laughs) At least during that first time around. Then, when you get up there, you can do your own thing.
KB: Do you think people should be singer/songwriters?
BLR: I think it's great to be a singer/songwriter; it's easier to sing your own songs. If you're a serious writer and a good singer, your songs will be written for yourself. Of course, then other people can do 'em too. If I was going to deal with somebody, I'd love to have a singer/songwriter. But you don't have to be a writer to be an interesting singer. Still, it's more attractive to a record label if you walk in and say: "Man, this guy sings fantastic, but not only that but he's also a good musician, and he writes all of his own material." Man, a label will jump at it because they're looking at that publishing. So, that's a real good bargaining thing.
KB: How effective do you think some A&R departments are at finding songs for their artists?
BLR: I really don't think A&R people have a whole lot to do with it. The singer himself usually picks the songs and the A&R man takes the credit. I don't believe anybody in the world could pick a song for me. I have to pick it. And I think it's the same way with anybody in the world. Now, if an A&R man brings you a song and says "I think this would be good for you." And you agree with him, then he's not picking the songs, he's just bringing them to you. You're picking it - you're making the decision. So I don't think an A&R man can pick a song for somebody, he may suggest something, but that singer has to be able to hear himself doing that song.
KB: When you're not writing where do you get your songs? Do you have an extensive record collection?
BLR: No, I have a real good memory. I can remember back to when I was almost 3 or 4 years old. I remember old songs and I have some blues things, not a real big collection, but people send me things. I've got old records and some of these reissue things. A lot of these record companies, when they reissue these things, I'll call 'em and they'll send me samples. AVI, when they came out with that new record on me a few years ago, I called 'em and told 'em send me something. They did and they also brought up that they had the old Excello catalog. I said "Man, I love the Excello artists. Send me a box full of 'em." They sent me a bunch of everything they had which includes Slim Harpo, Lightning Slim, a whole bunch of people. All I got was songs I already knew, songs I've been hearing since the early 50s.
KB: So, that type of blues is what you listen to for pleasure?
BLR: If I listen to anything for my own pleasure, it's either got to be blues or original Southern rockabilly. I don't like no Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, whatever rockabilly. I don't listen to a lot of music, but I will listen to blues. There's a radio station in Memphis that has a couple of blues shows, and I try to catch those. At home, I may get into a mood where I just want to sit back and put my Excello stuff on, and I really get engrossed in it. Or, if I'm trying to get ready for a session, I'll take all that stuff out. And no matter what session I do, I'm going to do some blues. I may put 4 or 5 of my own things on there, but basically, I'm going to build my album out of old blues - because that's the good blues. That's better than anything that could be written today. I write a lot of stuff in that frame, but believe me man, you don't have writers today like Slim Harpo, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and all that.
KB: How do you write? Do you work off of a title, walk around with a guitar in your hand and jam until something comes?
BLR: It just comes to me. An idea, something just comes to me.They just come out of nowhere. I may be driving down the road and something will come to me and I'll just start jotting it down - just enough to remember when I get home and put it all together. To write a song, I'll usually put it together the first time, and then I'll just lay it out. Then I'll wait a day or two, then I'll pull it out and start again.
KB: Do you have a home recording system so you can lay down demos?
BLR: No. I just write it down on paper, and I sing it through and put a tune to it, and it goes in my brain and stays there.
KB: Do you use the Nashville numbers system on the lyric sheets?
BLR: No, I write the lyric sheet and that's it. I don't do any number systems until I get ready to go into the studio. Then, I'll take my songs, go into my office, and I'll take my guitar and sing it while I make a chart. The way I do it, I don't put just the numbers down, I put the bars and the beats, 4 beats to a measure. That way, when the guys are playing they won't have to ask how many bars, it's all right there. It's real simple. This is the way we did it out in California, that's where I learned to do it and I stuck with it.
KB: So, when you're in a session, are you what is known as the session leader?
BLR: No, nobody's the leader. We just go in there and say "Look, this is the song we're going to do, and here's everybody's sheet." Then I'll sing it through one time, and then every body will start fallin' in and I'll say "OK - let's go do it one time." Then I'll sing it again and we'll go through that whole thing where we work up the intro part we want on it , which is usually very simple, then we just put the track down. For this latest project, we put down 20 tracks in two nights.
KB: Man, that's a lot of work.
BLR: It's not a lot of work when you know what you're doing. Second thing is - the total hours was about eight. In eight hours we put down 20 basic tracks. So, the next night we'll start doing some instrumental overdubbing. The third night, I'll go in and sing all the songs and put some harmonica on it. Usually, I'll sing one and then put the harmonica on it, but this time, while we had the song pulled up and we were overdubbing, all we had to do is change channels. Usually, I'll sing all the way through four times and play all the way through fours times. I'm also playing some lead guitar on a few tracks, though mostly I like James Lott's playing so much that he's doing most of it. But last night I told him "Just for the heck of it, I want to play lead guitar on a few tracks because I want to play my new guitars."
KB: What kind of guitar are you picking these days?
BLR: Well, I endorse for Gibson. I've got three. I've got an all steel, solid steel dobro and man it's got such a beautiful sound. It's got sand blast designs all over it, Hawaiian scenes. Gibson gave that to me, and they gave me a Gibson 335, and an Epiphone 335, so I want all of those guitars on this session. So, I'm going to play at least one solo with each guitar. I've played all three guitars on the rhythm tracks, but I want to play lead on at least three songs. Y'know, Gibson wants me playing these guitars, not just holding them. (laughs)
KB: How are you on the dobro - any good?
BLR: Well, I just play it like any other guitar. Fingerpicking style, not slide. I can't play slide, but my guitar player is a real good slide man. But this dobro has such a fantastic raw blues sound and it's got the old gut sound, man. James Lott liked it so well he said "I gotta have me one of these." (laughs) We cut a couple of acoustic things last night, with just me and the dobro, that I might put on the album.
KB: Do you endorse any harmonica's?
BLR: No, Hohner wanted me to endorse, but they didn't want to give me nothin'. They didn't want to give me no free harmonicas or anything and they wanted sign a release to use my likeness, pictures, and everything for T-shirts for them to sell, but they wouldn't give me any money for it. They wouldn't even give me free harmonicas - I had to pay almost full price for harmonicas. So I told 'em to forget it.
KB: What brand of harmonica do you like to play?
BLR: Right now, I'm mostly playing Hohner Special 20. That's a good harp - it don't last long, but it's a good harp. I also got one, and it's been a real good harp and I might start playing it, Lee Oskar - it's the first one I ever bought because they're so expensive.
KB: How many harps do you have?
BLR: Oh, of the ones I play, about 15. They're all in different keys. I sell the wore out ones to collectors and museum people. I just save all that stuff, eventually somebody'll buy it. See, I've got a bunch of stuff that I've been selling to Hard Rock Cafe. I've sold two sets, I've got an exhibit at the Memphis Hard Rock Cafe and another at the New Orleans cafe, and they're supposed to buy something to put in the new one in Orlando. But I've still got the old clothes and the white and black shoes. Old guitars, I've got one guitar that was made in 1929 by the Slingerland Drum Company, and it's old and very rare. It's a small guitar. I sold a big bunch of stuff not too long ago to the Smithsonian Institute, which is going to have a big exhibit. They already got one in a traveling show right now, but they're enlarging it - they bought a jacket and trousers, shoes, a whole harmonica case, the one that I made back in '59, and an old Harmony guitar that I had. They paid a bunch of money for that stuff. That stuff's worth a bunch of money.
KB: That surprises me because I was under the impression that museums never paid for anything.
BLR: They paid for my stuff, because I won't give it to 'em. I sold a bunch of stuff to a museum in Memphis. they were the first ones I sold things too. I could've gotten more, but I wasn't really familiar with how much they'd pay for this stuff. I found that, if they want it, money's no object.
KB: On stuff like the acetates, have you made safety copies so you can still have the music?
BLR: Well, the one that went to the Smithsonian, they're going to do that for me. They want something they can play and also have something they can display, and when they make a copy for themselves, they'll make me one. They always make me copies of everything that they buy, pictures, and films. I sold 'em an eight millimeter film, the only one in existence, of me in the 50s. There's no sound, but it's me and the band in clubs around '58. Well, they wanted a 20 second piece of it to put in a promo, and they paid me $2500 for that. And, I still have the film and it's for sale, but it'll cost a bunch of money to get that. Somebody'll buy it one of these days and I'll make about ten grand out of it.
KB: It's sort of like cashing in on your investments, isn't it?
BLR: I didn't know this before, but this stuff is worth a lot of money to people. Collectors are like very special people and they love this stuff, and I'm glad that I found out about this, because I probably would've thrown it all away, and nobody would've had it to enjoy. This way, a lot of people are going to enjoy it, and I'll get paid for it.
KB: Do you merchandise yourself much?
BLR: You have to have some merchandise when you travel on the road. I make more money selling records on the road, when I've got 'em, than I do from the shows. For this festival I played up in Philadelphia, I only had about 60 CDs, and I sold them faster than I could get 'em out of the box. Now, if I'd of had this new album that just came out on Collectables - it's brand new, but it 's the old Sun stuff reissued. As a matter of fact, I just ordered a hundred of them to take with me overseas - I could've sold maybe two or three hundred of them things at $20 a shot. But I didn't have 'em, people would ask me "Hey, you got any of the old records?" But I didn't have enough. I also sell a lot of pictures, overseas especially. Old pictures from the 50s.
KB: Have you printed up concert booklets, things like that?
BLR: I hadn't thought about that, I don't know if anybody does that anymore. I know they used to do that - that used to be one thing that everybody had. But when people buy the records, I autograph each and every copy personally to whoever buys it. Anything I sell will be personally autographed by me. If I've got a fan, I like to make 'em feel good. Even when I send out samples to radio stations, I'll pick out the name of the DJ I'm sending it to and I'll autograph it. I myself sampled about three or four hundred stations, so I've signed a whole lot of blues albums. (laughs)
KB: So you're very much a do-it-yourself type guy no matter what?
BLR: If you don't do it yourself, it don't get done. I'm the one that was on the phone all the time promoting that record, and staying in touch with everybody. And that thrilled all them DJS, because the DJs that work them stations never get no calls. Nobody calls 'em, because they're not Top 40.
KB: These are the Americana stations?
BLR: Yes. So when you call that DJ, they love it. Then, when you call 'em back a second time, they feel good, and they'll play your record.
KB: Tell us something about your book. I've seen chapters of it on the Delta Blues website.
BLR: That's on, I don't know how many places on the internet, right now. Tidbits from the book. What I'm doing now is, I'm sort of restructuring and condensing it a bit, and I'm putting it on software.
KB: Are you working with anybody on your book?
BLR: Not yet, but I've got a bunch of people who want to work this up when I get to that point. There's one movie company that's shown interest already.
KB: Your life would make a helluva movie.
BLR: Well, no one's ever heard my life yet. What I'm doing really, on this first book, is I'm actually going to end it just when I'm leaving Memphis for California with my car loaded down so you can't even see out of it. California will be the start of the next book. It's good because, my book is not just starting with music. My book going to have a bunch of other stuff in it. It's going to have me. Where I lived, how lived, how I got into it, why I love the blues, where I was first introduced to blues, how I heard it the first time, and I'm going to put it all in there. I think it's more interesting if you know how the person was raised. Then, as I get on in to the music part of it, then it will just all fit together well. I'm not just going to start out with (mocking voice): "Well, I started recording in 1957 in Sun and I cut this record..." That ain't my idea of a story. I haven't seen a book that's been written on any of those artists yet that I'd give three cents for, because they're just not complete. There all just alike: "I bought my first guitar when I was 10, sold a bunch of eggs, and got it..." (laughs) everybody's got the same old lines. And it's all a line, a big lie, everybody didn't get a guitar the same way. So, I'm trying to write it like it is: all the good times, my bad times. I don't want to look like an angel, because I wasn't. When I was a kid growing up, I was a good kid, and I had a hard time growing up. I think people need to know that. I think they need to know that a man can come out of one situation into another.
KB: Recording-wise, do you have a lot of unreleased stuff in the can?
BLR: I have a whole box full of tapes in the closet and I have no idea what's on them. The reason I don't know is that I can't find a tape player to play 'em. They're either two-track, four-track, eight-track, or mono and it's hard to find anything to play those things on.
KB: But one of these days, do you think you might lease some of these tapes out?
BLR: Possibly, I might release 'em myself. I've got enough stuff that I could put several things together. I might do it one of these days. Who knows?
KB: What are your live shows like these days?
BLR: When I do a show, I do both blues and rockabilly. Even when I do a blues festival, I do my Sun stuff because I've got fans out there that's hollering for it. They love the blues, but they still want to hear me do my signature songs. Even when I play B.B. King's in Memphis and plan a strictly blues show, folks call out for my old stuff. I had to rearrange my show to do a lot of my 50s stuff, and the show was so successful, we had the biggest crowd B.B.'s place had in I don't know how long. It was so good, that when my show was over, the manager came over and hired me to do another hour set, because he said: "We've got more people than we've ever had in here and I don't want to lose them. How much are you going to charge me?" I said: "I'm going to charge you the same as I did the last hour set." He said "HEY! Can't you give me a break?" I said: "No. You just came up and told me that if I left the crowd was going to leave. Now, you don't want your crowd to leave, so you've got to pay me." (laughs) So he paid me, and I stayed another hour and it was a very successful show.
KB: Do you have any special equipment riders or special demands that you make on promoters or clubowners?
BLR: I do not demand anything. See, that's where I get along well. I go on with what they provide and I give it all I got.
KB: Is it better to tour today than when you first started?
BLR: Oh yeah. You get more money today and you get treated better. Most of the time back in those days, we were doing schoolhouse things, drive-in theaters with the music going out through the car speakers, and a lot of places that weren't exactly set up for music. We'd play big auditoriums with one 12 inch speaker in a little bitty amp with a little ol' crystal mike, and maybe a set-up of small speakers - but that's all we had. Everybody heard us. Everybody was happy. You didn't have to be as loud as you do today. Loud as people play music today it don't even sound like music. It's more like noise, and I can't stand that. You can't play my kind of blues loud, if you do you've lost it. You've got to settle back and play it real low.
KB: How do you play the festivals if you don't play loud?
BLR: I have to play loud and it don't always sound good. Number one: They don't always have good sound men. If you have good sound men, you could play low. You could turn your instruments down to where you can get a good sound. The mike and all that can go out to the audience loud and still sound good - but it's so loud on the stage, because everyone's turned it wide open, every guitar is as loud as it'll go, and it just blows your head off. That's the reason I like to play smaller places, clubs that hold three or four hundred people.
KB: As a fan, I've always preferred clubs to arenas.
BLR: You get good sound equipment and you can set back and you can play real low and everybody hears it, and they can talk. See, I like to play music where people can talk over my music and hear each other. If it's an eating place you can enjoy eating without the music knocking your plate off onto the floor. You can play uptempo stuff, and you still don't have to get too loud. We never did in the 50s, we never did get that loud. We didn't have to, man. Back in them days if you started playing loud, they'd tell you in a minute to turn it down. "You're too loud!" That's the way it should be today.
KB: I'll give you the last word. What would you like to say to your fans?
BLR: Well, the first thing I'd like to say is thanks! Without them - and this is coming from me. If it wasn't for them, there wouldn't be no me. I definitely am one person who honestly appreciates my fans. Because anywhere I play, if I have an autograph session, I'm the last one to leave. But I want to thank the fans and I want to tell 'em: Watch out for anything that might be coming out on me and BUY it and HELP me OUT! (laughs) Keep me alive so I can keep going.
Our heartfelt gratitude goes out to Tommie Wix for helping set this interview up, and especially to Billy Lee Riley for personally fact-checking the interview. Fans of Billy should know that his new CD Shade Tree Blues will be issued soon on his own Sun-Up label. Only 1,000 copies of this commemorative disc will be issued and they will be personally signed by Riley and hand-numbered in gold. A certificate of authenticity will also be issued. Those wishing to get in on some great music and a fine collector's item should send a check or money order for $20 ($22 outside the U.S.) to: Billy Lee Riley, 302 Marchand St. Newport, Arkansas, 72112. Tell him Rockabilly Central sent you!
(This interview apears in the September '99 issue of Rocktober magazine, and is re-printed here with their kind permission).