The Billy Lee Riley Story
Copyright 1996 Billy Lee Riley
Birthdate - October 5, 1933
Birthplace - Pocahontas, Arkansas
Curent Residence - Newport, Arkansas
Billy Lee Riley was born to a sharecropper family at the
the great depression. His carear has spanned 5 decades
has made his mark in each one of them.
In the 50's he recorded Flying Saucer Rock and Roll which
first hit record. Recording at Sun Studio's in Memphis,
Tennessee, Riley ended up backing up many of the
came through the door to do session work at Sun. His
harmonica work was called into play for any performer
band. Joining him during these sessions were Roland James
J.M. Van Eaton. These three formed a group called the
Green Men the name drawn from Riley first hit.
During the 60's Billy Lee moved to Las Angeles. The first
was hard but eventually he became one of the hottest
in LA working with such greats as Herb Alpert, Sammy Davis
The Beach Boys, Pearl Bailey, and many more. Riley say's
working with Sammy Davis Jr. was one of the high points of
The 70's found Billy Lee with a new audience. Europe had
discovered Rock and Roll and the original rock and rollers
hot comodities. The Europeans loved the real stuff and
wanted it in the flesh. The music that had been just rock
roll was now called Rockabilly and the Rock and Rollers
50's could play all they wanted if they were willing to go
abroad. England, France, Sweeden, Germany, were all part
tours. Just about everywhere on the European continent
some kind of Rockabilly Festival. There were Sweedish
Bands, and English Rockabilly Bands, German, Austrian,
on stage playing the music and getting into the style of
The 80's brought more touring in Europe, with long
Newport. Billy Lee began playing the music he grew up on.
music of the plantations, call it Gut Bucket Blues or Deep
or Delta Blues it was the foundation for Rock and Roll and
the foundation for Billy Lee Riley's new carear in the
Billy Lee's choice to turn to the Blues genre was not a
for him; the Blues were always part of his performances
they were the major part.
In the early 90's the Smithsonian found Billy Lee and
him for their archives, he released his first all Blues CD
Collar Blues" in 1992, and he does a lecture concert
over the world about the Blues and the Delta and growing
up as a
sharecropper. Catch his act you'll be glad you did.
Billy Lee Banned
It's 1957 and Rock and Roll is happenin'. Billy Lee receives
a call from ASU to play at the old field house. Agreeing to play
he shows up with his band and starts his gig. The show is
cookin and the crowd's getting excited. Billy Lee climbs up on
the piano and begins to dance while standing on the piano. Just a
little leg jerk here and a hip shake there.
Now about this time the band really starts hopping and the piano
is on wheels; so as the band is dancing around on the stage the
piano begins to roll. Billy Lee is doing his dance on top of the
piano, the rest of the band is boogyin' away and he begins to
notice that the piano seems to be moving. When he realizes that
the piano is rolling off the stage he reaches up and grabs on to
one of the steel girders that runs the width of the field house.
He's hanging on with one hand using the microphone with the other
and trying to get someone's attention to his plight. The piano
is by now tipping off the stage on one side and Billy Lee is
hanging suspended from the ceiling.
When the song finally ends and the piano is moved back on stage
Billy Lee finishes his set and figures that alls well that ends
well. .... But, the dean is waiting for him as he packs up to
leave and he say's "Boy, that was a vulgar show you just put on
and you are banned from this school."
Now the next year rolls around and the students want him back so
they call and say Billy Lee come and play at the dance again this
year. "I can't, he says, "I've been banned from playing at ASU.
The dean says I can't play there again."
They say, "The dean doesn't know your name. Change your band name
to something else and come back and play." So Billy Lee changes
the band's name and goes to ASU to do the gig. Once again the
show is hot and everyone is having a great time. Once again the
dean meets him at the end of the performance and say's "Boy, you
are banned from ASU"
Billy Lee Riley
In His Own Words ...
Billy Lee Riley 1933-1941
My name is Billy Lee Riley, I was born October 5, 1933 in
Pocohantas, Arkansas. A small rural town in northeast Arkansas in
the foothills of the Ozarks. At the age of three my family moved
from Pocahontas to Osceola, another small rural Arkansas town
founded on the banks of the Mississippi River. Osceola was a
cotton farming town and we moved onto what was once a large
plantation owned by Mr. Hal Jackson. Therefore it's name was
"Jacksonville." The houses on the farm was used as rental
property. If a tenant wanted to live there and work on the farm
his rent was free. But if a tenant preferred working jobs other
than farm work the rent was one dollar per week. My father was a
house painter by trade so he chose to pay the dollar a week rent.
But in the fall and winter months when painting work was scarce,
my dad and my older sister worked in the fields picking cotton.
I learned to play the harmonica at the age of six and my love for
blues music started at that age. Some of my black friends,
playmates and I would go over to the black section of town and
listen to the black blues singers playing on the streets or sit
by the doors of the honky tonks and listen to music from the juke
boxes. Saturday afternoons for most other kids my age was a
Saturday matinee western movie. I did that, too, but most of the
time a Saturday matinee for me was the sound of the blues coming
from the juke boxes at the beer joints.
Billy Lee Riley 1942-1946
My family moved from Osceola in 1942 after our house burned to
the ground with all of our belongings, what little they were.
This would be our first year as share-croppers. For the next
four years we lived on this farm at Poplar Ridge, Arkansas. We
farmed twenty-five acres of cotton expecting to receive half of
the earnings, but we always wound up owing the land owner, so
each year we would have to stay and try to get even. We never
I first worked in the fields in Osceola at the age of seven
picking cotton but working for me the next four years became
serious business. I did the work of an adult. Each morning at
the crack of dawn I was in that barn yard harnessing up my team
of mules for a long hard day's work of plowing. My dad, brother,
and I did all the field work and mom took care of the house and
the younger kids. I had to quit school in the third grade to
help on the farm to support the family.
After four years of farming at Poplar Ridge, we moved to a
plantation about twenty miles out of Forrest City, Arkansas.
There was no vacant house on this farm for us to live in so dad
with the help of friends and family bought an old surplus Army
tent. It was twenty feet by twenty feet. This would serve as
home for the next year. This turned out to be an exceptionally
hard year for us, but it was where I learned to play the guitar
and sing the blues. This was the kind of music that had
intrigued me for the past twelve years. THE BLUES
In 1943 my dad had bought me my first guitar from a friend on the
farm. It was a Silvertone from Sears. He gave five dollars for
it, but I had never learned to play it until moving to this
There were forty families and thirty six were black
families. Almost every family had someone that played some sort
of musical instrument. For the most part all of the families
living on this plantation were good decent folks. You would run
into a bad apple every once in a while but in general, everyone
got along very well with his neighbor. Everyone was treated the
same by the land owner regardless of his color. We were all
there for one purpose and that was to make money for the MAN.
I had special friends living here, both black and white. These
are the ones that taught me how to play the guitar and helped me
to understand, love and appreciate the blues. Special names
like, Willie "Snooks" Bradshaw. Willie was a great blues guitar
player and he worked a lot teaching me to play. Another special
friend was a white boy my age. His family was a musical family
and I spent lots of time at his house he taught me a lot. His
name was Tommy Hamblin.
Billy Lee Riley 1947-1952
Two other good friends of mine, even though they were a lot older
than me were the Williams brothers, Ray and Abraham. Ray was a
whiz on the harmonica. He taught me what I know on the
harmonica. Ray was a great influence and a great guy. His
brother, Abrham played bottle neck style guitar and was one of
But, the one man that I considered the best of the lot
was an old man by the name of Jericho Leon Carter. Jericho was
an excellent guitar player as well as a master on the harmonica.
He had built this aparatus on his guitar that held his harmonica
so he could play both at the same time. I had never seen
anything like this before or since. We all loved to play music
with Jericho but most of the time when old Jericho played we all
just sat there and listened. He was so good and made it look so
simple. He used to tell me, "You keep on son, you keep playing
the Blues and some day you gonna be somebody." I never forgot
those words and maybe someday I'll find out that old Jericho was
Everybody called Jericho, "Lightnin". The reason was, as
it was told, Jericho was riding his mule in from the field one
day during a thunderstorm. Just before he got ot the safety of
the barn the mule he was riding was struck by lightening. Well,
it killed the mule but Jericho survived with severe burns all
over his body. They said he almost died before they could find a
way to get him to the doctor twnety miles away in Forrest City.
But he did live, and when I met him he was fifty-eight and the
best blues singer and picker in the world.
After our crops were gathered that winter we moved to Tupelo,
Mississippi. I learned later that my friend, Jericho "lightnin'
Leon" Carter died of pneumonia in February 1948. They buried his
guitar and harmonica with him. His folks said they felt like he
would be needing them later.
We only lived in Tupelo from January 1948 until September. My
parents and the smaller children moved back to Pocahontas and I
moved back to Osceola to live with my sister and brother-in-law.
My older brother had recently enlisted in the Army so I thought I
would try also. In November some friends and I hitch-hiked to
Blytheville to join the Army. I got as far as the physical
examination and failed. In March of the next year, 1949, I tried
again. I had no birth certificate so the enlisting officer told
me that if I could get my parents to sign a statement that I was
seventeen he could get me in. I conned my sister into signing
the papers and I was off again. This time I passed and was
shipped to Camp Chaffee, Arkansas in Fort Smith for my basic
After basic training I was shipped to Fort Bening,
Georgia for paratroop training. I found out very quickly that
jumping out of air planes was not for me so I quit and was then
shipped to Fort Lawton, Washington.
I was given a hardship discharge because of my father's sickness.
I was hoping that I would be more able to help the family at
home. I was sending fifty dollars of my seventy-five dollars a
month home on a special family allotment plan but I thought I
would be able to do more if I could find a job. Work for a
fifteen year old was hard to find in the early fifties so I did
whatever job I could find to help out.
Dad's illness improved and he was back at work painting houses
and we had just gone to war with Korea. Being in the reserves, I
was one of the first to re-called to active duty. Three months
after I was discharged, I was back on active duty in Fort Sill,
Oklahoma. I never saw Korea. I spent the next three years at
Fort Sill. In April, 1953 I was honorably discharged and came
home to where my parents were living, Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Billy Lee Riley 1953-1957
The first thing I did upon returning home was form a hillbilly
band. The band played at high schools and clubs. We had three
radio shows. Two of them were live broadcast and one was taped
on Sundays for the following week. I was working at a local shoe
manufacturing plant at the time and in order to do the live
broadcasts we had to get up to be at the station to go on the air
at 5:30 am, do thirty minutes, go home have breakfast and be at
work at 7:00 am. Needless to say, this didn't last long.
I married my first wife in 1954 and in 1955 we moved to Memphis
and opened a bar and grill restaurant with my brother-in-law. Not
knowing much about Memphis, nor the restaurant business, we
picked a bad section of town and were closed by the city three
months later resulting from a gunfight between two of our
customers. After that I worked at various jobs one being a meat
cutter at a supermarket.
On Christmas morning 1955 I met the one man that would play a
major roll in my life, Jack Clement. My wife and I were visiting
our families for the holiday. I was leaving Jonesboro to visit
my parents in Nettleton, a suburb of Jonesboro when I saw these
two fellows hitch-hiking. Although I was only going the three
miles to Nettleton, I decided to stop and give them a ride that
The fellows I had picked up were Jack Clement, a well known name
in Nashville for the past thirty-five years, and his friend, Slim
Wallace. Our conversation was getting so interesting by the time
we got to Nettleton that I decided to drive them all the way to
We talked a lot about music and when they found out that I was a
singer, they invited me to sing in their band and play the club
in Paragould, which belonged to Slim. I agreed and for the next
few weeks I worked every Friday and Saturday night.
When we got to Memphis, Jack and Slim showed me the studio that
they were building in Slim's garage on Fernwood Street. It was
to be called "Fernwood Studios." A studio that later included
Scotty Moore, of Elvis fame.
When the studio was finally finished it was equipped with a home
Magnachord recorder and a patch for three mikes. But to me it
was "downtown". Jack asked me if I wanted to be their first
artist, of course I was flattered and jumped at the chance. the
session was set up for a Sunday afternoon in March of 1956. It
was supposed to have been a country session but one of the songs
turned out a little more bluesy and a little like Elvis'
Heartbreak Hotel. This song was called "Trouble Bound" The
other song, more of a country song, was called "Think Before You
After we recorded them, Jack took the tape to Sam Phillip's Sun
Studio to have an acetate master made. Sam was the only one in
Memphis with a lathe for mastering a record. Sam cut "Think
Before You go" first and then started on the other side, "Trouble
Bound." He told Jack, "Now here's a record. This is what the
kids want, Rock-A-Billy. They're looking for that Elvis thing
and this record has it." Before Jack left the studio he had made
a deal with Sam to release my record on Sun with the
understanding that we cut another Rock-A-Billy song for the other
Jack told me about it and asked me if I had another song that was
more Rock-A-Billy. I told him no but I could write one. So, I
wrote "Rock With Me Baby" and we went to a radio station and
recorded it. Jack took them back over to Sam. He gave me a
recording contract and Jack a production deal. I recorded for
the Sun label from 1956 until 1960. I recorded several sides
during that period but only had six releases, "Trouble Bound" /
"Rock With me Baby" being my first release. My second release
was "Flyin' Saucers Rock and roll" / "I Want You Baby." Before I
recorded "Flyin Saucers," I walked in the studio at Sun one
morning and saw this fellow sitting at the piano and playing like
I had never heard a piano played before.
I spoke to him and he introduced himself to me. "I'm Jerry Lee
Lewis," he said. "Hi, I said, "My name is Bill Riley. Man you
play the piano great. You from around here?"
"Naw, I'm from Louisiana, Farriday Louisiana. I come up here to
see what's goin' on," he told me.
I asked him if he was working with anyone and when he told me he
wasn't I asked him if he was looking for work because I had a
band and we did a few shows but mostly clubs. He said he would
like to work with us so I hired him. Later I told Sam about him,
about how good he played and that I had hired him to work with my
Sam said "Man, you don't want no piano player in a Rock-A-Billy
band. It don't work in a Rock-A-Billy band. Man you need
guitars, drums, and a bass, but not a piano." Well, I knew my
session was coming up soon so I told him that I intended to use
Jerry on my session. Sam grumbled and disagreed with me but come
session time, Jerry was on board. Sam wouldn't let him take any
solo's. He just wanted him to play what he termed, "pumping
rhythm." That's where his PUMPING PIANO style got its name.
After the session was over Sam was pleased but never had any
praise for Jerry. Jerry continued working in the band until
"Crazy Arms" was recorded.
During my stay at Sun I was part of the Sun package. This
package included, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Warren
Smith and later on Jerry Lee Lewis. Shows were booked by Bob
Neal and getting your money was sometimes a hassle. I've had to
go to Bob's house at three and four in the morning after a show
to get my money. We all were supposed to get paid after the show
but this seldom happened with Bob. My band and I played lots of
colleges dates back then also, lots of high school proms and
dances, a lot of outside shows at openings for automobile
companies, mobile home shows and drive in theaters as well as
regular theaters. It was hectic, a lot of fun and we paid a lot
of dues. We traveled in my 1957 four door Chevrolet. Five
musicians plus all of our clothes and instruments including
sometimes, an upright bass, inside if it happened to be raining.
Billy Lee Riley 1958-1960
I left Sun Records in 1958 for a one record deal on Brunswick
produced by Owen Bradley at Bradley's barn because Sam had
deliberately sabotaged a record of mine, that was on it's way to
the national charts in favor of a Jerry Lee Lewis record that he
was trying to build Jerry on, "Great Balls of Fire".
My band and I were working in Canada at the time and out of a bet
with my drummer I called Allen Freed about booking us on a tour
that I had read about in the trades a few days before. I called
WINS radio and got through to Allen. It was then that I found
out that my record, "Red Hot," was happening. I knew that it was
doing pretty good in the south but no one had told me that it was
looking good nationally.
Allen Freed told me that I had a hit record and back then if
Allen Freed said you had a hit you could take that to the bank.
He also said he wanted me on the tour for later that year. After
talking with Allen, I called Sam Phillips and told him the good
news. He seemed, I thought happy about the whole thing but I was
wrong. He told me that I should close out in Canada and come
home and start an album and cut another single before the tour.
But by the time I closed out and got back home, Sam had contacted
Allen Freed's manager and cut a deal with him that got me off the
tour and Jerry Lee Lewis put in my place. To rub salt in the
wound, a couple of days after I returned to Memphis, and before
I found about the switch, (I didn't find this out for over a
month. I thought Sam and Judd Philips were handling everything
with Allen Freed and I was on the tour.) I was in the front
office at Sun when the mail came and Sam's secretary opened it
and laid it on Sam's desk. I noticed that there were three
pieces of mail that looked like Western Union Telegrams. These
were night letters sent through the Western Union. Each letter
was an order for ten thousand copies of my record "Red Hot". One
was from a distributor in Ohio, one was from New York and the
other one was from Detroit. They were asking for ten thousand on
a deal. I assumed that meant Sam had some sort of deal where if
you buy a certain amount you got some free copies. I asked Sally
when Sam would be in and she told me she didn't know so I went
next door for coffee.
I saw when Sam's car pulled up in front of the studio so I went
back over to catch the reaction on Sam's face at the amount of
the orders for my record. What I saw and heard wasn't what I
wanted to see or hear. As soon as Sam saw the orders he got on
the phone and called each of the distributors and told them that
he was not shipping number 277, the number of my record, he was
pushing number 281, Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire." This
is the time that I left Sun and went to Nashville to record with
I returned to Sun after the Brunswick record and recorded three
more releases before leaving in 1960. They were "Baby Please
Don't Go" / "Wouldn't You Know", "No Name Girl" / "Down By The
Riverside", and "One More Time"/"Got The Water Boilin' Baby."
Most of the records recorded on Sun from 1956 until 1960 were
backed up by my band "The Little Green Men" All or part of the
band was on recordings with Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Charlie
Rich, Bill Justis and all of the lesser knowns.
Billy Lee Riley 1960-1966
After leaving Sun for the last time in 1960 my ex-guitar player
and I formed the RITA record label. We had several releases but
the one that the label is known for was the Harold Dorman
recording of "Mountain of Love." This record sold a million and
I made a thousand dollars. When the record started to show up in
the charts, several record labels wanted it. We were offered some
really good deals. But to humor Judd Philipps and Bill Justis,
who were already doing business with Bill Lowery in Atlanta, we
went with NRC Records. The company went broke before we could
get any money so I sold my interest for one thousand dollars and
came out ahead of my partner.
After RITA, I formed another label, MOJO Records, and produced
the original Willie Cobb hit, "You Don't Love Me." This record
was leased to Home of the Blues Records. After the Willie Cobb
record I did a few more things on MOJO but just never got anything
happening so I moved on.
I went to work for the Pepper Sound Studios writing, singing and
producing radio spots and jingles.
I moved to Las Angeles in 1962 and worked as a studio musician
playing the harmonica along side James Burton, Glen Campbell,
Leon Russell, Hal Blaine and Barney Kessel. My first session was
with Herb Alpert. I played lead guitar on "Lonely Bull." I was
later featured on records with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. Rick
Nelson, Johnny Rivers, The Beach Boys and hundred of others. I
worked on several records with Billy Strange and Lee Hazlewood. I
worked on stage with Eddie Fisher, Pearl Bailey, Dean Martin,
Janet Leigh, and Natalie Wood. I appeared on the final Steve
Allen show, was featured on an ABC Scope, and I did the Ozzie and
Harriet Show. I worked the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Las Angeles and
alternated with Johnny Rivers opening other Whisky's across the
United States. While living in Las Angeles I recorded six
albums. Three for Mercury, two for GNP, and one for The Crown
Label. I left Las Angeles in 1966.
Billy Lee Riley 1966-1979
I left Los Angeles in 1966 settling in Atlanta and reviving my
MOJO label. I released one album and one single. The single was
picked up by STAX in Memphis causing me to move again to Memphis
where I was producer and artist on the HIP label, a subsidiary of
In 1968 I recorded a song called "Kay". It was an R&B
version of the John Wesley Ryles country record. When I finished
it I played it for Sam Phillips and he suggested I play it for
Shelby Singleton who had just bought all of the old Sun masters
and had formed the Sun International label. Shelby bought the
record and gave me a job as producer and moved me to Fort Walton
Beach, Florida to produce for his studio there. After a year in
Florida, I found my self again in Atlanta.
In 1971 I recorded a session for Chips Moman in Memphis for his Entrance
label distributed by Columbia Records. My record, "I Got A Thing For
You Baby" was ready to break nationally when Columbia and Chips had a
misunderstanding and my record was pulled from the their distributors so
I lost another hit. I followed Chips to Nashville hoping to record
again but his record deal fell apart.
I left and came back home again after my divorce from my second wife. I
remarried in 1975 and sort of retired from music for a while. then in
1979, I did the Memphis in May thing, got the bug and started touring
Europe and have been doing so ever since. My shows in Europe are mostly
my fifties act. I enjoy doing them and the fans are great, but I am
ready to get back to my roots, The Blues.