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Meet Billy Lee Riley, the rockabilly rebel who was both a lover and a fighter

As a young up-and-comer, Billy Lee Riley earned a reputation as a wild man both on and off stage. But that fighting spirit served him well in his career.

By Mike Greenblatt

In 1997, I had the honor and supreme pleasure of doing publicity for Billy Lee Riley’s album “Hot Damn!” on Capricorn Records. Riley, one of the original Sun Records recording artists out of Memphis, Tenn., was 63 years old at that time, a sweet, soft-spoken man who appreciated every little thing. The album was all blues and acoustic rockabilly, and his voice was soulful and slippery with that Southern accent prominent in the mix. The campaign was successful, and he gushed when he saw himself in “People” and “Us” magazines for the first time. “Hot Damn!” was nominated for a blues Grammy Award but lost to John Lee Hooker’s “Don’t Look Back.”

But back in the 1950s, Riley was a wild stallion onstage who gave labelmates Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley a run for their money. As leader of Billy Lee Riley & The Little Green Men (so named to capitalize upon his first hit, “Flying Saucer Rock ’n’ Roll”), he prowled the stage and hiccupped his way to screaming fans and backstage liaisons. Yeah, life was good for the kid from Pocahontas, Ark.

Billy Lee Riley Sun Records publicity photo

“One time,” he confided in me in that pronounced drawl of his, “I was messin’ ’round with this girl in the dressing room and told her to wait for me so I could mess around with this other girl in the bathroom. When I got finished with the both of them, one of their boyfriends was waiting for me. He wanted to knock my teeth out. So I beat him to the punch and hit him over the head with a tire iron.”

Yeah, old Billy Lee had some stories, all right.

As “Red Hot” started to climb the charts, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips inexplicably switched his loyalty to Lewis and abandoned Riley’s career.

Published accounts of that era differ, but Riley took it personally. He left the Sun label in 1960, produced other artists, started his own labels and worked as a session guitarist in Hollywood for Dean Martin, Herb Alpert, The Beach Boys and Sammy Davis Jr. Riley continued writing and recording under different aliases, including Lightning Leon, Skip Wiley and Darren Lee, searching for that elusive hit that never came.

Billy Lee Riley playlist

By the early 1970s, Riley had given up. He returned to Arkansas and started a construction business. In 1978, though, Robert Gordon and Link Wray discovered Riley’s music and covered it. That led to Riley’s first public performance in many years. It went so well, he returned to the music business and started garnering other celebrity endorsements, including Bob Dylan. “I’ve made a nice little career for myself,” he’d say.

In 2005, Riley suffered a serious fall and had to undergo surgery. Still, it didn’t stop him from going country on his 2007 “Hillbilly Rockin’ Man” (Reba Records).

In 2009, word got out he was dealing with colon cancer. His last performance was that year in June on Beale Street in Memphis at the New Daisy Theater as part of Petefest, a multi-artist tribute show in honor of Pete Daniel, who co-founded the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum. Riley came out onstage with the help of a walker.

Billy Lee Riley died on August 2, 2009, at the age of 75, back in his home state of Arkansas.

“You don’t ever have to be such a big star to be happy in this crazy business,” he once told me. “I honestly feel I should have been a bigger star, but you know what? Don’t matter, man. That’s why I like singin’ the blues now. I put all my frustrations in my music and it makes it real. That way, in my personal life, I’m one happy dude!” GM