Awesome Men Throughout History: Billy Lee Riley
I’ve probably mentioned before that I love classic rockabilly, and one of my absolute favorites was Billy Lee Riley, a guy who should’ve been a big star, but wasn’t. We’ll get into that, among other things, in this week’s Awesome Men Throughout History, because Riley is our subject this time around.
Riley was born to a sharecropping family just after the Great Depression started, and learned to play guitar by watching older black musicians in the same line of work. Rock music owes a lot to black sharecroppers in that respect, because a lot of that era’s rock guitarists—most famously Carl Perkins—learned to play that way, too.
After a stint in the Army, Riley fell in with a country band and got introduced to Sam Phillips, who signed him to Sun Records after hearing two of the band’s recordings.
Riley was overshadowed pretty early on by Jerry Lee Lewis, but his band was essentially the house band for a lot of Sun Records artists, and Riley himself was an awesome presence. He and his band had the chops and the swagger, but Riley’s voice is really what sets them apart. No one else had a voice like that back then—Riley had a lecherous, throaty growl that immediately let you know who you were listening to, and it was every bit as enthusiastic as it was unique.
His most famous song, more or less, is the 1957 single “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll,” which might be the best novelty record ever cut. I hear it a lot around Halloween, but it’s got more staying power than, say, the Monster Mash.
Though stardom eluded him, Riley went on to become a highly-regarded studio musician, working with the Beach Boys, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin, and earning himself a huge fan in Bob Dylan along the way. Riley was especially fond of working with Sammy Davis, calling those sessions the highpoint of his career.
I’d love to know how Sammy felt about that, because back in his Sun Records days, Billy Lee was known for his heroic intake of Thunderbird wine while recording; he was as unhinged as he was talented.
Billy Lee Riley got to take advantage of his cult celebrity on the 1970s European rockabilly revival circuit, but he still never got his due. Maybe that will change someday.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.