Rockabilly pioneer Billy Lee Riley, a key figure at Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., died Sunday (Aug. 2) in Jonesboro, Ark., at age 75 following a lengthy illness. He’s best known for his 1957 single, “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll,” and its follow-up “Red Hot.”
Although Riley never attained the mainstream success achieved by several of his contemporaries at Sam Phillips’ legendary record label, he was a major at Sun alongside Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and others.
Born Oct. 5, 1933, to a family of sharecroppers in Pocahontas, Ark., Riley was exposed to blues music at an early age through the guitar playing of black musicians who also worked on the farms. After serving the U.S. Army, he recorded “Trouble Bound,” a single released on Sun in 1956. After scoring a hit with “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll,” he recorded “Red Hot” with a band that included Lewis on piano. The song was written by Billy Emerson, a member of Ike Turner’s band that also recorded at Sun.
However, just as “Red Hot” began to gain momentum at radio and retail, Phillips shifted his promotional efforts to Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.” Despite the setback, Riley’s version of “Red Hot” is widely regarded as one of the prime recordings of the rockabilly era.
Because of the success of “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll,” Riley named his band the Little Green Men. Riley found that his versatility on guitar, bass, harmonica and drums was a major asset. His musical group, which included guitarist Roland Janes and drummer J.M. Van Eaton, worked extensively as the Sun Studio house band.
Riley moved to Los Angeles in the early ’60s and played on sessions for the Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and many others. He returned to Arkansas in the early ’70s and began a construction business. In 1977, Robert Gordon teamed with Link Wray & His Ray Men to score a moderate hit nationally with their version of “Red Hot.” The attention prompted Riley to return to the concert stage and recording studio.
He continued to record in the ’90s, releasing a series of albums including Blue Collar Blues for Hightone Records and the Grammy-nominated Hot Damn! for Capricorn Records. His most recent album, Hillbilly Rockin’ Man, was released in 2003.
Riley had dealt with a series of health problems, including heart surgery and hip replacement surgery. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in May and made his final performance in June at the Rock and Soul Museum in Memphis. He died at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro.
Funeral plans remained incomplete Monday morning (Aug. 3), but a memorial concert is scheduled for Aug. 30 in Newport, Ark.