Billy Lee Riley


Red Hot is a song many people have heard. Not most, not at this point in time. People are born every day into a world in which the language of the music originally described as Rock & Roll is slipping further and further from the lexicon. And so, men like Billy Lee Riley are a dying breed. And sadly, Billy Lee himself has now died. His story and his impact are part of a verbal history which shall be forgotten, piece by piece. It’s incumbent upon me to keep the narrative alive for as long as I can, which shall be for as long as I draw breath. As long as these words can find you somehow, gentle reader. But words are written constantly and time never stops, so it’s all a drop in a bucket larger than any of us can comprehend.

Billy Lee recorded many songs over a career which spanned across 6 decades. He will forever be best known for a handful he recorded as a very young man. These would be Red Hot, Pearly Lee, and a novel tune called Flying Saucer Rock’n’Roll. He was a part of the famous Sun Records scene, and in fact his band was made up of the Sun session musicians, the studio men. When they played behind Billy Lee, they were called The Little Green Men. They were like a very well built gun, and Billy Lee, -handsome, charismatic, and in charge of a deep voice that belied everything a white man could comprehend about The Blues- was a Silver Bullet. They could get down, and they cut a swath.

Sam Phillips was the owner, proprietor, and producer of Sun Records, a label which had the most Pyrrhic victories in all of recorded record history. Sam’s label couldn’t handle the success it’s stars would generate, and when Sam couldn’t figure out how to print enough records to meet demand. Bigger labels with actual A&R men and printing power behind them were a phone call away. The rising stars would get the hint and leave after they got that first hit. Billy Lee never got the hit, so he never took the hint. At least not until it was too late.

Mercurial , eccentric, and in many ways incompetent, Sam managed to accidentally start the careers of such as Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, Rufus Thomas, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, most famously Elvis Presley, and, ultimately disastrously, Jerry Lee Lewis. Billy Lee’s brief opportune moment existed between Elvis being sold to RCA and Sam’s fervent promotion of Jerry Lee, whose self destructive behavior would soon crash the ship. Red Hot is a cool song you never forget once you’ve heard it, and it was a regional smash hit. So much so, in fact, that DJs north of the Mason Dixon Line sought 45s from Sam. Airplay outside of the Memphis locale would’ve put Billy Lee into another stratosphere. Sam was only interested in making Jerry Lee Lewis the man, and so he filled the orders for Red Hot with Great Balls of Fire instead. “Don’t worry about that guy, check out this guy.”

Sam believed in Jerry Lee. He felt that the sound of his piano could Save Souls. Jerry Lee believed marrying his 14 year old cousin and bragging about it to the press was a good idea. Sam lost his ass when Jerry Lee’s record sales plummeted, and his hit making days were behind him. Billy Lee never got the memo. He stayed at Sun, and as the 60’s drew by and his voice and songwriting matured, nobody seemed to notice.

A three CD box set of Billy Lee’s complete Sun Recordings came into my possession when I was 16. The set was of dubious legality, out of print by the time I got it, and I’ve never met anyone else who had it to my knowledge. As a kid, it was the Rock & Roll that moved me, and so at that time I didn’t move past the first disc. Primal, simple Rockabilly at it’s most Blues infused, it was a lingo I could comprehend. Besides the aforementioned 3 tracks, there was one called Trouble Bound that trumped them all. A song about desire gone awry, a woman who has done the narrator wrong, and the lethal problem with another man visible on the horizon like a coming storm. Even this one floated under the popular radar. It blipped on mine.

As time passed and life took me where it would, I started to find things out about myself when I gave those other 2 discs a shot. If Billy Lee was speaking from experience in his songs, he had a woman or girl leave him to do something she couldn’t do with him in tow. He also wrote and sang about time passing you by, leaving you to die without leaving a mark. Much heavier things than Flying Saucers, and you could hear in the voice of Billy Lee Riley a conviction that is all at once heartbreaking, uplifting, powerful, and true. I hear that in these songs, and they have moved me. So in that sense, they were successful. Commercially, not at all.

Billy Lee would find some great, though limited, acclaim. There exists today a Rockabilly “Revival” scene, with newer bands and young (younger than 75, anyway) enthusiasts that have built a sort of alternate reality in which the 50’s never ended. As subcultures go, it’s something like the Amish in it’s attention to traditionalism. It’s an odd and beautiful world of which I am proud to be something of a part. Not least of all because it made a home for Billy Lee Riley, and gave me the opportunity to befriend and spend time with him.

I wanted desperately for him to play songs like San Francisco Lady and Potter’s Field live. The news he broke to me was that he and I were alone in that conviction. He instead played those old Rocking numbers, albeit for extremely enthusiastic crowds, of which I was lucky enough to be a part on several occasions. He had good times in his last years, I know he did. He certainly felt appreciated. Which was comforting when I got the word last weekend that he had died.

I pulled out that old set again, and stabbed into it again, at a song I’d never investigated before to my memory. A song called Kay. This past week, I’ve listened to it at least 50 times, trying to quite figure it out. Billy Lee brought “Kay” to Memphis, where she wanted to be because she’s a great singer and craves success. Which she finds, and leaves Billy Lee on the outside of it. And so, she slips away. Billy Lee’s left holding the bag. And while he’s sad, he is not melancholy. He’s living and yet he’s dying, and Memphis keeps overturning. It all strikes a chord deep within me. I wish I’d talked to him about it.

I discovered this song the day that he died on a set that I’ve had half my life. I still learn from him, you see. And I will talk about that for as long as I can…

Originally published in Big Beat Of The 50s Magazine, circa August 8, 2009.