Billy Riley was born in 1933 in Pocahontas, Arkansas, and grew up hard through the Great Depression, with his father taking jobs wherever he could, including time as a painter and sharecropper.
Billy Lee heard country music on the radio and blues in the fields. It penetrated his mind and he grew up with dreams of making money by making music.
He would win a talent show at the age of 14, but soon afterwards he would learn to shoot a firearm as a 15-year-old soldier. His sister was happy to cheat and bear witness on the age of consent forms, declaring Private Riley to be 18.
The army was a way out of crippling poverty and he was thrilled at the general issue three square meals an a cot. He would spend the next few years meeting other enlisted musicians and playing in bands, learning the harmonica and how to work a crowd for all they were worth.
Once discharged, he moved to Memphis in 1955 with the idea of making country records. He ended up as “the unsung hero of Sun rock ‘n’ roll”.
His mid 50’s nearly-hits Red Hot and Flying Saucer Rock ‘n’ Roll featured then-unknown pianist Jerry Lee Lewis, but the Riley-led Sun Records house band – The Little Green Men – with Jimmy Van Eaton on drums, Roland James on guitar, Jimmy Wilson on piano and Martin Willis on sax, helped shape many of Sun’s major successes, backing Lewis, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich and Roy Orbison.
Riley’s own wild shows earned him a reputation, especially in the South where nervous town officials tried to ban them.
He left Sun Records in 1959, spending the next decade as sideman to Albert Collins, Johnny Rivers and Sammy Davis Jr. In later years, Bob Dylan declared himself a Billy Lee Riley fan, as did Link Wray, who covered Red Hot.
In 1973 he dropped out of music altogether and went back to Arkansas, where he worked as an interior decorator.
In 1978 he returned to Memphis to make country records, with his old bandmate Van Eaton on drums, bass player Jerry Phillips (youngest son of Sun founder, Sam Phillips) and producer Knox Phillips (Sam’s older son).
Instead, they recorded an album of definitive Sun rock & roll classics and some Riley originals.
Riley’s last album was One More Time (2002).
He passed away in 2009.