Billy Lee Riley, who was born Oct. 5, 1933, in Pocahontas, grew up with a love for music and played harmonica as a child. In the decades since, Riley has been a label owner, session musician and producer, among other roles.
“The first music I ever remember hearing was blues,” Riley says. “That’s what I was raised on.”
Riley’s hooking up with Sun Records was serendipitous. “I picked up Jack Clement and ‘Slim’ Wallace hitchhiking from Jonesboro to Memphis one Christmas Day. We got to talking about music, and they had a little band and they were playing in Paragould. After they found out I was a singer, he asked me to come sit in with them, which I did.”
Soon, Riley was to have the first record on Clement’s and Wallace’s planned Fernwood Records. Instead, Clement and Riley were invited to ply their respective trades at Sun Records.
“We went in and cut this thing, and [Clement] took it to Sam Phillips at Sun Records to get an acetate master made. So when Sam heard it, he liked it,” Riley recalled. Riley recorded for Sun from early 1956 to late 1960.
“Red Hot” was by Billy “The Kid” Emerson; Sun released it in June 1955.
“We were doing the session that night,” Riley says. “We had run out of something to do. … Sam Phillips said, ‘Wait just a minute, I’ve got something I want you to hear.’ He … came back with this 78 of Billy Emerson’s ‘Red Hot.’ ”
“Red Hot,” credited to Billy Riley and His Little Green Men, was released in September 1957. “About the only thing we changed about it was we raised the tempo and made a rock ’n’ roll song out of it,” Riley says.
The Randolph County native had influential band members behind the scenes at Sun, such as Arkansan Roland Janes and Memphis drummer J.M. Van Eaton. But Riley’s first piano player, one Jerry Lee Lewis, achieved his own solo success on Sun Records.
“I usually got up in the morning and went directly to Sun … you never knew when a session would come up and you’d get to play on it. This particular morning, I walked in and I heard this piano going on inside … He said he was from Ferriday, Louisiana, and just coming down here to see if he could get something going. I said, ‘I’ve got a band … we ain’t makin’ a whole lot of money, but it’ll give you something to do,’ ” Riley says.
“Friday night after I talked to him, [Lewis] joined the band and played with us at the C&R Club in Trumann, Arkansas — that was his first gig.”
Riley has said he felt Sun promoted his former piano player’s second single “Great Balls of Fire” over Riley’s third single, “Red Hot,” and famously trashed Phillips’ office over the perceived incident.
But Riley had other success with Janes on Rita Records with Harold Dorman’s “Mountain of Love,” and solo records through the 1990s on the High Tone and Capricorn labels. In 1992, during Bob Dylan’s first-ever Little Rock concert, Dylan invited Riley on stage to perform “Red Hot.”
Riley now gets the “rockabilly” tag that is applied to several rockers of late-1950s Memphis, such as fellow Arkansan Sonny Burgess. “I don’t really know what rockabilly is, and don’t think anybody else does,” Riley says. “All of us were hillbillies … I think somebody just probably said ‘Man, that’s some rocking hillbillies out there’ — and it just happened.”
• “Flying Saucer Rock and Roll”
• “Trouble Bound”
• “Red Hot”