Sunday, August 2, 2009
– Billy Lee Riley, best known for his 1957 hit single Flying Saucers Rock and Roll
died over the weekend at 75 in Jonesboro, Ark. He had fought colon cancer since May.
Riley was a member of the Sun Records stable of artists, which included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Riley was born in Pocahontas, Ark., in 1933 to a poor sharecropping clan. He became interested in the blues and learned to play guitar from black musicians who worked with his family.
Riley moved to Memphis after being discharged from the Army in the 1950s. He worked with
country musicians including "Cowboy" Jack Clement. He and his truck driver partner, Slim Wallace, founded the Fernwood label in a South Memphis garage and cut Riley's debut recordings, Trouble Bound and Think Before Your Go., Clement took the tapes to Sam Phillips at Sun Records so to master a single. Phillips liked what he heard and hired Clement to work at Sun and signed Riley.
Riley and his group - drummer J.M. Van Eaton and guitarist Roland Janes - became the house band at Sun.
Flying Saucers Rock and Roll was a novelty hit resulting from interest in UFOs. As a result, Riley renamed his backing band the Little Green Men. A follow-up single, Red Hot, failed to do as well.
He continued recording for Sun for several years, before going to Mercury, Atlantic and Crown and his own Nita and Mojo labels.
By the early 1960s, Riley went to California where he became a studio musician. He cut tracks for The Beach Boys, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin, among others. Riley returned to the south in 1966 and inked with Shelby Singleton's reactivated Sun Records label in 1969.
Riley retired for several years in the 1970s, but returned to the stage in 1978, following a rockabilly revival in England. He played and recorded for the next three decades, cutting several albums of blues-based songs. Riley continued touring Europe. His last show was in June with Sun label mate Sonny Burgess at the Rock and Soul Museum in Memphis.