Wednesday, August 16, 2006
On January 30th 1957 at Sun Studios, 706 Union Avenue, a kind of alchemy took place.
A dumb song, Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll by one Ray Scott was transformed from kitsch fluff to rockabilly gold by the sheer intensity of its performance. On piano that day, an as yet little known, Jerry Lee Lewis but at the microphone, singing with a devilish conviction that belies the songs nonsense lyrics was Billy Lee Riley!
Without Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll, with its campy lyrics, monster movie screams and insanely committed performance contemporary music would be a duller, less strange place.As no less an authority than Greil Marcus wrote of it (in the notes to the 2000 edition of Mystery Train) "Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll.. [was]..one of the weirdest of early rock 'n' roll records - and early rock 'n' roll records were weird"!
Together with Riley’s cover of Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson’s Red Hot and his own composition Pearly Lee, both of which were also recorded that fateful day in Memphis, Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll forms the foundation of the Billy Lee Riley story. It is a story as labyrinthine and surprising as any in the history of American roots music.
Born in 1933, of Irish/Cherokee stock Riley grew up in Osceala Arkansas. The family were poor and Riley’s father, a house painter by trade, and his elder sister would pick cotton to help make ends meet. At one point things got so bad the family were reduced to living in a tent for a year.
Blues was the young Riley’s first love- as he recalled in the sleeve notes to his 1992 Blue Collar Blues album- “I was raised mainly around the old gut bucket blues. Those days we couldn't listen to blues on radio, no one played it. I used to hang around and listen to all the black guys playing blues” By the age of six he was already an accomplished harmonica player.
In 1948 a 15 year old Billy Lee Riley lied about his age and joined the US army. Discharged in 1953 he married the following year and moved to Memphis in 1955. It was here fate, in the shape of ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement, stepped in.
Clement, together with Ronald ‘Slim’ Wallace, had built a recording studio in the latter’s garage. In March 1956 they cut their first record, with Billy Lee Riley on vocals, Trouble Bound on one side and Think Before You Go on the flip.
Clement took the tapes to Sam Phillips,founder of Sun records and forever known as the man who discovered Elvis, to have an acetate master made. Sam liked Trouble Bound enough to want to release it as a Sun record conditional on the country sounding Think Before You Go being replaced with a more rocking tune. Riley obliged by penning Rock With Me Baby.
James Van Eaton played drums, Marvin Pepper bass and Roland Janes guitar on Rock With Me Baby.Post Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll this group became known as The Little Green Men and together with multi instrumentalist Riley they became the Sun studios house band, playing on numerous pioneering rock ‘n’ roll records.
Billy Lee Riley’s blistering version of Red Hot was tipped for the top by no lesser an authority than Alan Freed and legendary Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips (a man whose footnote in history was assured when he became the first to play an Elvis record on air) played it. A lot. As Memphis music maverick Jim Dickinson recalled in Robert Gordon’s book It Came From Memphis “Red Hot by Billy Lee Riley- I didn't realize that wasn't a hit until I moved to Texas for college.”
And why wasn't it a hit? Speaking in 2001 to Brian Smith of the Phoenix New Times newspaper Riley insisted “Red Hot was going to become a national hit.... I saw the orders; there were orders for a lot of records. He (Sam Phillips) got on the ‘phone right in front of me and said ‘we’re not shipping Red Hot were shipping Great Balls Of Fire instead’”.
So in 1958 a disgruntled Riley left Sun for the first time and recorded a single on Brunswick. Produced by Owen Bradley Rockin’ On The Moon was, presumably, intended to capture again that Outer Space/ Flying Saucer magic. Despite interest from RCA he was persuaded to return to Sun for another couple of releases before leaving again in 1960.
There then followed a bewildering array of independent releases, some under his own name, others under an equally bewildering array of pseudonyms. There are many gems in Riley’s wayward discography of this time but, for me, none surpass Shimmy Shimmy Walk Parts 1 & 2. Issued in 1962 on the Dodge label and credited to The Megatons this instrumental is a steaming slab of swampy southern soul swagger that wouldn’t have disgraced Booker T and the MG’s themselves.
Talking of whom…it was after a weekend session with Billy Lee Riley at the Stax studios that Booker T and the MG’s were born. In Rob Bowman’s book Soulsville USA Steve Cropper recalled that day: “We were sitting around waiting after the last cut to find out if we were gonna do another take. Billy and Jim(Stewart-co founder of Stax) decided that was it, that was good enough for what Billy wanted and when Jim went to hit the talkback to tell us ‘Hey guys, that’s it, go home’ we were just jamming on this blues thing.” That blues thing became Green Onions. (In 1972 Stax did issue a Billy Lee Riley single, on its "white" HIP subsidiary, Family Portrait/Going Back to Memphis it was not,however, recorded at Stax famous East McLemore Avenue studios)
Sometime later in ‘62 Riley moved to the west coast and became a sought after session musician. Sessions included, amongst many others, playing bass on The Beach Boys Help Me Rhonda and bringing some proper southern harmonica blues to Ohio- born Dean Martin’s waxing of Lee Hazlewood’s Houston.
Riley moved back to the south in 1966. In 1968 Riley recorded Happy Man for Atlantic records. Covered as Otis Smith's "Down The Road",this brass heavy track was a favourite of Northern Soul DJ Guy Hennigan at Stafford allnighters.
The following year found Riley back at Sun, although by now the label was owned by Shelby Singleton, for a further two singles:Kay / Lookin' For My Baby and Pilot Town, La. / Working On The River.Both singles were recorded for Sun International in Florida and both are appealling stabs at country soul.
His 1971 version of A Thing About You Baby, produced by Chips Moman, was selling well until that most celebrated of Sun records alumni, Elvis Presley, released his version. Sick of it all Riley quit the music business in 1973. For a while.
Coaxed out of self imposed exile to play the 1979 Memphis in May festival Riley was once again seduced by the siren call of music. Arriving to a Europe in the grip of a rockabilly revival later that year, Riley was amazed to find himself revered by this new wave of old school rock ‘n’ roll fans. Still it wasn’t until 1991 that Riley returned to music full time.
And then Bob Dylan came a-calling. By this time Riley was once more living in Arkansas and as he told his local paper: “Bob said I was his favourite singer and that he had been looking for me since 1985, he’d even been to my old house in Murfreesboro, Tennessee looking for me.” When Riley opened for Dylan at Little Rock Arkansas in 1992 Dylan introduced him as “my hero” and was visibly thrilled by his set. Curiously, earlier in his career. Riley had covered three Dylan songs (Blowin’ in the Wind, Like a Rolling Stone and Mr Tambourine Man) on his 1966 Funk Harmonica album.
When Riley was inducted to the Arkansas Walk of Fame in March 2000; letters from Dylan, Sam Phillips and The Smithsonian Institute were read out, all hailing him as a pioneer and seminal influence. Some consolation, perhaps, for a career typified by missed opportunities and poor timing.
Despite having a lousy band backing him Billy Lee showed he could still “rock ‘n’ roll all the way to the stars” at The Barbican’s “It Came From Memphis” festival in April last year,from whence the picture that accompanies this article came.
Further reading here and here. Listen here.