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One year ago: Billy Lee Riley

Riley Stardom eluded Billy Lee Riley.

Riley, who died a year ago at 75, is best remembered for his 1957 singles"Flyin' Saucers Rock and Roll" and "Red Hot." He was part of the legendary Sun Records label, and his band provided backup for such artists as Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee, Lewis and others.

"My band was the Sun sound," Riley told the Associated Press in 1984. "We've never gotten credit for that, but it's a fact. I was doing what Elvis was doing before Elvis did it: mixing blues and hillbilly, putting a laid-back, funky beat to hillbilly music."

Riley's path was blocked, he maintained, by Sun Records chief Sam Phillips choosing to promote artists such as Lewis.

His obituary appeared in The Times on Aug. 4, 2009.

--Keith Thursby

Photo: Billy Lee Riley in 1956. Credit: Charlie Gillett/Redferns

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Billy Lee Riley told the story so often that it's probably true, and shows how short-sighted a businessman Sam C. Phillips was. When Billy's record "Red Hot" bw "Pearly Lee" (Sun277) was breaking out nationally in 1957, Sam Phillips killed further pressings, because while he was still having Sun267 "Whole Lot Of Shakin' Goin' On" pressed at the record plant in great numbers, Jerry Lee Lewis' follow up Sun281 "Great Balls Of Fire" was breaking out big at the same time. Senseing that "Great Balls Of Fire" would be a major hit, Phillips ordered a large initial pressing and that was that. After a lot of initial good re-action from key D.J.'s around the country "Red Hot" died like a dog. Looking back, Phillips could have ordered say 20,000 pressed on "Red Hot" and a good number, but less than ordered originally for "Great Balls Of Fire" and had two major rockabilly hits at once and made enough money to press as many copies of each as was needed, but he didn't do that. Billy Lee got the shaft. He had other Sun releases but he lost his momentum, and that was still apparent many years later in his animosity towards Mr. Phillips.

A good, but overlooked Billy Lee Riley LP is "Live At The Whisky Au-Go-GO" in 1965 on Mercury. Yes, I'm a fan.


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