Billy Lee Riley dead at 75 by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

Posted on 8/03/2009 by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

(Memphis, Tennessee) I am sad to report the passing of one of Sun Records greatest talents, rockabilly star Billy Lee Riley. Billy Lee also played a mean blues harmonica and was a charismatic and moving talent on stage and off. Born in Pocahontas, Arkansas, his family moved to the cotton producing town of Osceola, Arkansas, where he heard the strains of black blues music from the cotton fields where he and his family toiled.

Riley's group became the house band at Sun Recording. Engineer/guitarist and friend, Roland Janes(who played on many Jerry Lee Lewis hits throughout the years), and drummer J. M. Van Eaton were in this group. I played a gig with J. M. and Billy Lee a couple of years ago and it was great to see the old friends doing songs from 50 years ago. J. M. Van Eaton never missed a beat. He is a fine drummer and a very affable person.

Billy Lee on harmonica

Speaking of Roland Janes, I recorded my first 45 rpm record with my band, the Wampus Cats, at Sam Phillips Recording Studios with the friendly and competent Roland Jaynes working as engineer. He was a delight to work with, finally telling the record producer to "leave Robert alone and let him sing." After Roland's vote of confidence I would have walked on hot coals for the guy as we had worked on one song for almost 3 days at that point. I walked back in the studio and cut it, finally without interruption, in one more take.

Billy Lee Riley and his sweet wife, Joyce, will always hold a warm spot in my heart for they were gentle, kind, humble, God fearing country folks much like my ancestors. He, his talent and great sense of humor will be missed. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to play in his band, The Little Green Men. Billy Lee Riley always had something nice to say about everybody and I never heard him talk badly of anyone.

Billy Lee survived admirably through three hip replacement surgeries and a quadruple bypass. His last years were marked with serious pain and hip problems kept him from doing the things he had always done before. Despite the pain and his infirmity, he always managed to summon the strength to perform for his fans. I once played a gig with him where he confided in me that he was hurting pretty bad and I asked him if he had taken anything for the pain. He was taking morphine pills just to make it to the show and nobody in that audience thought that he was anything but perfectly healthy. His vitality and persona were that strong. He never let down his fans nor his musicians. He was an old school trouper of the first order, and one of the most inspirational talents with whom I have had the pleasure to work.

Billy Lee always included lots of blues numbers in his shows along with his hits, "Red Hot" and "Flying Saucers Rock and Roll." He ranks high among the seminal rockabilly artists to have founded the genre in the United States during the 1950's and he was an outstanding member of Sam Phillips' cadre of great musicians during that time.

Billy Lee Riley always sang beautifully and entertained the crowds, even during these last years of his life. He will be remembered with love by his musicians and all his fans. He died of cancer yesterday at 5 AM in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Here is a link to my attorney and friend, Steve Tapp's fine blog, the Daily Docket, which has a good article on Billy Lee:

Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms


©Robert Tooms 2009

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