Among the most important of the original rockabillys, Billy Lee Riley
was a musical chameleon, a session musician on various instruments who composed and wrote
various shades of country rock and the blues. Riley recorded for twenty labels. Riley's
unique legacy have earned him the respect of such self-proclaimed fans as Bob Dylan.
Billy Lee Riley, a sharecroppers son, was born October 5, 1933 in Pocahontas, Arkansas. Riley learned to play the guitar from the black farm workers he grew up among. Growing up in various Arkansas towns, Riley served twice in the army where he first started playing rockabilly. After his discharge he married and brought his wife to Memphis in 1955. There he joined a country band that included Jack Clement and Ronald "Slim" Wallace. As members of Slim Wallace's Dixie Ramblers, led to a demo recording "Flyin' Saucer Rock 'n' Roll." Released in 1957 it only sold 15,000 copies, but it gave Riley's band the unforgettable name the Little Green Men. The next release only sold 37,000 copies as Phillips directed his efforts to promoting Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire."
Between 1956 and 1959 Riley recorded six singles. The success of one of them "Red Hot" led to touring in the United States and Canada. His band consisting of Pat O'Neill on bass, Jimmy Wilson on piano, Martin Willis on sax, Roland James on guitar, and J.M. Van Eaton on drums backed many Sun artists both in the studio and on tour.
Riley's search for success seemed to drive him to record whatever was commercial at the time. His first demos in 1952 were country. From 1955 to 1957 he recorded rockabilly, and then in the next two years rocked up instrumentals of traditional songs like "Down by the Riverside" and "Swanee River"
The rockabilly revival took Riley to Europe (1979), as well as Memphis festivals. In 1991 he did well received shows in Maryland, New York, and Arkansas. In 1992 he recorded the acclaimed album Blue Collar Blues at Sam Phillips's Madison Avenue studio, with Van Eaton and James from the old Little Green Men backing him on a few tracks. The Smithsonian filmed him for a documentary. He opened several shows for Bob Dylan who introduced him as one of his favorites.
In 1993 Riley played the eleventh Hemsby Festival in England.
Although Riley released albums overseas through the years, no new material was released in the States until 1994's Blue Collar Blues. The critically acclaimed collection was recorded in the old Sun studios and brought Riley together with Van Eaton and Janes, as well as saxophonists Ace Cannon.