Billy Lee Riley, who grew up sharecropping in Arkansas and went on to become an early hero of rock 'n roll at Sun Records in Memphis, died Sunday of cancer. Today's Times obituary, picked up from the Associated Press, gets some of the highlights of his career, including his single "Red Hot," with he memorable line "My gal is red hot/Your gal ain't doodly squat." The Memphis Commercial Appeal ran an even fuller obit.
As the Appeal piece noted,
Riley is perhaps best remembered for his classic 1957 single, "Flying Saucers Rock and Roll" -- a novelty rockabilly rave-up inspired by the era's U.F.O. mania -- which proved a hit and prompted him to rename his band the Little Green Men.
Despite this promising start, Riley's commercial fate was sealed after Sun put its promotional efforts behind Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" -- a song Riley played on -- which zoomed up the charts and past his own follow-up single "Red Hot."
For a personal appreciation of Riley, who played despite ill health at a concert in honor of the historian Pete Daniel this summer in Memphis, check this dispatch from Pete.
"I met Billy Lee in 1992 when we interviewed him for the Rock 'n' Soul project, and we interviewed him twice more and collected clothing and instruments for the Rock 'n' Soul museum. Some ten years ago he came to the National Museum of American History for an interview/performance that was incredible. He was one of the finest persons I've ever known."
May we all go out with the courage, energy, and strong voice that Billy Lee Riley showed until the end of his life.
Riley's final years were scarred by numerous health problems, including his battle with cancer. According to the Commercial Appeal, he ran up some serious medical bills.
The Appeal obituary concludes with this note for all who are inclined to generosity: "Memorial services are pending, but arrangements will be handled by the Dillinger Funeral Home in Newport, Ark. Those wishing to send condolences or contributions directly can contact: Joyce Riley, 723 Crest Drive, Jonesboro, Arkansas, 72401."
Photo by Sally Stein. Thanks to Bruce Hunt for forwarding the obituary from the Commercial Appeal.