Regular visitors to the GMC know that we like to occasionally turn the spotlight on one of the lesser-known rockabilly singers from the early days of rock and roll. Guys who might not have reached the level of stardom enjoyed by the likes of Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis but still managed to make their mark. Someone like Billy Lee Riley, who had a long roller-coaster ride of a career but always stayed true to his roots.
As the son of an Arkansas sharecropper Riley was exposed to the music of hard-scrabble rural America, and by the time he was grown he was able to play several instruments and sing too. After fulfilling his military obligation, he showed up at Sun Studios in Memphis in the mid-1950s determined to make a career in music.
It didn’t take long for the talented performer to become a valuable asset, working regularly as a studio musician and backing many of the stars in countless recording sessions. He even formed his own group, the Little Green Men, a salute to America’s fascination with UFOs. Although none of his records from that period ended up becoming chartbusters, some of them — like “Flying Saucer Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Red Hot” — are still remembered as rockabilly classics.
But Riley grew dissatisfied with a lack of promotion from Sun, and by the 1960s had left for greener pastures. Relocating to the Los Angeles area, he found plenty of work by backing up some of the biggest names in the business, including Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and the Beach Boys. As the years passed he also continued to push his career as a rocker, even showing up in the occasional movie (see video below), but was never able to grab the brass ring. By the 1970s he was spending most of his time back in his home area, often working outside the music business. In subsequent years he did attempt comebacks from time to time, continuing to entertain fans even into his seventies. He was 75 when he died in 2009.