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Reverend Keith A. Gordon

Billy Lee Riley, R.I.P.

By August 3, 2009

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Billy Lee Riley

Sharp-eyed About.com Blues reader Delana emailed us about the death of former Sun Records artist Billy Lee Riley, which is also being reported by the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper.

As we wrote a couple of weeks ago in this space, Riley was suffering from stage four bone cancer, and in bad financial straits. He was admitted to the hospital this weekend and passed away on Sunday, August 2nd, 2009 at the age of 75 years. “We weren’t thinking the end was coming so soon,” his wife Joyce is quoted as saying in the Commercial Appeal. “He was actually feeling better lately. So the very end was unexpected. But, he went peacefully.”

Riley was born in 1933 to a sharecropper's family in Arkansas, and he was taught to play guitar by the African-American farmers he worked alongside. After a four-year bit in the Army, Riley landed in Memphis during the mid-1950s, where he recorded for Sam Phillips' storied Sun Records label. Riley's influential early rock 'n' roll singles include songs like "Trouble Bound," "Rock With Me Baby," "Flying Saucers Rock and Roll," and "Red Hot," which featured Jerry Lee Lewis on piano.

After his brief 1950s commercial peak, Riley launched his own independent record label, worked as a session musician in Los Angeles for folks like Dean Martin and the Beach Boys and, of course, continued to tour and record on his own. He gave it all up in the early-1970s to begin his own construction business in Arkansas, but returned to music full-time by the end of the decade.

In the years since, Riley has pursued his own unique vision of rockabilly, blues, and country-blues music; the guitarist's affinity for the blues could have made him a hot property in the blues world if he'd have focused exclusively in that genre. Riley's 1997 comeback album Hot Damn! was subsequently nominated for a Grammy Award.

Thanks to all the About.com Blues readers that emailed me that they were sending Riley some cash; hopefully it made his final couple of weeks a little easier.

Photo: Billy Lee Riley performing at a "Battle of the Bands" in Jackson, Mississippi circa 1959 or '60. Photo by Tom Smith - thanks Tom!

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