Listener's Guide To Billy Lee Riley
(Editor's Note: Obviously it is impossible to list every record Billy's played on or to find all the singles he released in various guises. Here's a guide to some of the more accessible works by the legendary Riley. One glaring omission Ken made is the awesome Funk Harmonica! (GNP Crescendo 2020, 1966, or so) which features Billy doing some top 40 Blues Rock/Folk Rock covers ("Blowin' In The Wind," "Colours," "Eve Of Destruction") that are great, but what makes it really stand out is the eerie "House Of The rising Sun" interpretation, one of the spookiest Halloween perfect recordings ever! It also lists what make of harp is blown on each song on the sleeve. Pure class!)
Red Hot: The Very Best Of Billy Lee Riley (Collectables, 1999)
All of Riley's greatest Sun sides such as "Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll," "Red Hot," "Pearly Lee," and the underrated blues rock-a-ballad "One More Time" are on this strong mid-priced domestic release. These are the cuts upon which Riley's legend is built and a disc of this caliber (a similarly titled out-of-print release on AVI is equally good) is necessary to a collection of true rock'n'roll music.
This disc's contents also offers a potential reason why Riley did not become the household name that Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis were. Such tracks as "Betty & Dupree," "Searching," "Baby Please Don't Go," and many others were such convincing rhythm & blues performances that pop disc jockeys of the day probably felt they couldn't play them to white teenagers. After all, Jerry Lee's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" didn't hit until after national audiences had seen him on NBC's The Steve Allen Show.
Part of Riley's appeal to latter day Sun fanatics comes not only from rediscovering his music but in reveling in the story of the rock'n'roll foot soldier who was denied his opportunity. This great disc gives weight and purpose to that legend and is a stone gas as well.
Hot Damn! (Capricorn, 1997)
Riley's Grammy nominated disc finally won him some respect in blues circles and shows he has finally found a style which wears well for him in the studio.
What makes this one especially fine is Riley gives the impression that he is genuinely baring his soul here. Whether wailing Slim Harpo's "Rainin' In my Heart," making social commentary with "How Come We All Ain't Got The Same," or taking a ride on "Fine Little Mama," Riley is making a serious statement about his talent and where he wants it to go.
There's not much rockabilly here, but if you dig the true blues sound of the old Excello sides, augmented with some fevered, emotive harmonica, this is the place to turn. Hands down this is Riley's favorite disc.
Rockin' 50s (Icehouse, 1995)
J.M. Van Eaton feels this is one of Riley's best albums and I have to agree. Culled from various sessions held during the late '70s through the '90s, Rockin' 50s allows Riley to explore several musical moods while always keeping the emphasis on good ol' rock'n'roll.
Intermittently aided by guitarist Roland Janes and the aforementioned Van Eaton, Riley pumps out such old school blues-based gems as ""Ballin' The Jack," "Goin' Jukin'," "Fast Livin'," and the belated follow-up to "Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll" -- "Rockin' On A U.F.O." Riley gets Elvisy on "Without Baby" and reprises "Rock It Billy" with a version that's a little rawer than on the Hightone disc.
There's a subtle touch of synthesizer horns here and there, and while the songs are not too varied in content (half the songs have some derivation of the word "rock" in the title), the constant change of studio approach really enlivens things. I often wonder what would've happened had Riley released an LP like this one on Hightone instead of a blues-oriented disc.
Everybody Let's Rock (Star Club, 1995)
In some ways, this is the most interesting of Riley's compilations, though you'll have to hit the import catalogs to get it. This is includes all of the Rockin' 50s disc, Vintage, the 1978 Mojo LP, and such hard-to-find early 60s tracks as "Nightmare Mash," "Everybody's Twisting," "Fast Livin'," "Teenage Letter," and others. It's all topped off with his Brunswick single and, of course, his best known Sun singles. Though there are a lot of cover tunes included there isn't a dull moment on this disc.
Star Club's liner notes are elementary but the music is absolutely amazing. It's expensive but worthwhile for the serious Riley fan.
Rockin' With Billy Lee Riley (Charly, 1993)
This out-of-print import includes all of Riley's recordings, false starts, and instrumentals during his days at Sun, plus his later reincarnation as a Credence-style Southern soul man at Sun International during the late '60s. Fans who dig his blues style will delight in such gems as "Pilot Town Louisiana," "Sun Goin' Down On Frisco," and the tear-jerking "Kay." His vocals are raw but supple and while the backing could've used a little sweetening the simple rockin' blues band allows most of these tracks to age well.
I give this one the edge over the Bear Family set because the later tracks are so compelling. It's the type of stuff which will leave fans shaking their heads and asking "Why didn't Billy Lee Riley have a hit this time?"
706 Re-Union (Sun-Up, 1993)
Riley and drummer J.M. Van Eaton return to the Sun studios for some smartly reworked oldies and some reminiscing. The talking portions are a little too far down in the mix, and Van Eaton's drums sound a bit dead, but Riley shines on such tracks as "Fannie Mae," "Be My Guest," "My Baby Left Me," and "Little Red Rooster."
There's no question that Billy Lee Riley can knock off a set of '50s hits with aplomb, but I was a little disappointed that he and Van Eaton chose to throw away some of Sun's greatest hits in a medley. Also, some of the song choices such as "Folsom Prison Blues," "Lover Please," and "You Never Can Tell" really suited his style. It's a bit uneven, but a nice keepsake even if it was only available in cassette form.
Blue Collar Blues (Hightone, 1992)
At every phase of his career, Riley has recorded a few brilliant singles, some LPs which didn't showcase the full depth of his talents, and then seemingly disappeared from the music scene. As a result, there had been no such thing as a cohesive album by this legendary figure until this, his first step in a strong new direction. More than a modern make over, Blue Collar Blues represents the fulfillment of Billy Lee's promise as a credible bluesman. Riley's vocals are weathered but wise on such penetrating tracks as "Calhoun City," "I'm Down Now," "Perfect Woman," and the title song. Billy Lee's stylistic debt to Jimmy Reed is acknowledged with "You'll Have To Come And Get It," "Living The Blues," and "The Blues Come Around," and they too are R&B bar band delights.
Riley didn't forget his Rockabilly fans, and he delivered a definitive version of T. Graham Brown's "Rock It, Billy," and retells his own legend (with Sun alumni James Van Eaton and Roland Janes) on "The Little Green Men." Negatives? Riley errs on the side of nostalgia with "Back Door Sally," and "All Over Again" (which uses titles of '50's hits instead of lyrics with a convincing theme). Mostly, when Billy Lee Riley isn't trying to remind us of who he was, he demonstrates he is fully capable of making tough, listenable contemporary blues.
A lot of the rockabilly fans were disappointed that Riley didn't flat out rock on this one, but just on its own merits, this one is my favorite modern disc.
Classic Recordings 1956 -1960 (Bear Family, 1990)
If you simply want all of Riley's work at Sun and then some, hit the import racks or catalog services for this 2 CD set. Besides all the songs listed on the Collectables and AVI compilations, Bear Family has brought in a few very fine alternate takes, instrumentals, and even Riley's first singles on Rita Records.
Especially noteworthy are the tracks he released under the name Lightning Leon, his lone Brunswick single "Rockin' On The Moon" and "Is That All To The Ball, Mr. Hall," which showcase Riley's versatility and erratic commercial sense more dramatically than any other release.
It's a little pricey, but really worthwhile if all you want is the early days.
Southern Soul (Mojo, 1968)
Rereleased as Twist'n'Shout by Cowboy Carl Records in 1981, Riley does his Whiskey-A-Go-Go set live at the Brave-Falcon Club in Atlanta, Georgia.
With the exception of such interesting originals as "(The Theme From) Speed Lovers," "Long Time Man," and "Southern Soul," the playlist looks almost identical to a Johnny Rivers LP from the mid-60s. Indeed, the weakest moments are the covers of Rivers' "Poor Side Of Town" and "I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water."
Of course, Riley brings substantially more grit to ravers like"Twist & Shout," "In The Midnight Hour," and the Chuck Berry medley than Rivers could ever conceivably muster. You can tell Billy Lee and company are playing to a dance floor audience from the extended jams on some of the songs and the perpetual mid-tempo beat. Riley's tart guitar leads and Bill Golden vamping organ gives the proceedings a a Go-Go Meets Soul feel that is very danceable and lively in spots, monotonous in others.
Billy Lee Riley In Action (Vogue, 1966)
This one's a far better representation of the Whiskey A-Go-Go style than the Mojo LP. This solid EP of folk and blues has Riley rocking up two folks standards (""Goodnight Irene," "Parchment Farm", a Hank Williams classic ("Kaw-Liga"), and an inspired version of a Johnny Cash hit from the Sun days ("Guess Things Happen That Way"). The backing is real simple (just drums, bass, guitar, and occasional harmonica), allowing Riley to shine with strong, unaffected vocals.
I got this French release through an auction list. I have never found the full length American LP on GNP, but I am still looking.
Harmonica Beatlemania (Mercury Records, 1964)
Riley and company try to combat/co-opt/cash-in on the British Invasion by doing an LP of harmonica versions of hits by the Fab Four. Though Riley's name is on the cover and his handsome visage graces the back, I've never really considered this a true Billy Lee Riley LP. The playing behind him is a bit too clean and sterile though Billy constantly impresses as a melodic player.
The tunes are drawn from early in the Beatle craze, as a result Riley's harmonica sounds best on the uptempo rockers like "Love Me Do," "Please Please Me," and "Hard Day's Night." It would have been interesting to hear a companion LP of the later, more melancholy Beatles tunes.
A Tribute To The Legendary Billy Lee Riley (BSC , 1996)
Riley is exulted in songs by various neo-rockabillies and psychobillies. Most of this is D.I.Y. stuff but the variegated styles really make this one jump. Riley answers his admirers by singing a song which weaves the names of all the artists paying him tribute. It's a nice moment. This is not a necessary disc, but sure to be collectible.