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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, August 06, 2009


Photograph and YouTube performance found on

I've just learnt of yet another death, I'm sorry to say: this time of Billy Lee Riley, who, according to The Times' obituary, "played his final show in June 2009 at the Rock and Soul Museum in Memphis, by which time he had an advanced cancer" and died on August 2nd, aged 75.

Here's his (unupdated) entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Riley, Billy Lee [1933 - ]
William Lee Riley was born into a family of sharecroppers in Pocohontas, Arkansas on October 5, 1933. He was a country singer who wanted to be a blues singer but ended up in Memphis doing rockabilly for Sam Phillips at Sun from late 1956 until he left to form his own label, Rita, in 1960.
He was a session-man and multi-instrumentalist (quite good on bluesy harmonica); JERRY LEE LEWIS and Charlie Rich played piano on Riley’s records, the best-known being his 1957 titles ‘Red Hot’ and (as by Billy Lee Riley and his Little Green Men) ‘Flyin’ Saucers Rock’n’Roll’. He also revived the 1940s hit ‘Open the Door, Richard’, a title Dylan makes into the refrain of his own 1967 song ‘Open the Door, Homer’ (see separate entry).

More importantly, Riley is the man who had the gumption to turn on the tape recorder when Sam Phillips and fundamentalist bible-study boy Jerry Lee were discussing the evils of secular music at the Sun session that later yielded Lewis’ ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ (a discussion first issued on a Dutch bootleg in the 1970s), and more than a decade later he was a guest performer at ELVIS and Priscilla Presley’s New Year’s Eve Party at the Thunderbird Lounge, Memphis in 1968.
In the end he was able to cut records in every genre he liked: as one rock historian catalogued it, he ‘recorded country for Sun, Mojo, Pen, Hip, Sun International, Entrance, backwoods blues for Rita, R&B for Dodge, Checker and Hip, rock for Brunswick and Home of the Blues, and soul for Smash, Fire, Fury, Mojo and Myrl.’ He cut many of his blues sides, including ‘Repossession Blues’, under the pseudonym Lightnin’ Leon. In the 1960s he moved to LA and did session work and in the 1970s-80s toured Europe many times.

Bob Dylan sang ‘Repossession Blues’ at a rehearsal for the 1978 World Tour in Santa Monica (February 1, 1978) and subsequently twice in concert (in Osaka, February 24 and Tokyo four nights later), and he performed Riley’s ‘Rock With Me Baby’ at six US concerts in 1986.

On September 8, 1992, when Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour hit Riley’s home patch of Little Rock, Arkansas, Bob brought Billy onstage as a guest. He was introduced fulsomely by Dylan, who stayed onstage to play back-up guitar as Riley sang ‘Red Hot’. Riley went on from this heartening evening’s encounter to re-activate his own performing career. The Smithsonian interviewed him for their archives and he released his first all-blues CD, Blue Collar Blues, that same year. Now based in Newport, Arkansas, he gives combination lecture-concerts about the blues, the Mississippi Delta and his childhood as a sharecropper. He disappoints everyone who admired his work by revealing that he regards working with Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1960s as a high points of his career.

[Billy Lee Riley: ‘Flyin’ Saucers Rock’n’Roll’, Memphis, 11 Dec 1956 (w Jerry Lee Lewis), Sun 260, Memphis, 1957, reissued The Sun Story 1952-1968, Sun 6641 180, London, 1974; ‘Red Hot’, Memphis, 1957, Sun 277, Memphis, 1957; 2-CD set Classic Recordings 1956-1960, Including The Complete Sun Recordings, Bear Family BCD 15444-BH, Vollersode Germany, c.1990; Blue Collar Blues, Hightone HCD 8040, US, 1992; ‘Repossession Blues’, nia, Rita 1005, US, 1960. Lewis-Phillips discussion 1st issued Good Rocking Tonight, Bopcat LP-100, Holland, 1970s.]

And here's a pretty good committed performance of 'Red Hot' from 2003, and splendidly authentic rockabilly at that (which in my opinion puts Dylan's current level of performance energy very much to shame; likewise the keyboard player):

Meanwhile tomorrow (August 7) Dylan band member Denny Freeman turns 65.


Anonymous Lee Morgan said...

I am sure the jibe about Dylan at the bottom of this entry will raise the ire of some, Michael. I couldn’t agree more though.

Here is Billy Lee Riley in 2005, older then than Dylan is now, interacting, engaging and clearly still delighted to be performing. The music is brisk and alive, the band are relishing their solos, and the audience is loving it.

Riley, the multi-instrumentalist, standing with just his microphone in hand brings me back to the recent, much vaunted performance of Forgetful Heart by Dylan. Amateur footage of this shows Dylan standing alone at the microphone, no instrument but his harmonica in hand. Could this be the way forward? As his vocals disappear further into the mire, should he leave the playing to his band, investing his energy in the delivery of words alone?

From Isis on the Rolling Thunder Revue, to those electrifying moments during the gospel years when he pulled the microphone from the stand, Dylan given the freedom of the stage has always been a thing to behold. It’s certainly a nice topic for discussion, and while I don’t expect anything quite as great as this to take place, here is one of my favourites to cut and paste as he struts and dances through the gospel blaze of Solid Rock:

2:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a nice performance by Billy Lee. I'll take this anytime.
Sublime vocal, and lays down a grove so hot you could toast marshmallows over it.
Pat Ford

2:39 am  
Anonymous Lee Morgan said...

On another obituary-related note, I was very sad to hear about the death of Willy DeVille over the weekend. I was seeking an interview with Willy earlier this year when it came out on his website that he was taking time out to fight Hepatitis C. During his treatment for this, they discovered pancreatic cancer which, sadly, very few people recover from.

DeVille seems to have fallen through the cracks of critical opinion somewhat, which is understandable given the patchy nature of his albums from 1983 onwards. But he was always an immensely gifted and energetic live performer; and from Mink DeVille (1978) to Coup De Grace (1981), he fashioned four albums so romantic, tough and excellently sung, they prompted occasional collaborator Doc Pomus to say: “DeVille knows the truth of a city street and the courage in a ghetto love song. And the harsh reality in his voice and phrasing is yesterday, today, and tomorrow– timeless in the same way that loneliness, no money, and troubles find each other and never quit for a minute.”

Jack Nitzsche described him as the greatest singer he had ever worked with, but even as a songwriter he would have been a natural for the Brill Building. He understood how to create pop hooks and infectious arrangements that knew just when to hit you.

Le Chat Bleu (1980) was his undeniable high point, made in Paris with Piaf in mind and capturing all the things that Pomus made reference to. But his albums for the next 25 years were largely poor and inconsistent, with the exception of 1990’s Victory Mixture, a collection of New Orleans R&B and soul sung impeccably without overdubs.

One of DeVille’s finest early songs, Just Your Friends, seemed a homage to Dylan by way of Phil Spector. Singing it years later in concert, as he fumbled with his harmonica rack, he joked: “It’s times like these I want to kill Bob Dylan.”

I have included a link to that track below, while it is also worth mentioning the two references to DeVille on Together Through Life. Scott Warmuth pointed out in the New Haven Advocate that the term "nowhere café" and use of accordion in This Dream Of You hark back to the DeVille-Pomus collaboration, Just to Walk That Little Girl Home.

But a line on Life Is Hard recalls another DeVille-Pomus song on Le Chat Bleu: That World Outside. Both songs find the singer summoning the strength to fight it. DeVille does so far more evocatively.

Just Your Friends

12:21 pm  

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