Herman Riley, 73; jazz saxophone player was a favorite of vocalists

Times Staff Writer

Herman Riley, the jazz saxophonist whose hard-driving, soulful playing as a sideman and accompanist with such artists as Count Basie and Jimmy Smith earned him critical acclaim, died of heart failure April 14 at Brotman Medical Center in Culver City. He was 73.

Riley was a favorite of vocalists because of his ability to play well without overpowering singers.

“There are some musicians ... who certainly shine as soloists out front,” said musician and longtime friend George Bohanon. “But when you have to support someone -- not get in their way but enhance what they’re doing -- that’s a special talent. He’s the greatest at that. He’d play one or two notes and you’d beg him to play another.”


In the mid-1990s Riley began playing with jazz vocalist Lavay Smith and recorded on her 2000 album “Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout Miss Thing!” For Smith, Riley’s playing represented a rare link to a generation of musicians whose music she was too young to have heard performed live.

“The way he played was everything I love about jazz,” Smith said. “He was so unbelievably soulful. When I listen to the record he recorded with us, I love it. It’s just as good as it gets.”

Born Aug. 31, 1933, in New Orleans, Riley grew up with jazz. He attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and performed with the marching band until his draft notice came. While serving a two-year stint in the Army, he played with a military band.

After leaving the Army he attended what is now called San Diego City College and later moved to Los Angeles. In 1956 he married Thelma Mitchell, who survives him along with daughter Shenell Riley Boone, grandson Ethan Boone and two brothers. Riley and his wife also had a son, Patrick Riley, who died.

Riley was playing with trumpeter Bobby Bryant’s band at a Los Angeles club on Broadway in the 1960s when he met Fred Jackson, a fellow musician who would become a lifelong friend. The two played at the Cocoanut Grove and later with the band that played for “Sammy and Company,” a television show featuring Sammy Davis Jr. that aired in the 1970s. The two shared many late night meals and conversations about music.

“His primary goal was to attain that level of spontaneity, that comes from building the vocabulary in jazz,” Jackson said. “He loved Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane. We talked about the dues that they paid and our willingness to pay dues like that to get to that level.”

Over the years, Riley recorded one album as leader, “Herman,” released in 1984. He played on the albums of several other artists, including Smith, singer Etta James and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Riley played all the saxophones, flute and clarinet. Because of his commitment to the music, Riley not only had the skills but also knew the history of the music.

“He had strong New Orleans roots, but was very broad in his concept,” Bohanon said. “He could play the blues or very straight-ahead jazz, and very soulful music. You couldn’t stereotype him. Any music he was involved in -- he would enhance it because he had such a strong personality.”

With Bohanon’s mentorship program, “The Cultural Link,” Riley visited schools and taught students about the music.

“He loved the music so much,” Bohanon said. “He made the students understand, it’s not just the notes. It’s all about a feeling, a culture, that all this music comes from.”

A service for Riley will be held at noon today in the main auditorium of the Crenshaw Christian Center, 7901 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles.