Billy Lee Riley dies at 75; rockabilly pioneer did ‘Flyin’ Saucers Rock and Roll’

Billy Lee Riley, performing in 1956, is best-known for his 1957 singles “Flyin’ Saucers Rock and Roll” and “Red Hot.” He also worked as a studio musician in Los Angeles.
(Charlie Gillett/Redferns)

Billy Lee Riley, a rockabilly pioneer and songwriter who recorded for the legendary Sun Records label and is best remembered for his 1957 singles “Flyin’ Saucers Rock and Roll” and “Red Hot,” has died. He was 75.

Riley died Sunday of colon cancer that had spread to the bone at a hospital in Jonesboro, Ark., said his wife, Joyce.

The Arkansas-born son of a sharecropper who began playing harmonica and guitar as a child, Riley landed at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in 1956.

His band, which for a time included a then-unknown Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, is said to have played a key role in shaping the Sun Records’ sound, providing backup on recordings by Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Lewis and others.

“My band was the Sun sound,” Riley told the Associated Press in 1984. “We’ve never gotten credit for that, but it’s a fact. I was doing what Elvis was doing before Elvis did it: mixing blues and hillbilly, putting a laid-back, funky beat to hillbilly music.”

Riley’s single “Flyin’ Saucers Rock and Roll” was released in early 1957 and made Riley and his band, the newly dubbed Little Green Men, a regional name.

His follow-up single, the hard-driving “Red Hot,” came some months later, and Riley, who was known for his raucous stage performances, figured he had a national hit.

Although Riley recorded what have been called seminal rockabilly tunes, stardom eluded him.

Riley blamed Phillips for promoting Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” at the expense of “Red Hot.”

“After Jerry Lee got on the label, Sam got hung up on him,” Riley told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2000. “A singing piano player was something very different, and he thought it could be another Elvis Presley. My record ‘Red Hot’ was happening, and [legendary DJ] Alan Freed was playing the heck out of it and told me personally I had a hit record.”

Riley recalled that he had been booked on Freed’s upcoming rock and roll tour when “Sam got me kicked off the tour and sabotaged my record and called the distributors and canceled all the orders because he only wanted to go with Jerry Lee. He just felt that Jerry Lee was gonna be the next superstar, and he quit promoting me and Johnny Cash and Orbison. “

After a “drunk and vengeful” Riley returned to the studio one night and kicked a hole in the string bass and poured wine over the tape machines, according to a 1997 story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Phillips arrived and calmed him down, saying, “ ‘Red Hot’ ain’t got it. We’re saving you for something good!’ ”

Despite his run-in with Phillips, who died in 2003, Riley spent four years at Sun Records.

“I think we were the first rockabilly band to use sax and piano,” he said. “We were the wildest bunch there at Sun. As individuals, we were pretty wild and we put on a heck of a show!”

After leaving Sun, Riley formed two record labels and, in 1962, moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a studio musician on sessions for Herb Alpert, Dean Martin, Rick Nelson, the Beach Boys, Sammy Davis Jr. and others.

Although he quit in the early 1970s and returned to Arkansas -- “heavy rock was out of my league,” he later told the Associated Press -- he returned to music after being invited to perform at a Memphis music festival in 1979.

Riley was born Oct. 5, 1933, in Pocahontas, Ark. Introduced to the blues by black sharecroppers as a child, he learned to play harmonica at 6 and received his first guitar at 10. After winding up a stint in the Army in 1953, he formed a hillbilly band.

In addition to his fourth wife of 34 years, he is survived by his son, Daaron Riley; three daughters, Angela Riley Johns, Wendy Kennedy and Erin Riley; his brothers, Donald Riley and Hiawatha Riley; his sister, Margaret Simpson; and two grandchildren.