I was saddened by the news that my old friend and business colleague Billy Lee Riley had just passed away from cancer at age 75.
I am sorry it took Billy’s passing to inspire me to write this long overdue account of our friendship, but his passing on August 2 was overlooked by most in this summer which has claimed so many people.
Go on iTunes and buy “Red Hot” or “Flying Saucer Rock and Roll” by Billy Lee Riley and see if you can tell where raw, high energy punk music reared it’s ugly, but cool, head.
I last spoke with him when I heard he was diagnosed with colon cancer two or three years ago. He had kept up with and sent prayers for my own treatment for leukemia and kept in touch until he became sick himself. I am sorry I did not maintain the friendship over the years.
I had an interesting but rocky friend/manager/producer situation with Billy but when I think back to it, I only remember the fun times and the incredible music he made. Despite the usual disputes over money and booking dates (Billy had to have at least 1000.00 to leave his house and, due to his Seven Day Adventist faith, could not perform on Saturday nights – for any amount of money), we never had cross words or got angry about anything. Frustrated, but not angry.
Billy was one of those rare talents that could be the 1950’s equivalent of Axl Rose but with a good personality and great sense of cynical humor. I have a treasured copy of a letter the legendary Cowboy Jack Clement gave to me from his landlord in 1957. Jack was politely but firmly asked to vacate his Memphis apartment following an evening of drinking wine spodeodee, (yes, there is such a thing), and concluding with Billy jumping naked off the balcony and into the pool a couple of stories below. He was not hurt, thanks in part to the wine, but the other apartment complex guests were not amused.
Billy was determined to sabotage his career from the start reportedly pouring whiskey over Sam Phillips recording desk and trashing the studio because Sam chose to promote Jerry Lee Lewis over himself (“Great Balls of Fire” or “Red Hot”). Sam could not afford to promote both and had to choose between the two rivals. Imagine the outpouring of love and remembrances that would have happened last week for Billy had the choice been reversed.
It would be years before Billy would forgive Sam and I am happy to be the one to bring them together for a friendly but sometimes tense, confrontation some 32 years after the fact. They didn’t quite kiss and make up but it felt like there was peace and it is one of those magic moments when you thank God that a camera is rolling with the subjects only focused on each other.
Billy provided me with a favorite moment in my life on the night I first met him. The BBC/Wales were doing yet another Sun Records/Elvis documentary and had contacted me about bringing Scotty Moore over to Sun Studio in Memphis for an interview. Although not having met Billy, I was well aware of his creed of never doing anything for nothing so I asked the BBC producer what Billy was getting for the interview and a solo performance at Sun. He told me they did not usually pay for interviews since it was considered “news” or “promotion.” Billy had told him that, at his age and stage in his career, he did not need more promotion much less news. We were able to come away with a couple of grand for Scotty plus rooms, food and travel expenses for both of us. The shamefully tight BBC had to fork out more than they planned but they came away with some fiery performances from Scotty and Billy and great candid interviews. I even got them to pick up a bottle of Scotty’s favorite, Johnny Walker Black. It certainly made his portion of the interview go much more smoothly.
Toward the end of the evening I needed to stretch my legs, but did not want to wander far since Sun Studio is not in the best part of Memphis for late at night. Instead of coming back through the front entrance, I decided to enter through the back door that leads directly into the control room where Scotty and Billy were standing there listening to playbacks. I didn’t want to startle them so I just stood there casually. During a quiet moment, Scotty turned to Billy and asked if he expected to be doing this so many years after they started. Billy said he was excited to be getting the new-found attention as well as much better wages than he received in the 50’s and 60’s. Scotty turned to Billy and said, “I’m having a lot more fun now than I ever did with Elvis.” He never would have said that if he knew I was standing there – I was beaming with pride for being involved in any way with both of these talented and influential men. Billy soon asked me to help him put together a new record and help him with live gigs. I was too busy with Scotty Moore and D. J. Fontana’s promotion of the “All the King’s Men” CD and Scotty’s biography, “That’s Alright Elvis.”
Skipping ahead a few years to 2000, I was still working with Scotty, D. J. Fontana, Sonny Burgess and Paul Burlison, and recently added Cowboy Jack Clement and the man himself, Sam Phillips. Against the advice of all of the above, I agreed to take on Billy when he asked. In theory, I had the dream of a lifetime working with the real founders of rock and roll, the ones that gave the front men the boost and kick they needed at just the right time. Even though Sonny and Billy each had hits under their own name on Sun, they made strong impressions as backing musicians for artists as diverse as Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin and more.
I had the brainstorm of putting together a duo record for Sonny and Billy performing all new songs with the great Cowboy Jack Clement producing. I booked two days in Nashville at Cowboy Jack’s Clementvision Studio and a stellar backing band – Ben Folds on piano, Garry W. Tallent (of the E Street Band) on bass, Cowboy Jack on acoustic guitar, Nashville musicians and artists Bill Lloyd and Tim Carroll on electric guitars and Mark Horn, of the country-rock band The Derailers, on drums. The sessions also being filmed for a segment of “Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records.”
I had gladly taken the job as associate producer in charge of securing the Sun artists and some of the special guests for the film which was a co-production with then strong indie film company, The Shooting Gallery, and PBS’ American Master’s series and the award wining documentary director, Bruce Sinofsky. By piggy-backing both projects we could all save money, or so we thought. Sonny and Billy, as well as the entire Sun Records “B team” did far better in Europe than in the US. A good portion of the recording and backing musician expenses were to be taken on by a European record company interested in releasing the duo CD. that soon changed. I would take my advance from the film company to pay for the studio sessions and a live performance to be filmed and I would recoup my investment from the CD sales and promotional events.
Sonny called from along the road to Nashville from Newport, AK to Nashville to say he had stopped off at a hospital emergency room because he felt like he was having a heart attack. He felt OK but had to cancel his participation in the sessions that week. Although we were all concerned, everyone was assembled and we had to go on with the sessions – I had already paid everyone but Sonny. Billy always wanted me to keep three different hats on: friend, manager and producer. In other words, I gave him a check for 2500.00 at the start of the sessions as a producer but he would pay me 15% of my own money for booking the gig for him and then he would pick up the tab for dinner as a friend. I guess that makes sense though I doubt Colonel Tom Parker would have ever agreed to it. Sonny, while being genuinely concerned about his health, was more concerned with tying himself to Billy Lee for an indeterminate amount of time in the studio and on the road.
The session turned out to be a historic one musically but it would have made for a great reality TV show or an episode of Jerry Springer without the chair throwing. All the musicians and guests agreed to having cameras record their every move for two days. The first day we would lay down all the tracks and record vocals on the second. Billy had brought along four exceptionally good songs that he had written but not recorded. They ranged from straight ahead country to boogie to gospel tinged rock and roll. The first track, “Walk, Talk & Sing” went flawlessly with every one of the musicians locking into a perfect groove with Billy singing a scratch vocal that was so good we kept it as a final vocal. I could see in his face and in the face of his wife/personal manager, Joyce, that he was stunned at how it clicked. Ben Folds was just leaving his Ben Folds Five band and about to embark on a great solo career as a solo artist and producer. He presented his Southern Gospel roots by playing such an amazing piano part on Jack’s Baldwin baby grand that he even surprised the Cowboy himself.
Unfortunately, the next tune, “Hillbilly Rockin’ Man” did not go quite so well. Ben was perfect on the first track but country rock was not quite his style on piano. Between repeated takes Billy and Jack called me over and told me to casually get rid of the kid. They had no idea who he was and the value, at least with music critics, of having him on all the tracks. I was saved from an embarrassing situation when Ben, on the same wavelength, told me he did not think he had the right feel for the track and it would work better with just guitars.
On the following day we scheduled vocals, both Billy’s lead and the background vocals by anyone we could get into the studio. When I arrived at the studio at 10:00 AM, Bruce Sinofsky casually said, “Waylon’s coming… maybe Johnny & June too.” Jack had made personal calls to his friends who were also old friends with Billy and Sonny. We had to arrange recording the background vocals in Jack’s downstairs office as Waylon could not climb the stairs to the studio due to his diabetes that would soon take his right leg and then his life. It turned out to be a more casual, festive atmosphere than the studio. Johnny and June could not make it but John Carter Cash came along with some gospel singers he knew and I had been able to get Ray Walker, bass vocalist for the Jordanaires, in for the session. D. J. Fontana showed up but when he discovered it was only a singing session, he bowed out and went to WalMart.
The background vocals for “Walk, Talk & Sing” would rival anything any gospel vocal group could do and included all the musicians as well as me, Joyce and director Bruce – and Jack’s trained cat, Eugene. After a couple of quick takes, we had what we needed for the song and settled into Jack’s office for Waylon holding court over all of us telling stories of working with Buddy Holly, opening for Elvis and about two hours worth of material picking Jack and Billy’s brains about what they remembered from those classic days. Sadly, this would be Waylon’s last recording session and all that is readily available is the music which I co-own with Jack since Billy was paid in full up front. No footage of the office talks made it to the final film and all of the tapes have been lost in the limbo between PBS and the now-defunct Shooting Gallery film company who went belly-up before the year was over.
A couple of weeks later when we assembled Billy Lee and the now-recovered Sonny Burgess to headline a supergroup of Sun Records surviving musicians and artists for a concert at Bob King’s King of Clubs landmark roadhouse in Newport , AK. This is the club that gave Sonny & Billy as well as Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash and a young Elvis Presley a venue to play as long or as much as they liked. Bob discovered Conway and was his first manager and continued to run the club for the next 52 years. He would proudly point out to anyone who listened about the night Elvis played there. He had replaced the dance floor and stage area many times over 5 decades but kept the 4 foot by 4 foot square where Elvis stood and sang in a pool of sweat. He would even move his jukebox over the spot so no one would scuff it up. One more bit of trivia, the King of Clubs was just down the road from the Silver Moon where Elvis first played in AK and the inspiration for the Porky’s movie series of the seventies and eighties.
The show was another of those once in a lifetime magic moments on par with the recording sessions in Nashville. While the names may not be important to contemporary US music fans, it was a final meeting of the gods and goddess (singular), of rockabilly and Sun Records. In addition to co-headliners, Sonny & Billy, we had Grammy winning saxophone player Ace Cannon, Sun’s only female artist to have a substantial hit, Barbara Pittman, Elvis’ sometime girlfriend and the subject of Johnny Cash’s “Ballad of A Teenage Queen”; keyboard players Kern Kennedy from Sonny’s 50s band, The Pacers, and Jerry Lee “Smoochy” Smith, piano player of the Mar-Keys and one of the co-writers of the hit, “Last Night”‘; Cowboy Jack came along to produce the music and supervise the recording and agreed to a solo turn on a couple of the songs he wrote for George Jones and Johnny Cash. He also played the first song he wrote while a kid living at his grandmother’s house in that very town in the forties, “The Air Conditioner Song,” recorded by David Allen Coe. Bill Lloyd supplied co-lead guitars with Sonny Doug Greeno, provided the bass in place of Garry Tallent who had just gotten called back to the Springsteen fold. Mark Horn was once again along for drums.
There was talk of special guests including Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash and Bob Dylan showing up. Dylan was a huge fan of these guys and had been to see Sonny and Smoochy in the Sun Rhythm Section several times over the years and had specifically asked for Billy Lee to open a tour for him in the mid nineties. As it turned out, it was only rumors since Johnny was sick once again and Bob, who had been in Memphis some 50 miles away the night before, had let for Europe. We rehearsed several hours on the night before the performance and the show quickly came together featuring all of the Sun hits the various performers were known for along with a few select Sun Records covers new songs.
On the day of the show, it was announced over a couple of local radio stations as a special performance with surprise guests. Some people had heard about the plans so we already had a crowd from Memphis and even flying in from other parts of the country. It was a free show and I am quite sure we exceeded the fire code but Bob King did not believe in turning anyone away with drinking money. As it was a taping for the PBS documentary and a recording for a live album, once again to be co-owned by Cowboy Jack and myself (meaning, I pay for it and Cowboy keeps the tapes!), we had to inform the audience that we may need to repeat key songs a few times to get the right take for the film. The only retakes were due to bad camera angles or lighting, not the music being played – that was spectacular and flawless for over two hours. I am thankful I had a rolling tape machine for the rehearsals and the show in addition to Jack’s multi track recordings. Jack doesn’t lose tapes, they just have a tendency to go into his vault and not come out for years, if ever. At least my tapes exists as, once again, the film footage is lost to the legal wranglings of the entertainment industry.
Billy and Sonny took command of the stage right away trading off their Sun hits, “We Wanna Boogie,” “Red Hot,” Red Headed Woman,” “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” and playing a new song each before becoming backing musicians for Ace, Barbara and Jack. The tightness of the band and the charisma of the artists made for a special night that can never be repeated. Newport, AK had not seen such a spectacle on a late Summer Tuesday night in many years – if ever.
The following day, everyone assembled at Sonny’s house for an old fashioned southern barbeque/group interview session to be filmed for the documentary. Despite Sonny and Jack’s attempt at stirring the conversation in different ways, Billy Lee and Barbara used the forum to vent decades-long resentment of Sam Phillips for ignoring their promising careers in favor of his top four – Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. I understand their gripes but Sam had such limited funds as it was, he had to go with what he felt in his gut and was told by Dewey Phillips (no relation) and other prominent D. J.s in the Memphis area. History does tell he made the right choices. As Sonny often says, Sam, along with current Sun Records recordings owner Shelby Singleton, are to be credited with their careers later in their lives after kids are grown and they have the luxury of playing live with great pickup bands around the world.
The group scene was reprised a couple of weeks later at the Blue City Cafe on Beale St. in Memphis. This time it included more key artists such as Rufus Thomas and some obscure but important ones such as Malcolm Yelvington and Ray Harris, and Sun session drummers J. M. Van Eaton and W. S. Holland. After an impromptu jam session in the music room of the cafe we started filming individual and small group interviews where the Sam Phillips slamming continued along with a bit of W. S. Holland venting over his lawsuit with his longtime boss, Johnny Cash and yours truly for not including him in the recording session and live show. Rufus told his same tired stories of being ignored by Sam when he found Elvis – but only when the camera was on. I had the pleasure of having a great personal conversation with him later in the day when he told a different story – he admired and respected Sam and understood his methods as a businessman – and he loved Elvis. Rufus was thrilled to be included in our project and we started making plans for a tour of Europe with him, Billy Lee, Sonny and Jack, possibly with Sam as moderator of a sit down discussion of the Sun Records era. Sadly this would not happen since both Rufus and Sam would soon fall ill and would not undertake any more public appearances. Sam made his only public appearance in the UK with author Peter Guralnick for a conversation before a sold out audience at the Royal Albert Hall.
The tenor of the group discussion turned in a different direction when Sam arrived for a filmed lunch gathering of Sonny, Jack, Billy Lee and Scotty Moore. The reminisces of this team were more valuable to me than anything in the project so far, and not just for the camera and film. Billy took it upon himself to publicly confront Sam with his grievances. Sam took it in stride and made a surprising apology and statement that he wished he had paid more attention to both Billy and Sonny as well as Barbara and the other Sun artists. Sonny had never complained to me or anyone about Sam and needed no apology of any kind but Billy wanted to hear Sam say it and – especially on camera – it meant much more.
An oft-told myth was put to rest during the Memphis power lunch – Billy never actually poured whisky over Sam’s recording console, Sam would have shot him, but he did throw a few things around the studio in a drunken jealous rage. If you ever get the chance to see the seldom shown American Masters/PBS film, “Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records,” check out the expression on Jack’s face as Sam tell his version of Elvis getting the idea of his hairstyle by copying him. For every fence that was mended and tale set straight, there was a new one supplied by the master of ceremonies, Sam Phillips. I wouldn’t take a million dollars for being one of the catalysts in making this happen
My days in business with Billy Lee Riley did not last a lot longer although the friendship remained from a distance. The attention I paid to Billy, Sonny, Jack and Sam had strained my relationship with Scotty & D. J. and then, just as the premier of the film and release of the soundtrack CD, the film company went bankrupt over night and PBS was left holding the bag. I had used all the money I was paid and due by putting together the extra events such as the recording session at Jack’s and the live show in Newport. Bruce Sinofsky and Susan Lacy at American Masters/PBS were left holding a much bigger bag but I can proudly say, all the musicians were paid in full – even for the interviews that are not usually included in payment.
One more funny Billy Lee story and I will close: Phil Carson, working with both the Shooting Gallery and PBS had arranged for Scotty & D. J., Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee to play the legendary Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The backing band was another dream crew: Jimmy Page, Chris Spedding and Johnny Kidd and the Pirate’s Mick Green on guitars, Chris Stainton on piano and Robert Plant on vocals. Partially due to Billy’s religious requirement of no Saturday night performances, Billy insisted he play his set on Friday but then an unexpected invitation came from the next night’s headliner, Bob Dylan. The Bobness had personally asked Billy to stay over another night and sing with him on the encores. Dylan offered to pay for the flight changes and extra hotel night in the expensive Swiss city. Billy turned the offer down on his firm religious beliefs although sonny still thinks he was holding out for money. I tend to believe Billy’s convictions kept him firm since he loved Dylan and would have been thrilled to share the stage with him one more time at any price, just not on a Saturday night.
The opening and closing scenes in the Sun Records film features Billy Lee Riley alone in the rain on Beale Street blowing a plaintive harmonica that, in it’s own way, is a fitting, soulful closure to a great chapter of American musical culture. Billy refused to be locked into one style or be termed a rockabilly – something all of these guys hated – they considered themselves musicians, first and foremost. Billy made a great soulful blues record, “Oh, Yeah,” on a tiny Memphis label and, even during the years when he worked manual jobs while raising two daughters as a single dad, never lost sight of his music and through all of his ups and downs, that was most important to him.
I am sure going to miss him in the coming months and years but for now, I am thankful for having known him.