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- Posted on Aug 5th 2009 10:00AM by John D. Luerssen
A raucous performer responsible for the 1957 rockabilly numbers 'Flyin' Saucers Rock and Roll' and 'Red Hot' -- both of which featured Jerry Lee Lewis on piano -- Riley also worked as a studio musician for the likes of Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen have publicly acknowledged Riley, who was introduced to the blues by black sharecroppers as a child, as one of their favorite performers from the era.
Despite being an influential act, he never achieved the stardom of Sun peers. Riley blamed the label's owner Sam Phillips for prioritizing Lewis' 'Great Balls of Fire' over 'Red Hot' in a 2000 San Diego Union-Tribune interview, saying, "After Jerry Lee got on the label, Sam got hung up on him. A singing piano player was something very different, and he thought it could be another Elvis Presley." After being booked on DJ Alan Freed's rock and roll tour, Riley claimed that "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."
Riley performed for Sun Records for four years with his band, the Little Green Men, and was notable for being the first rockabilly band to incorporate saxophone and piano. In 1962, he had moved to Los Angeles working on sessions by Herb Alpert, Rick Nelson, Dean Martin, the Beach Boys and Sammy Davis Jr. In the early '70s, he quit music altogether and returned home to Arkansas .
A private funeral was held yesterday in Newport, Arkansas. Riley is survived by his fourth wife, four children, three siblings and two grandchildren.
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