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One Red Hot rockerPosted Tuesday, August 4, 2009, at 10:51 AM
The way the crowd gathered near the door of the West Plains Armorey parted, you'd have thought royalty had just entered the house.
Well, royalty had just entered the house.
Beyond well-dressed in a light-colored suit that was pressed so sharp it might cut you, Billy Lee Riley made his way through the audience at the first-ever Heart of the Ozarks Blues Festival.
Followed closely by his band members - most of who looked to be in there 20s and dressed in matching suits - Riley, who was in his late 60s at the time, clutched the case that housed his custom-made Gibson guitar and headed back stage.
Then a scant 30 minutes later, Riley hit the stage and gave those assembled in the audiotorium a history lesson in the birth of rock-n-roll.
Alas, Prof. Riley will teach no more.
Striken by stage four colon cancer, which spread to his bones, Riley passed away Aug. 2 at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro.
He was 75.
Adored by Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Robert Plant, a few among a list 10-miles long, Riley changed the face of popular music when he was a mere 22 years old.
Born in Pocahontas in 1933, Riley was an important pilliar of the rockabilly movement and a cornerstone of the Sun Records' roster in the late 50s and early 60s.
In Memphis, Riley and good friend Sonny Burgess, along with larger-than-life artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Charlie Rich, were the benchmarks of this new, wild style of music, known as rockabilly.
Riley's backing band, The Little Green Men, played on just about every rockabilly cut that came out on Sam Phillips' Sun Records label. They also hit it big on their own, unleashing classics like "Flyin' Saucers Rock and Roll" and "Red Hot" on teenagers hunrgy for just such music in the late 50s.
Riley is inducted into the Smithsonian Instution as one of the pioneers of rock-n-roll.
The next logal step is for Riley to be inducted into the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
While it didn't happen during his lifetime, Riley more than deserves to be with his fellow Sun mates Lewis, Oribison, Perkins, Cash and Phillips, all members of the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame.
Though he was every bit as influental as his legendary freinds, Riley just could never manage the breakthrough success they had. He once said, "It's just being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. I've come real close to some hits but have never been able to break through."
Don't fret, Billy Lee.
In our book, you have more than broken through.
Your contrubitions to rock-n-roll music will never be forgotten, nor will your warmth or down-to-earth spirit.
Rest in Peace.
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Since my own high school sports career fizzled out before it really reached its zenith, I have managed to live vicariously through the student/athletes of the 16 high schools I've covered for Areawide Media since 2001. I've witnessed the highest of highs in the form of state championships. I have also seen first-hand the sting of disappointment when the ultimate prize was within reach, but still eluded the grasp of its pursuer. But through all the ups and downs associated with high school sports, my respect for the young competitors that suit up each night, along with the men and women who guide them, remains unwavering. Blog mission: With my passion for music, especially live music, running second only to my passion for sports, I'll try to devote this space to both. Especially when it concerns our region and what's happening around it. Look for commentary and features on area sports figures and musicians, along with things to get out and do in the beautiful Spring River/Ozarks area. But I'll not totally ignore the outside - I'll also hit on some national happenings in the wide worlds of sports and music.