Billy Lee Belts Out Bits of Sun

Posted May 7, 2007 - courtesy Bob Mehr, Memphis Commercial Appeal

Under clouds, Billy Lee Riley delivered his signature Sun Studio rockabilly sound at the Cellular South Stage on Sunday afternoon.

"Here I am," offered a breathless Billy Lee Riley, "73 years old and acting like a kid." So began the final day of the Beale Street Music Festival, as the Sun Records veteran kicked off the proceedings with a set on the Cellular South Stage.

Clad in an eye-catching Kelly green jacket and playing his 12th consecutive Music Fest, the perfectly coiffed Riley emerged vamping to Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right Mama" and then charged headlong into his own "Flying Saucers Rock and Roll."

As Riley reminisced about his early days at Sun, one couldn't help but consider his place as the label's lost giant. A true multi-threat, he possessed the myriad musical gifts of Carl Perkins, the unhinged spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis, and the punkish insouciance of Elvis Presley, yet fate never rewarded Riley beyond cult acclaim. "The rest," he said, letting the words hang in the air, "is history."

If Riley didn't quite slay old ghosts, he did remind everyone that it is he -- with apologies to Lewis -- who's truly the last man standing, delivering an energetic and warmly received set to a crowd that included a mix of both old and young, as well as a large contingent of the singer's family and friends.

Riley's effort was aided by a well-chosen set list -- which pulled together nuggets from his catalog including "Got the Water Boiling," "Rock With Me Baby" and "I'm Him" -- and a crack backing band, anchored by longtime foil and fellow Sun alum, drummer J.M. Van Eaton.

Mid-set, Riley paused to pay tribute to his long-gone label-mate Warren Smith, telling a story about the last time the two performed together at a festival in France. Reading the lyrics from a music stand, Riley made his first ever attempt at singing Smith's "Rock 'n' Roll Ruby." The moment proved a powerful reminder that the members of rock's first generation are an increasingly endangered species.

Cloudy skies began to threaten as Riley broke out a harmonica for a mournful version of "Repossession Blues." Later, he added a gospel glint to the opening incantation of "Good Rockin' Tonight," then really came alive during "Flip, Flop & Fly," before capping things with his signature number "Red Hot."

It would seem that the weather gods enjoy rockabilly cats far more than jam bands. A torrential downpour hit just as Indiana hippie-prog outfit Umphrey's McGee began their set following Riley.

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