Pocahontas native and Sun Records great Billy Lee Riley, who'd been battling cancer since May, died early Sunday, Aug. 2, at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro. He was 75.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal summed up Riley's gifts aptly in an obit on Sunday.
“Riley is considered by many to be Sun Records' 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.”
Fate or, some might argue, Sam Phillips. Sun Records enjoyed a hit with Riley's atomic age classic “Flying Saucers Rock ‘n' Roll” in 1957, but just as Riley's follow-up, “Red Hot,” began to gain steam, Sun and Phillips put all their promotional might behind Jerry Lee Lewis' “Great Balls of Fire.”
Despite that setback, Riley continued to record for years, with Sun for a time, then with Mercury, Atlantic, Hip and his own Rita and Mojo labels. In the ‘60s, Riley moved to the West Coast and became in-demand session man, playing on recordings by the likes of the Beach Boys, Dean Martin, John Prine and Wilson Pickett.
More recently, Riley made his home in Newport, recording occasionally and touring often in the festival circuit. In March, he and Sonny Burgess played Juanita's.
There'll be a Billy Lee Riley Memorial Benefit show on Sunday, Aug. 30, at the Silver Moon Club in Newport, beginning at 1 p.m. It'll feature an all-star line-up: Sonny Burgess and the Pacers, WS Holland and his band, Travis Wammack, Carl Mann, Smoochy Smith, Ace Cannon and his band, JR Rogers, Warren Crow, JM VanEaton, Dale Hawkins, CW Gattin, Teddy Reidel, Jeannie and the Guys and more.
Last Saturday, almost four years to the day Jeff Jenkins opened the late-night club 2720 in Hot Springs, he celebrated the end of the road with a big anniversary bash.
“For years we rock ‘n' rolled,” said Jenkins, 29, last week by phone. “We always made our profits from tourists. We were the number one recommended place by local hotels and restaurants. When the economy fell off and gas prices went up, trips here got tough, and there's not enough locals to support a place this big with tourism down like this.”
So Jenkins is cutting his losses, packing up his audio and lighting equipment (which he maintains is the best in the region) and returning to Little Rock, where he grew up. He plans to take it easy for a while, before opening a new late-night club in Little Rock. As soon as early next year, he hopes.
Through a local club owner, he's already got an angle on one of those much in-demand Class B private club licenses that allow clubs to remain open until 5 a.m., he said.
Jenkins wouldn't reveal a location or a name, but said the new space will be in the 18,000- to 22,000-square-foot range with multiple levels. He also said the event planning and concept will be similar to 2720. The decor, on the other hand, will be different, but similarly simple, modern and clean, he said.
More concrete, he said, are his plans to open FX Pros, a high-end audio and visual effects showroom, likely in the Heights before the end of the year. There, he'll sell intelligent lighting, VJ equipment, high-end stereo equipment and the like.
Tickets to the much-anticipated concert by the Gossip (two thirds from White County) at Vino's on Oct. 30 are on sale now at vinosbrewpub.com. They're $15 in advance, with a $3 service charge. There will be a limited number available day of at the door for $20, too, but those, we're betting, will require you to skip work to stand in line.