Obscure 1950's Rockers
Billy Lee Riley, Charlie Feathers, Warren Smith
Red Hot - Hidden Treasures from the Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll
by Chris Wheatley
Many music historians have tried to pin down the exact moment when the first 'true' rock 'n' roll performance was recorded. In reality, nothing comes from nothing and, like any artistic subject, the closer you look, the more complex a picture emerges. The roots of the revolution (and the new music truly was revolutionary) grew from the mixing and merging of various pre-existing strands. If its ancestry can be charted though, exactly what it was that made records such as Elvis' ‘That's Alright Mama" so breathtakingly different can be hard to explain, especially to a modern audience brought up on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Rock 'n' Roll shook up the musical landscape to an unparalleled extent. It took the naked core of the blues, married it to the rolling, ancient-sounding rhythms of Country and that which, in those unenlightened days, was popularly termed ‘Race' music. Crucially though, it added something never before heard in popular music; a swaggering, insouciant braggadocio and a prowling, brazen, sexuality. It enabled a freedom of expression that, up until then, was firmly closeted behind a veil of conservative 'decency.'
Of the many stars who flamed into life during the latter half of the 1950's, Sam Phillip's tiny Sun Records was the launching pad and creative center for some of the brightest. Sam's most famous ‘sons,' Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, followed very different paths with different endings, but dig a little deeper into the archive of the studio's recordings and there is a lot of hidden treasure to be found. This article provides a brief introduction to three incendiary artists who, for one reason or another, never quite found the fame of their legendary contemporaries.
Billy Lee Riley
Born October 5th, 1933, in Pocahontas, Arkansas, Billy Lee Riley, like so many of the first crop of rockers, grew up on a diet of country music and the blues. The former he absorbed from radio, the latter first hand from the cotton fields and from neighbour's porches. By the age of twelve, he was adept at both guitar and harmonica.
After a four-year stint in the army, Riley returned to Memphis where he joined a local country band with Jack Clement and Slim Wallace. When Clement took an acetate of one of their tracks to Sam Phillip's for mastering, Sam was so impressed that he offered Clement a job as producer and Billy Lee a recording contract.
A good-looking young kid with a frenetic stage presence, scathing vocal delivery and red hot guitar, Riley seemed to have it all. As well as releasing his solo work, Phillip's recruited Billy to what effectively became the Sun ‘house' band, a talented group who provided the impressive backing for many important Sun singles of the late ‘50's, including recordings by Perkins, Cash, Orbison and Lewis.
Riley's first Sun single, the self-penned "Trouble Bound," released September 1st, 1956, was a laid-back mid-tempo number with a heavy blues undertow (reflected in the lyrics) featuring a restrained, but ringing, eight bar guitar solo. It is his recording of "Red Hot" however, released early 1957, that earned him a place in the pantheon of rock 'n' roll heroes. With snarling vocals, slashing guitar and propelled by the driving piano of Jerry Lee Lewis, "Red Hot" is rightly regarded as a classic.
Highly prized by collectors and inspired by the ‘50's UFO explosion, Billy's most successful recording was "Flying Saucer Rock 'n' Roll" (released under the name: Billy Lee Riley and the Little Green Men). Again featuring Jerry Lee Lewis, the track kicks off with a striking guitar intro, then leaps forward with propulsive rhythm, start-stop dynamics and more of Riley's excellent fretwork.
Despite his talent, Riley's singles fell short of any commercial impact (incredibly, "Red Hot" failed to chart). Riley, who, rightly or wrongly, blamed Sam Phillips for failing to provide him with the backing and promotion he deserved, parted ways with Sun records and in '62. He moved to LA, where he worked as a valued session musician, performing alongside such luminaries as the Beach Boys, John Prine and Wilson Pickett. Sometime in the early seventies, Riley quit music altogether, moved back to Arkansas and began working in the construction industry.
In 1978, both "Red Hot" and "Flying Saucer Rock 'n' Roll" were released as cover versions by, respectively, Robert Gordon and Link Wray, the success of which led to Billy's return as a full-time performer. Billy was ‘rediscovered' for a third time in 1992, by no less a person than Bob Dylan, a self-professed life-long fan, who tracked down his idol to request that he open for him at his show in Little Rock.
Billy died on August 2nd, 2009, after a battle with cancer, aged 75, but not before releasing several albums of new material, including 1997s Grammy-nominated Hot Damn! "It's just being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people," he is quoted as saying. "I've come real close to some hits, but I've never been able to break through."
A gloriously eccentric vocalist, the self-mythologizing Charlie Feathers (born June 12th, 1932) was another Sam Phillips discovery who worked as a session musician on many Sun releases, as well as recording under his own name. In later years, Feathers astonishingly claimed to have brought Elvis to Sun, arranged his single "Blue Moon of Kentucky," taught Buddy Holly his distinctive hiccup-style vocals and to have had a big hand in Carl Perkin's "Blue Suede Shoes."
What is beyond doubt is that Feathers was an accomplished and exciting performer, with a great vocal delivery. Sam Phillips described Charlie as an amazing talent but "difficult to work with," which may have been something of an understatement. Whatever the dynamics of their relationship, Feathers had great respect for Phillip's and the Sun sound, describing his later moves to Meteor and then King Records as "like going from a Cadillac to a Chevrolet."
Sam and Charlie certainly produced some memorable country-tinged music. Songs such as "Peepin Eyes," "Defrost Your Heart" and "I've Been Deceived" display Feather's solid honky-tonk and bluegrass roots, gliding by with an easy charm and virtuosity. His voice is swaggering and striking, brash and confident. It is arguable that after parting ways with Sun, Charlie never quite recaptured that magic.
That's not to say he didn't produce some fine post-Phillip's recordings. Charlie's more up-tempo tracks for King Records, in particular, have since passed into rock 'n' roll legend. His hiccuping, whoops and hollers are perfectly suited to the material. Standout numbers from this time include the excellent "Bottle To The Baby" and "One Hand Loose," a rollicking pair of songs with some first class guitar-picking, subtly swinging rhythms and great vocals.
Another favorite of Bob Dylan, who played Feather's records on his Theme Time Radio Hour, Charlie's fortunes largely waned during the 1960's, but in the final year of that decade, he released a new single, "Stutterin' Cindy," a truly glorious return to form. He was also included in Elektra's American Explorer series for a self-titled album in 1991 that proved to a strong later-day entry in his catalog.
Despite failing health, Feathers continued to record and perform until his death on August 29th, 1998. He may never have reached the heights that he thought, with bitterness, that he deserved, but Charlie left behind a legacy of some of the greatest rock ‘n' roll ever committed to wax.
A Mississippi native who moved to Arkansas after a stint in the US Air Force, Smith came to the attention of Sam Phillip's through steel guitarist Stan Kesler, another Sun house band alumni. Phillip's was impressed enough to take the kid on and Warren's first Sun single, "Rock 'n' Roll Ruby," was released on March 25th, 1956. It sounds as fresh and exciting today as it must have half a century ago. The backing is first class, the four-bar piano break strident, and Smith's vocals elevate the song to another level. By July, the single had racked up sales of close to seventy thousand, out-performing even the debut cuts of Elvis and Jerry Lee.
Smith's second disc for sun comprised "Black Jack David" as the A-side and "Ubangi Stomp" on the flip. "Black Jack David," a mid-tempo old English song, is a lovely recording, with strong folk lyrics, strong guitar and Buddy Holly-esque backing. Despite its questionable lyrics, "Ubangi Stomp" rocks hard, with a fantastic vocal performance from Smith and wonderful intertwining guitar and piano. While these are both fine cuts, however, they fell well short of Smith's debut in terms of sales.
In February 1957, desperate for another hit, Smith recorded the Orbison-penned "So Long I'm Gone." Another mid-tempo rocker with a great tune and musicianship, it had bags of commercial potential. It did indeed sell well upon release, but here is where Smith ran of luck. Sun's new superstar, Jerry Lee Lewis, had recently gotten a big break with a TV appearance on the Steve Allen Show, performing his second Sun single, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On." Lee was sensational, in a legendary performance that culminated with the firebrand singer rising and kicking his piano-stool clear across the stage while hammering the keys as if possessed.
The resultant demand for "Whole Lotta Shakin'" was unprecedented. Sam Phillips, with the small resources available to him, took the decision to focus solely on meeting that demand, effectively ending Smith's chance of a hit. It was a story to be revisited when Smith's next single, "Got Love If You Want It," had to compete with, of all things, Lee's classic "Great Balls Of Fire." Smith continued to cut sides for Sun, which, although artistically excellent (including "Goodbye Mr. Love," which featured Billy Lee Riley on guitar) provided diminishing returns in terms of sales.
Inevitably, Smith and Sun Records parted company. Smith enjoyed some success recording straight country tunes, however a serious automobile accident in ‘65 led to a years' lay-off and this, combined with a spiraling addiction to drugs and alcohol, eventually lead to an eighteen-month spell in prison.
Smith's career was boosted in the mid-seventies by the rockabilly revival and, in April ‘77, in a concert at London's Rainbow Theatre, appearing alongside Charlie Feathers among others, Smith, to his astonishment, received a standing ovation from the appreciative British crowd. He returned again in November of that year, to great success, but a planned third appearance the following April never came to be. Warren Smith tragically died of a heart attack on January 31th, 1978, at the age of just 47.
Taken together, these three artists produced a body of work of astounding quality and historic importance. While Sun's 'Big Four' may have gained the fame, Smith, Riley and Feathers remain vital landmarks on the route-map of rock 'n' roll.
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