He had no way of knowing it at the time, but 22-year-old Billy Lee Riley was playing a major role in the historical change that was taking place in the American music coming out of Memphis in the fifties. The man was in fact one of the original pioneers of rock 'n' roll. Bob Dylan has publicly proclaimed Billy to be one of his idols.
When the folk legend tracked Riley down in 1992 in Newport, Arkansas, and asked him to open a show for him in Little Rock, Arkansas, he introduced Riley onstage as "my hero," then stood alongside him - not singing, but smiling broadly - something Dylan is not known to do often in public. It was written in the local paper back then that Dylan had been trying to get in touch with Riley for years.
"Bob said I was his favorite singer and he had been looking for me since 1985 - he'd even been to my old house in Murfreesboro, Tennessee looking for me," says Riley. "He said he's always admired two of my songs, Trouble Bound and One More Time. He knew more about me than I did - he reminded me that I had recorded "Like A Rolling Stone" on guitar and harmonica on an instrumental album for Mercury Records in 1965. He even knew I cut a song under another name, Sweet William."
Dylan was quoted as saying after Riley's energetic performance (he asked Riley to open two more shows for him in Nashville the following year) that he was "a hard act to follow." In the early years, Billy Lee Riley was an act who was in demand on the road because of his "fire-eyed, hell-raising" rockabilly style. It was written in one review that "when Billy Lee hit the stage the crowds went wild, the girls screamed, and critics noticed."
Billy Lee Riley was born October 5, 1933 in
Pocahontas, Arkansas. Though he's been inducted into the Smithsonian
Institution as one of the pioneers of rock 'n' roll, and is being
considered for the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame, he has spent his 4
decade plus career in virtual obscurity.
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Bio from the
Billy Lee Riley page at Rockabilly IHOF