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Billy Lee Riley

Saturday, December 20; Off Broadway

Listening to the handful of sides Billy Lee Riley cut for Sun Records in the late '50s, you hear what can only be described as fierce frivolity, a what-the-hell-let's-see-what-happens joy that cuts through the formula Sam Phillips was prescribing for every hillbilly (Riley was born a sharecropper's son in Pocahontas, Arkansas) that walked through his door. Sure, it didn't hurt Riley to have Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, but Lewis hadn't established himself yet, and as Riley tells the story, it was his idea to get Lewis in on the sessions. Riley was 24 and, like most hillbilly kids, had no intention of helping build the foundations of rock & roll, but lay a few stone-cold rockers he did. He and his band, the Little Green Men, were good enough to become the house musicians at Sun; in short, they were one of rock & roll's first true bands.

Riley's biggest hits still sound risky, edgy and strangely alive today. With a B-movie, sci-fi guitar sound; demented, not quite random howls; and the most primordial drumming not to appear on a Bo Diddley record, "Flyin' Saucers Rock 'n' Roll" imagines the rockabilly revolution as a fairly threatening alien invasion. Riley's lyrical hook must have sounded like the greatest inside joke to every teenager in the Union: "I couldn't understand a thing they said/It was the crazy beat just knocking me dead." "Red Hot" is only slightly less novel, but no less frenzied or fun, in part because Roland Janes lays down torrid electric leads (take that, Scotty Moore!), and the Killer pumps the piano like, well, a killer. And then there's Riley's voice: Range isn't his forte, but he doesn't catch and hiccup like an Elvis wannabe; he snarls and growls like a caged animal with the key in his teeth. True, 45 years have passed since those wildly catchy sides, but Riley, who turned 70 this year, remains a delightful showman and genuine rocker. Get good and greasy and go.

 
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