Billy Lee Riley remembered
By Lacy Mitchell - Batesville (Arkansas) Daily Guard Newspaper/September 2, 2009
NEWPORT, Arkansas - For some the journey was short, for others it was long, for many, however, it was worth it.
As family, friends, fans and fellow musicians gathered at the Silver Moon Club in Newport on Sunday to honor late Sun-recording artist Billy Lee Riley, one thing was clear to club owner Grant Brinsfield.
The Silver Moon in Newport, Arkansas
Aside from Elvis Presley's performances here in 1955, "Newport hasn't seen anything like this in 50 years," he said with a laugh, standing outside the new Silver Moon that was built in 1987 after a fire destroyed the original building in 1986.
Just feet from the present-day club pieces of rock, concrete and tile flooring are all that remain of the Silver Moon that was built in the late 1930s and played host to many travelling musicians throughout the years, including Riley, Harold "Conway Twitty" Jenkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
These days it's part of the parking lot, and on the afternoon of Aug. 30 there was hardly a parking spot to be found as more than 400 people turned out for the benefit, which raised more than $6,000 for Riley's family.
For Joe Beutner and Terri Barr of Tomahawk, Wis., it was something that even tickets to a St. Louis Cardinals game couldn't stop them from attending.
Fans of Riley and his peers, it was Beutner who read about the benefit on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame Web site. Putting the ball game in Missouri on hold, the two continued their venture on to Newport and the Silver Moon located along the newly renamed Rock'n'Roll Highway 67.
"It took 900 miles exactly," said Beutner, wearing a blue Billy Lee Riley memorial T-shirt, as Barr, wearing a Sun Records T-shirt, stood near his side.
Both agreed it was all worth it to be part of an event that was also a celebration of music and included performances by former Sun recording artists Sonny Burgess and the Pacers, Carl Mann, Sleepy LaBeef, Sun session drummer and one of Riley's "Little Green Men" J.M. Van Eaton, saxophonist Ace Cannon, Johnny Cash's original drummer, W.S. Holland, as well as Little Rock native of "Susie-Q" fame Dale Hawkins.
Sonny Burgess Dale Hawkins Carl Mann
Larry Donn, Teddy Riedell (back to camera) and W.S. Holland backstage
Sleepy LaBeef and Jim Aldridge (with the legendary Pacers)
J.M. Van Eaton
"I grew up listening to these guys," Beutner said while outside.
While the couple saw Riley and his "Red Hot" performances several times at the annual Green Bay Rockin' 50s Fest in Wisconsin and other venues across the country, Barr said Riley, who often donned brightly colored sport coats and black and white loafers onstage, was always a "down-to-Earth" kind of guy whenever she and Beutner had conversations with him.
However, Riley's death at the age of 75 on Aug. 2 is something hard for Beutner to imagine when asked about how he felt upon hearing the news. "I could get tears in my eyes," he said.
Following his performance, Mann, who had a million seller with "Mona Lisa" on Sam Phillips' Sun label in 1959, said, "Billy Lee was a favorite of mine ... I used to do just about every one of his songs."
While a bittersweet day without Riley there to join him and others including "Cooter" (actor Ben Jones) and the "General Lee" from TV's "The Dukes of Hazzard," Mann said he was proud to have been a part of the musical celebration. It was also something he thought Riley, who also had hits with "Flyin' Saucers Rock & Roll" and "Trouble Bound," would have also enjoyed.
"I am just proud that we could all get together and help Joyce (Riley's wife) out," he said.
Even though there were plans to hold a benefit for Riley before his death, Mann said when he called Burgess to tell him the news that Riley had passed away, it was agreed that the show must go on, and would go on, to honor him and help his family with medical bills and other expenses.
"We wanted to do what we could to help," he said.
Rockin' Luke LeWolfe Stroud
Rockin' Luke LeWolfe Stroud, a Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano player/vocalist, closed the benefit show with "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin'." He was backed by Jeannie (drummer/vocalist Jean Hendrix) & the Guys (bass player Doug Greeno and lead guitarist Marcus Graddy) and Arkansas state legislator J.R. Rogers. (It was Rogers who introduced and pushed through legislation that designated the highway outside Rock'n'Roll 67 Highway.)
Meanwhile, fan and performer Teddy "Thunderbird" Hill of Sweden said being at Newport meant "the world."
"This day history is made," he said while mingling outside among the crowd. "Most of these people have been my heroes for 50 years or more."
As a fan of Riley's and other early rock'n'rollers since before high school, Johnny Sandberg, who arranged the Newport/Memphis trip for himself and others from Sweden, agreed.
"I know all these guys from collecting records," Sandberg said. What's hard is choosing a favorite.
"I couldn't make a list," he said, adding that he enjoys "all the guys from Sun Records."
"I love the music. This music."
From halfway across the world or 900 miles from Wisconsin, for Barr, there was no other place to be on a Sunday afternoon than in Newport, Ark.
"Music is worth traveling for," she said, smiling.
*Posted here with permission from the Batesville Daily Guard newspaper