Billy Lee Riley, one of the Sun Records legends of the ’50s, has fashioned a disc which triumphantly recalls the distinctive sounds of two other influential labels from that era, Vee-Jay and Excello.
In recent years Riley has been inaccurately labeled a rockabilly, yet a closer look at his work reveals more of a kinship with R&B and blues than country music. His best known Sun recordings, “Red Hot” and “Flying Saucers Rock’n’Roll,” were hot tongue-in-cheek ravers in the Little Richard fashion. Such later regional successes as “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” and his cover of “In the Midnight Hour” were also drawn from the realm of blues and soul. Unlike most of his contemporaries (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, etc.) who eventually gravitated towards country music, whenever Riley had an artistic statement to make he has always turned to the blues.
The Arkansas-born Riley’s third all-blues album, Shade Tree Blues, outstrips his Grammy-nominated Hot Damn with respect to production sense and easy groove. Taking his fondness for the works of Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, et al., into the Sun Studios in Memphis, Riley does a remarkable job achieving the seductive swing and intimacy of their finest sides while asserting his own identity as a bluesman. Riley’s harmonica playing may seem more sophisticated than either Reed’s or Harpo’s, but it captures much of the same expressive feel.
The studio chemistry between Riley and engineer/guitar ace James Lott is undeniably strong. Whether they trade evocative lead spots or carom swooning slide fills around tart electric solos, the effect is eloquent yet loose and appealing.
Vocally, Riley sounds great from the get-go. The a cappella intro on “Gonna Bring It On Home To You” is chillingly effective, and his understated vibrato effectively implies all manner of deep emotion. Slow numbers such as “Without You Baby” and “Dark Clouds Rollin’” benefit greatly from his use of subtle dramatic irony and rueful humor. The mid-tempo shuffles “I Don’t Know,” “I Hear You Knockin’,” “Wild Cat Tamer” and “Little Piece at a Time” shudder with playful tension and release. He imbues Big Bill Broonzy’s “Gonna Worry You Off My Mind” and Junior Parker’s “What Goes On in the Dark” with palpable sensuality and sly suspicion, ratcheting simple tales of domestic discord into moving paeans of guilt and paranoia.
Shade Tree Blues is one of Riley’s most inspired efforts and should please both his rock’n’roll fans and the more discerning blues crowd. For those who dig collectibles, Riley will be personally hand-numbering and autographing the first 1000 discs.