Country music in the 1940s and 1950s was often called hillbilly music. With the emergence of rock and roll in the early 1950s, there was a fusion of rock, hillbilly, Western Swing, blues, and boogie woogie known as rockabilly. His most popular singers included Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran.
Rockabilly faded during the British invasion of the 1960s, although groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and The Who covered some of the classics. The 1970s, a decade of disco and punk rock, saw a rockabilly renaissance sparked by artists like Dave Edmunds and Robert Gordon. Gordon’s 1977 version of “Red Hot”, which achieved some success, inspired Brian Setzer to form Stray Cats, which sold millions with rockabilly hits in the 1980s that had their roots in the 1950s.
In 1956, rockabilly pioneer Billy Lee Riley signed with Sam Phillips’ Sun Records and joined a group of artists that included Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins. Billy Riley and the Little Green Men (guitarist Roland Janes, bassist Marvin Pepper, and drummer JM Van Eaton) became Sun’s house rhythm section. The group played behind Jerry Lee Lewis on all of their Sun hits; In turn, Lewis is heard playing the piano on Riley’s two best-known tracks: 1957’s “Flyin ‘Saucers Rock & Roll” (a Ray Scott tune that inspired the name “Little Green Men”) and “Red Hot. “.
While “Red Hot” is often associated with Riley, the track was written and recorded in 1955 by Billy “The Kid” Emerson, a Sun singer-songwriter whose version had little success. Emerson was reportedly inspired to write “Red Hot” after hearing cheerleaders at a Florida soccer game yell, “Our team is red hot, your team is not squatting.”
Riley put his own stamp on “Red Hot” with a stronger delivery that’s more rock than Emerson’s original in the field. Riley was convinced that “Red Hot” would be the success that would make him a national star. A promise from the greatest disc jockey of the time appeared to guarantee his success.
While traveling with his band in Canada, Riley on a bet decided to call DJ Alan Freed and ask to join an upcoming tour. Riley contacted Freed on WINS radio in New York City and learned that “Red Hot” was blowing up across the country; Freed told Riley that he had a hit on his hands and that he could join the tour.
Excited, Riley called Sam Phillips of Sun Records with the good news. Philips told Riley to return to Nashville to record another single before the tour.
Upon his return, Riley learned that Phillips had contacted Alan Freed’s manager and that Jerry Lee Lewis replaced Riley on the tour. Phillips had also canceled record dealer orders for tens of thousands of copies of “Red Hot.” Instead, Phillips would send “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee.
Riley was understandably furious; he stormed into Sun Studio in a drunken rage and trashed the studio. But for Sam Phillips, the decision to promote Jerry Lee over Riley was just a business. As a small record company, Phillips said, Sun could only afford to promote one artist at a time.
“I had to take the only artist that I felt at the time who could really make it to the top. And that cat back then was Lewis.”