Billy Joe Riley: Maybe somebody remembers the melodies he wrote; or the sound of his voice in song
The Rhythm Rascals, from left, Jim McMorris, Bill Riley and Herb Powell. 1953 calendar contributed by Carolyn Burroughs Riley.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
In an old, converted barn, west of Oakwood, located south on Paris Gravel Road near the Marion/Ralls county line, members of the Hannibal Kiwanis Club gathered together on one particular night in the 1950s for an evening of good food, lively music and entertainment.
An undated newspaper clipping, from the scrapbook kept by Hannibal musician Billy Joe Riley, describes the merriment that took place in the old barn, converted as it was into a nightclub.
A box supper was prepared by the Maryland Hotel, 316 Broadway, and the chicken dinners were auctioned off by Col. Francis Owen Drake, popular sale crier and area well driller, who lived nearby at 3816 Tilden Ave.
Music and vocal selections were offered during the dinner by (Bill) Riley’s Rhythm Rascals, and later the same musicians provided the music for square dancing. The dance caller was John K. Morris.
Mrs. Russell (Vera) Rhino was in charge of the games played that evening at “The Barn.”
John Kretzer presented a movie, “Wheels Through Africa.”
Earl Davis was chairman of this special program.
Committee members were: Clarence Deason, Jack Capps, Bill Baumgartner, Audie Barnett and John Abrams.
Brush with fame
Billy Joe Riley rubbed shoulders with many country musicians of his era during his decade-plus stint as leader of a band based right here in Hannibal, “Bill Riley and His Rhythm Rascals.”
In business from the late 1940s, when Bill Riley was still a teen-ager, up until the early 1960s, the Rascals performed primarily in Northeast Missouri, reaching out to audiences as far away as Fulton, Jefferson City, and Perry in Ralls County.
Traveling in the same circles as local celebrity singer Ambrose Haley, the Rascals got to know legends of the era while on the road, including in Hannibal.
Musical greats associated with the Grand Ole Opry toured the midwest during the week, then returned to Nashville for their regular Saturday night stint at the Opry. These tours brought the likes of Oakie Jones and Little Jimmy Dickens, among others, onto the Rascals’ home turf.
Oakie Jones, born in 1930 at Fort Worth, Texas, is remembered for such hits as “Hillbilly Bess,” 1951; “Love Fever,” 1951; “Warm Warm Kisses,” 1952; “Could You, Would You,” 1956; and “How Could You,” 1956. He died in 2017.
Little Jimmy Dickens, standing at just 4-foot-11, was born in 1920 in West Virginia, and joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1948. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1983. He died in 2015. He recorded under the labels of Columbia Records, Decca Records and United Artists Records.
Another regional artist during the same era:
Monte Davidson, Mt. Pleasant, Mo., spent the Easter holidays in 1950 touring through Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama. He won second prize in an amateur show by singing and playing “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy,” according to a note in the Daily Capital News on April 12, 1950.
Billy Joe Riley was born circa 1930 to Gilbert Franklin Riley (1912-1955) and Opal Mary Hightower Riley (1909-1995). Gilbert Riley was a telegrapher for the Wabash Railroad, and in 1940 was living at Hersman, Brown County, Ill., where he worked as a depot agent.
The family moved to Hannibal in the late 1940s, where they occupied a house at 3906 New London Road. This house had previously been owned by Eugene Herring, a real estate broker and justice of the peace for Clay Township, Ralls County.
Upon moving to Hannibal, Billy Joe enrolled at Tilden School, 4000 Market St., which was located near his family home.
When Billy Joe Riley and Rosemary Esther Harvey were married in 1950, they settled in with his parents, and they would remain in this house to raise their own family.
Nearby neighbors of the Riley family in 1953 included:
Elmer S. Myers, a Hannibal public school teacher who would later serve as Hannibal High School principal. He and his wife, Trudis, lived at 3904 New London Road in 1953.
Clyde Priest and his wife, Mary, lived at 3930 New London Road. He operated a milk delivery service.
The 1950 census lists Billy Joe Riley as a musician, as does the 1955 Hannibal city directory.
About the time of Gilbert Riley’s death in August 1955, both Billy Joe and Rosemary Riley went to work for Western Printing and Lithography. Billy Joe was a binderyman and his wife was an inspector. Billy Joe Riley continued with his band into the early 1960s, when it disbanded.
Once Western Publishing left town in 1973, Billy Joe and Rosemary Riley filled their employment void by opening an upholstery shop at 3908 New London Road. Long standing commercial customers included Lum’s Restaurant in the Huck Finn Shopping Center, and the Mark Twain Dinette.
They also brought a snow cone truck to Hannibal in the 1970s. Rosemary’s 2013 death notice describes it as a "Yellow Sno-cone Truck" which was the first sno-cone truck in town and well known on the streets of Hannibal.”
Billy Joe and Rosemary Riley were parents to five children:
Sons Jackie Gilbert Riley (1956-2010); Billy Gene Riley (born in 1955); Danny Joe Riley (1964-2005), and Zachary Michael Riley (living); and one daughter, Joyce Anne (Joy) Johnson (1951-1997). Billy Joe Riley died in September 1981.
Where they performed:
The Owl Club was on Highway 61 between Hannibal and New London. On Dec. 9, 1954, the manager was Ward Blackwell.
The Hill Top Inn, west of Hannibal on the old Highway 36.
The Ol’Smokey Drive-In at Perry, Mo., on Friday, April 25, 1952.
In Jeff City
At the same time that “Pat and Mike,” staring the legendary Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, was showing at “The ‘Cool’ Durwood Capitol” movie theatre in Jefferson City, Mo., the Midwestern Hillbilly Jamboree was offering live entertainment at the city’s Capitol Roller Rink, owned by John William Singen from 1940 to 1956.
The date for this musical event was Saturday, June 21, 1952. The country music began at 8 p.m., and tickets were just 50 cents.
Featured performer at the roller rink that evening was 20-year-old Billy Joe Riley of Hannibal, along with his band, the Rhythm Rascals. Band members included Herb Powell, who later served as agricultural editor for the Hannibal Courier-Post, and Jim McMorris.
Archie Hayden of Oakwood remembers “The Barn” on Paris Gravel Road. It was vacant during his years of childhood exploration in the 1960s. “As kids, it was closed, but we could see inside and there were all kinds of beer signs, etc.,” he said. “The Barn” was located approximately where Preferred Family Healthcare building is now located, 4355 Paris Gravel Road.
Many of the family artifacts were lost during the Flood of 1993. Also lost during the years were Billy Joe Riley's reel-to-reel recordings, and 45 records that he recorded.
Not only did Bill Riley and His Rhythm Rascals make live performances during the 1950s; but they also were radio stars. This advertisement states that the Rascals performed from 11:30 a.m. to noon every Saturday on KFAL Radio, Fulton. Courtesy of Billy Gene Riley.
This 1952 flyer announces that Riley’s Rhythm Racals would be performing at the Ol’Smokey Drive-In at Perry, Mo., on Friday, April 25, 1952. Courtesy of Billy Gene Riley.
This photo of an advertisement from the 1950s announces that Bill Riley and His Rhythm Rascals would be performing at the Hill Top Inn, west of Hannibal on the old Highway 36. Courtesy of Billy Gene Riley.
Riley’s Rhythm Rascals provided music for round and square dancing during the 1950s at 1927 Market. Courtesy of Billy Gene Riley.
Bill Riley and his band, The Rhythm Rascals provided entertainment during a fish fry on Wednesday, July 16, 1952, at the Old Smokey Drive-In, Perry, Mo. Mexico Ledger, July 16, 1952. newspapers.com
Bill Riley and His Rhythm Rascals performed Saturday, April 12, 1952, at the Hillbilly Jamboree State Show, Capitol Roller Rink, Monroe and Tanner Bridge Road, Jefferson City, Mo. This advertisement identifies The Rascals as Herb Powell and Jim McMorris. Others in the show were “Pop” Decker, Fred Miles, Bill Holliday Monte Davis, Benny Newark and Charlie Grant. Courtesy of Billy Gene Riley.
Little Jimmy Dickens, star performer for the Grand Ole Opry, is pictured with Herb Powell of Hannibal during the early 1950s. Powell performed with Bill Riley’s Rhythm Rascals. Powell is perhaps best remembered in Hannibal as agricultural editor for the Hannibal Courier-Post in the early 1970s. Powell’s wife, Viola Marie Newell Powell, sang with the “Alley Cats” for a number of years. Marie Powell died in 2010. Herb Powell died in 1988. Courtesy of Billy Gene Riley.
Bill Riley is pictured at left, with Dean Porter. "Courtesy of Billy Gene Riley, copyright”
Joel Paige. In Bill Riley’s photo album, four musicians are pictured with matching shirts, neck ties and stripped pants. Presumably, these musicians played together in one band. They are Joel Paige, Louis Dunn, Dean Porter and Gordon Flynn. Courtesy of Billy Gene Riley.
Pictured are, from left, Bill Riley, Jim McMorris and Charlie Grant. Courtesy of Billy Gene Riley.
Regional musicians during the 1950s included, Louis Dunn, left, and Herb Powell. Courtesy of Billy Gene Riley.
Regional musicians who rubbled shoulders with Bill Riley in the 1950s included Dean Porter, left, and Gordon Flynn, right. Courtesy of Billy Gene Riley.
Mary Lou Montgomery, retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on Amazon.com by this author include but are not limited to: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870,” and “Hannibal’s ‘West End,’” 47 stories of the Market Street Wedge and on west to Lindell Avenue. Montgomery can be reached at Montgomery.firstname.lastname@example.org Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com