Back in October of 1918 in Wilmington, North Carolina, the world
welcomed a new talent, Richard Riley Shepard. His middle name was taken
from his paternal grandfather.
He went to school for only a few years, attending first through fifth
grades. It was common in that era for children to quit school at an
early age and help earn a bit extra income for the family. From that
point on, Riley was self-educated.
By the time he was twelve years old, he took to learning to play the guitar,
though he thinks perhaps not too well then. The songs he learned to sing
and play were from the phonograph records and radio programs he listened to.
In his professional biography, he notes that he began his career when he
was just thirteen years old. That initial effort as an entertainer was more
comedic in nature, than music. He did funny songs, parodies of the hit tunes
of the day and comic monologues (perhaps somewhat similar to today's stand-up
comedians). He mimicked the comics he saw in various traveling medicine shows -
blacking his face to become the character of "Lanky Bill".
His talents got him a short 15 minute daily show on the local radio station
and found him traveling from town to town and doing personal appearances
around the station's listening area.
During that time, radio station WPTF in Raleigh, North Carolina - a station
that carried quite a variety of hillbilly music acts at the time, gave Riley
a brief trial.
Around 1934, he found himself in Charlotte, North Carolina. He had his sights
on the big 50,000 watt station that broadcast many popular hillbilly music
programs as well. He may not have gotten a regular program, but station
management did arrange for him to entertain their listeners as a guest
performer several times. He parlayed those guest spots into various
personal appearances in the Charlotte area, such as school auditoriums
and organizational halls, the typical entertainment venues of that day. In
those days, performers found that getting the air time to be heard by a wide audience
gave them a recognition factor that led to the more lucrative personal appearances.
He continued to work on his entertainment skills. He worked eith the Bert Bertram Players,
doing comedy and acting work. This was a traveling 'tent-repretory' group. Riley notes
that Mr. Bertram and his wife were actors from England. They gave Riley small parts
in several of their plays. His role also included entertaining the audiences
during the interludes between acts. Riley acknowledges he learned quite a bit during
During that era, radio station WBT's cast included such artists as J. E. Mainer
and his band, that included Wade Mainer and Zeke Mainer. The Carlisle Brothers,
Bill and Cliff were there as well.
In 1935, Riley found himself in Columbia, South Carolina where he hooked up with Ollie
Bunn, 'Daddy' John Love and Clarence Todd. The group found an audience over
radio station WIS. Riley used the name "Lanky Bill" and would do vocal solos, usually
funny songs. The group called themselves "The Dixie Reelers". The radio listening
audience could tune them in each day at noon; their show was sponsored by the infamous
Crazy Water Crystals.
We skip a few years perhaps and find that Riley was working in the Chicago area.
This may be around the middle 1940s. Viola Myers wrote of Riley in her "Conrbelt
Comments" column for the magazine Mountain Broadcast and Prairie Recorder in the
February-March 1947 issue that Riley was in the Calumet Region (Northwest Indiana)
for a time and she had known him but he had moved to the west coast.
But before he moved west, it seems his talents had become known elsewhere. He
got a letter from Jesse Rodgers inviting him to Philadelphia and help manage
Jesse's career. A short time later, he was invited to join the cast of the show,
Hayloft Hoedown that aired over WFIL on the Blue network,
now known as ABC. Riley mentions the reason he left Chicago then was due
to a meeting he had over breakfast with Gene Autry, Roy Acuff, Fred Rose
and Art Satherly - all to be legends themselves in country music's history.
The urged him to go to the New York City area, and see what he could do to
promote their type of music - then it was called hillbilly music. They convinced
him and promised him they would support him as much as they could.
It was around that time he decided to drop the pseudonym of Dick Scott and begin
to use his own name, Riley Shepard.
He noted that it took a while to train the journalists of that era to spell his
name correctly. A Billboard article in the September 15, 1945 issue refers
to him as Reilly Shepard. That little mention of him notes that he was known
previously as Dick Scott, president of the American Federation of Folk
Artists. He saw his last name spelled with different variations as well, such
as Sheppard or Shepherd, but he muses, he didn't really care. He didn't think
much of fame for fame's sake.
We learn also that while he was a member of the Hayloft Hoedown, the cast
included such stars as Shorty Long, Rusty Keefer and Pete and Elmer Newman,
who were part of the Sleepy Hollow Ranch Gang. He lived in New York City
while he was on that show; he would travel to Philadelphia each Friday to
take part in the rehearsals, then do the show on Saturday nights when it aired.
Riley Shepard was a versatile entertainer and songwriter as well. In the
early days of country music, it was common for an artist or songwriter to take
on different names to earn more money. Riley used many pseudonyms both as
a performer and as a writer.
As a performer, he was known as "Lanky Bill", a black-face character he
entertained audiences as in the middle 1930s. He was known as Dick Scott,
Hicky Free, Klym Hawley, Johnny Rebel, Dickson Hall and Riley Cooper.
Fans will find he also used various pseudonyms in his musical composing work such
as Jean Gilmore, Dick Gleason, Paul Lester, Richard Alexander, ALbert Reilly,
Jo Graham, Richard James (Hauck), Ben Thomas, Zachary Quill and more.
In 1946, we find mention of him in an article about another well-known WBT performer,
Fred Kirby. At that time, Mr. Kirby had a big hit song, "Atomic Power" that was
being covered by several artists, including Riley on the Musicraft label.
While on the Hayloft Hoedown, he met up with an singer and songwriter
by the name of Dick Thomas. He had signed a recording contract with National Records
and had just recorded a tune that was getting a lot of attention. Dick at the time
was a bit unsure about the song publishing business and asked Riley to help
him out. Riley gave Dick his advice and helped steer him to a reliable publishing
In a biography of sorts, Riley tells the reader why he used so many pseudonyms during
his career. Basically, he did it for the challenge it presented to him. He wanted
to see if he could build a 'name' for a previously unheard of performer or writer.
And time after time, he found success and satisfaction.
It may take a while to actually document all of the companies he recorded for, but he
notes they included: Banner, Columbine, Coral, Crest, Eagle, Epic, Guest Star,
Kapp, King, London, Majestic, Mark, MGM, Musicraft, National, Paragon,
Rainbow, Roultette, Sight & Sound, Signature, Sterling, Strand and 20th-Century Fox.
His songs have been placed with such publishing companies as AMerican, Belafonte,
Bob Miller, Bourne, Box and Cox, Burke and Van Husen, Catsos, Chas. K. Harris, Choice
Cybervoc, Duchess, E. B. Marks, Edward H. Morris, Goodman, Lawson-Gould, Leeds,
Leo Fiest, Libra, Mills, MCA< Overbrok, Peer International, Ridgeway, Shapiro-Bernstein,
Sight & Sound and Southern.
Credits & Sources
- Hillbilly-Music.com wishes to thank Stacya Shepard Silverman, his daughter, for providing
us with information, articles and pictures about her father, Riley Shepard and his career.
- Mountain Broadcast & Prairie Recorder; February-March 1947;
- Mountain Broadcast & Prairie Recorder; December 1946;
- Mountain Broadcast & Prairie Recorder;