About The Artist
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 that time.
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 deal.
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
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