Sendoff for Sleepy Riley

West Side bass player died April 11

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By Bonni McKeown

The sound of Chicago's mighty blues shuffle comes from the bass player and drummer in the band. The rhythm section don't usually grab headlines, but without them, there is no Chicago blues.  Their reward is usually just a few bucks and the satisfaction of driving the music.  

When one of these talented West and South Siders leaves this world, musicians turn out in droves to honor them—as they did last Wednesday, April 18, for Michael Lenard "Sleepy" Riley at New Landmark Missionary Baptist Church at 2700 W. Wilcox.  To his friends and fans, Sleepy's spirit was in the church that day.  Rev. Cy Fields' eulogy was a sermon full of rhythms and shouts, and Bernard Crump and Bernell Anderson sang moving solos. The church band played extraordinary gospel selections and almost busted out with Sleepy's favorite song, Prince's "Purple Rain." Later that night at Lori Lewis's crowded memorial jam at the Water Hole lounge at 14th and Western, every bass player seemed to put out extra energy. 

Sleepy, who died April 11 after a long illness, was born in Chicago Sept. 30, 1959, the third of three children of Milton James Riley and Johnnie Mae Riley. Mrs. Riley said they moved here from Florida to a house where she still lives, up the street from New Landmark church where the family attends.  Sleepy worked for many years as a longshoreman along with his late father Milton and brother-in-law Willie Hudson. He and his wife Ella Murray, who died in 2016, were the parents of six children.  

Before he suffered a stroke in January 2017,  Sleepy was playing bass in the band of his uncle, the late saxophonist and singer Eddie Shaw who earlier played with Howlin' Wolf. Earlier in the 2000s Sleepy played in the All Star band with guitarists Brian Lupo and the late Willie Davis. 

Young Michael Riley grew up in a musical family. His mother, Eddie Shaw's sister, played piano, and he learned to play baritone horn in elementary school. Michael sang in the church choir and learned R&B tunes. His sister gave him a guitar at age 11, and he learned B.B. King licks. Sleepy formed a beginner band, the Dynamite Five, in 1972.  Then he formed the Peace Generation band with his neighbor, the late drummer Arthur "SamBo" Irby. SamBo, known for his singing harmonica imitations, died, also of a stroke, last year.

in an interview for the Aug.-Sept. 2006 issue of Big City Blues Magazine, Sleepy told me how the West Side was a big part of his music. He attended school at Mary Mapes Dodge Elementary and Richard T. Crane High.The West Side had many skating rinks which allowed teenage bands to practice live, the schools had music teachers and there were talent shows at Catholic school gyms.  Soon Sleepy and SamBo were playing at Peppers Lounge and other clubs even though under-age. 

As he grew to manhood, Sleepy played all the West Side clubs, like Eddie Shaw's 1815 Club, Duke's Blue Room, and Walker's. He played in clubs around the city with Tyrone Davis, BB King, Bobby Blue Bland, Clarence Carter, Johnnie Taylor.  He took up bass playing around the year 2000, finding it easier and more relaxing than the guitar.  He played on both  Larry Taylor's albums and went on tour with us to play in the Blues & Brews festival in Charleston, WV in 2005. 

Echoing the feelings of many West Side musicians, Sleepy told me in the 2006 interview, "We need more blues clubs in Chicago—the West Side, North Side and South Side. I'd try to make all of Chicago like Beale Street in Memphis. Now the North Side has most all the West Side clubs closed so they can get all the business. We need something like Sprag's—it used to be across from Wallace's Catfish Corner (now closed as well).  Tourists came there; the bands used to play til 5 a.m. and then everyone would go across the street and eat breakfast at Catfish Corner."

RIP Sleepy and may you play in the angel band.

 

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