The Jazzcat

Our Blessings to Herman Riley; Another Great Departed Hero of the Music

by on Apr.25, 2007, under News




Herman Riley, 73; master saxophonist

 Herman Riley, an unsung virtuoso of the reed instruments,

died April 13 at Brotman Medical Center

in Culver City,

following heart failure.  He was 73.


   Not one to toot his own horn, Herman let his

soaring solos do the talking.  Whenever the

top tenors gathered to jam, Herman had them for lunch!  Justo Almario adds, “After hearing Herman one

night, I rushed home to practice!”  Expressing

both anxiety and endearment backstage, another popular player asked, “Can’t you

juggle the lineup — Why do I have to follow Herman?”  Riley was gracious yet daunting as his robust

tone garnered the respect of fellow musicians and fans alike.   


     Whether he torched the bandstand, serenaded lovers at dimly lit

tables or navigated charts in the studio, Herman Riley excelled in any

setting.  A seasoned reedman who transcended

boundaries, Riley explored a vast spectrum from Jazz and R&B, to musicals

and motion picture scores. 


    This quiet, wind wizard mastered the tenor

saxophone, b-flat and bass clarinets, the oboe, English horn and several

flutes, displaying total command of his arsenal.  Herman weaved engaging, intricate tapestries

while his poignant ballads gently caressed the listener.  


      A native of New

Orleans, Riley was born on August 31, 1933.  He attended Landry High School

where he majored in music.  Herman enrolled

at Southern University in Baton Rouge,

proudly high-stepping in its famed Jaguar Marching Band. 


   Following a two-year stint in the army, Riley

migrated to California

during the late fifties.  He performed

with Jessie Belvin and Roy Milton. 

Later, while living in New

York, Herman played with Larry Gales, Junior Cook,

Bruno Carr and Bill Hartman.  Mr. Riley’s

distinct approach began to captivate audiences around the world.  In 1962, he was named Outstanding Solo Artist at the Monterey Jazz Festival.


     After studying privately with Kirk

Bradford, Riley shared the bill with the likes of Art Hillary, George Morrow,

Bobby Bryant, Phil Upchurch, Benny Carter, Count Basie, Louie Belson, Bill

Holman, Ray Charles, Benny Powell, Oscar Brashear, Duke Pearson, Philly Joe

Jones, Nelson Riddle, Oliver Nelson, Ray Brown, Gene Ammons, Grady Tate, Donald

Byrd, Jerome Richardson, Blue Mitchell and Lionel Hampton.


     During Motown’s heyday, Herman played L.A.’s Five-Four Ballroom

with legendary groups like Diana Ross & the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey

Robinson & the Miracles as well as Martha & the Vandellas.  Riley has also backed Juliet Prowse, Jimmy

Durante, Dionne Warwick, Wayne Newton, Debbie Reynolds, Diane Carroll, Lorez

Alexandria, Aretha Franklin, Ernie Andrews, Jack Carter and Nancy Sinatra.   


     Herman toured Japan with Quincy Jones and

performed at the Concord Jazz Festival.  In

2003, he even journeyed to war-ravaged Israel.  While bombs and mortar shells exploded at his

doorstep, Herman remained secluded in his hotel room.  Under severe duress, he bravely ventured out

to the gig, igniting a few sparks of his own. 



      Mr. Riley is listed in Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz.  Pound for pound, he was a prolific titan

of the tenor.  Away from the spotlight,

Herman modestly lived The Life of Riley.  His dues are paid in full.  Mr. Riley is survived by his wife, Thelma;

daughter, Sheenell Riley and grandson, Ethan Boone.






                             A native of Los Angeles, Mr. Winston is a jazz historian,

producer and free-lance journalist.


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