Abraham Riley Jr., 67, musical performer, DJ

February 13, 1997|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Abraham Riley Jr. had a simple philosophy about the types of music he played: If it sounds good, play it. If it doesn't sound good but people still want to hear it, play it anyway.

So it was with Abe Riley, whose musical career spanned nearly 50 years as a performer and disk jockey throughout Maryland.

Mr. Riley, 67, who died Feb. 5 of brain tumors at his West Baltimore home, formed many be-bop and jazz groups since the 1940s. He played the bass guitar, piano, drums and trumpet.

"Music was always his main interest. Playing, listening, bopping the head, he was good at all of it," said Greg Becker, a longtime friend who once played in one of Mr. Riley's combos.

"For as long as I can remember he had a group, and he wanted to keep improving that group, adding on to it, making it perfect. You and I might have thought it was good already, but not to him, because he always believed it could be better," Mr. Becker said.

In 1948, Mr. Riley formed Riley's Octet, a musical mixture of teen-age be-boppers that played at local house parties and some clubs. One member of the octet was an unknown pianist and singer named Ethel Ennis.

"He was my first employer and introduced me to be-bop," said Ms. Ennis, whose smooth, silken voice would be heard at nightclubs and jazz houses nationally. "He was always very patient and very understanding."

Mr. Riley asked Ms. Ennis, who was 15, to play piano with his group after an audition -- and then prayed that no one would ask her age when they performed at clubs.

Riley's Octet struggled at times. "We were playing once with an amplifier that he or someone else must have made themselves because every now and then we heard part of the Jack Benny radio show come through," Ms. Ennis said.

In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Mr. Riley formed or performed with groups called Five Guys and a Doll, the Emeralds, and Jimmie Smith and the Rockets of Rhythm. He was also offered positions with groups led by Pop Staples of the Staple Singers and Maceo Parker of James Brown band fame.

"All of his music was self-taught," said Juanita Torbit, whom he planned to marry in May. "He just picked it all up."

Friends said that as a young man, he'd spend hours at Howard Street music stores listening to music in private booths.

"He'd never buy anything, just listen to the music. He'd listen to jazz, be-bop, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie for hours in the store. But he didn't buy anything," said Fred Bailey Jr., a longtime friend.

Mr. Riley graduated from Douglass High School in 1948 and attended the former Community College of Baltimore and the former Morgan State College, where he played in the marching band.

He worked many jobs, including stints as a hotel clerk and TC cabdriver -- in addition to performing music or working as a disk jockey. In 1977, Mr. Riley went to work for the Social Security Administration, where he was employed at the time of his death.

"It seems like Riley always had three or four jobs at one time," Ms. Torbit said.

In addition to his jobs, Mr. Riley had many interests and attended classes at upholstery, cosmetology and motel-management schools.

"He made furniture and he always had crazy-looking chairs around the house," Ms. Torbit said.

Mr. Riley was a member of Douglas Memorial Community Church. Although he never played gospel music, he enjoyed hymns, especially "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."

Services were held Tuesday.

Survivors include a son, Abraham Riley III; two daughters, Yvette Riley and Miriam Riley; two brothers, John Riley and Leon Riley; his fiancee's son, Justin Marlon Womack; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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