"Dichotomy" was the watchword in Michael Riley’s life. He was an imposing mountain of a man who was relatively soft spoken and gentle hearted; he was generous unless you were among the unfortunate number he had written off for personally held reasons; and he was a lovable curmudgeon, equally quick with a laugh or growled dismissal. He was devoted to his mother, five sisters and brother but kept his family life private and rarely talked about the father who abandoned them, making Riley the de facto head of the clan.
Riley’s résumé was equally diverse: He studied African-American culture at the University of Cincinnati before a curriculum existed; he was the long-tenured counter guy at Mole’s Records and Buzz Coffee Shop’s music store; he worked the door/ticket window at Bogart’s and helped book New Wave and Punk acts there in the ’70s and ’80s; his long running WAIF radio show, Danceable Solution, and his Dancin-N-Dancin DJ gigs (with longtime professional and personal companion Tebbe Farrell) exposed his listeners to a wide spectrum of new music; and he was crucial in the career resurrection of Jump Blues piano master H-Bomb Ferguson.
Music was always at the center of Riley’s universe. He'd seen the Rolling Stones 32 times. He loved The Clash, Mekons, Jazz, Blues, Reggae, Country and Punk (anything, really, as long as it was authentic), but he was also completely smitten with Bette Midler and Carole King. He was at Woodstock in 1969, he saw the Sex Pistols in Memphis in 1978 and he went to England to see the infamous Sham 69 gig/riot.
“There was a picture of him in the London paper,” Farrell says. “It was a mass crowd shot. The whole crowd’s looking one way and Michael’s the only one looking the other way. That’s just how he is.”
When Riley died in June from a massive stroke, it was clear his passing would leave a gaping hole in the Cincinnati scene and that his life and talents were worthy of significant tribute. Farrell has been planning that tribute for months, and it comes to fruition Saturday at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center when Farrell presents “Man of Music: A Tribute to Michael W. Riley.”
Here’s where dichotomy gives way to irony: The DJ blasting out the set at Man of Music will be intimately aware of Riley’s most passionate musical loves, because the DJ will be Riley himself.
“It’s a multimedia montage,” Farrell says. “It’s his playlists, artwork, poetry and music notes, and playing will be his radio shows and music mixes, with his voice and all kinds of IDs, from Ronnie Spector to Gang of Four.”
Farrell’s relationship with Riley goes back to 1975, when both had WAIF radio show slots — his dedicated to Rock, Punk and New Wave, hers to Jazz.
“I wanted to meet him and he wanted to meet me because we liked each other’s shows,” Farrell recalls. “We couldn’t believe how much we loved and knew about music and found that we liked the same things and really hit it off.”
One of the pair’s biggest common interests was live music. Between the clubs on Short Vine — and in Clifton in general — and the eventual rise of Newport’s Jockey Club, Riley and Farrell were fixtures in nearly every audience in the area and traveled to a good many more shows out of state.
“We found that the only people that wanted to go to the same shows all the time was the two of us,” Farrell says with a laugh. “Some friends would go to some shows, but we went to every one we wanted to go to. We went all over the U.S. to see shows.”
Another of Riley’s frequent companions around town was his longtime friend Jim Chronis. Like so many, he met Riley at Mole’s, and from there they forged a lasting friendship based on musical commonalities, which led to a number of wild experiences.
“In 1978, we went to five or six cities to see The Rolling Stones when they were out with Some Girls,” Chronis says. “That famous picture of Michael with Keith Richards? I was right next to him. When they blew it up, I was gone. I’m like the ghost in that picture. But that was 2 in the morning in front of the Whitehall Hotel in Chicago. The Stones were playing Soldier Field and he knew their keyboard player, Ian McLagan, peripherally, and the afternoon before the show somehow Michael knew that he would be out shopping for birthday cards for his kids. It was almost mystical. If you hung back under Michael’s wing, more interesting things might happen, that was my feeling.
“What ultimately came of that was he found out that some of the Stones were going to see Muddy Waters at a club called the Quiet Night. We went to the club and we noticed tables with chairs turned up so we located next to that one. Muddy Waters came on and eventually most of the Stones came in and we were right next to them, buying them drinks all night. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I could never have pulled that off without being in Michael‘s shadow.”
Over the years, Chronis had taken Riley to several of his own family functions and noted that Riley was always mentioning how much he enjoyed those gatherings and meeting Chronis’ father and family.
“We’re not talking about every Sunday dinner — over the years it was a handful of times,” Chronis says. “But Michael really appreciated that. As much as Michael loved music and everything associated with it, it wasn’t as important as his friends and people he knew. And that made him fragile. That was the great contradiction.”
Friend and occasional co-worker Ric Hickey had a long association with Riley, which resulted in an odd occurrence just two weeks ago.
“He was a big brother and mentor to me,” Hickey says. “I think about him and mourn him every day. Last week, in fact, I had a very vivid dream about him, wherein he smiled and assured me, ‘Don‘t worry about me, Ric, I’m alright!’ I seriously woke up in tears.”
It was Hickey who organized Riley’s 60th birthday party, an informal gathering of a few of Riley’s good friends back in February, four short months before his death. Hickey had obtained a live video recording of a Stones show that Riley had never seen. Riley sat watching the show with the rapt passion of someone discovering the Stones for the first time, not half a century after the fact.
At one point during the party, Riley and I sat together and the stories began: the Stones, Bette, Bogart’s, Mole’s. They rolled into one another seamlessly and I finally said, “Michael, you really should write this shit all down somewhere. It’d make a great book.”
Riley dismissed the notion with that patented hand wave and a laugh. “Who’d read that? You and me?”
I laughed and responded, “Wouldn’t that be enough?”
He thought for a moment, then smiled broadly and said, “I guess it would.”
For Michael Riley, the love of music was always enough.
MAN OF MUSIC: A TRIBUTE TO MICHAEL W. RILEY takes place at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center. Get venue and event details here.