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Greased Lightning Show

More musically inclined than the Fonz: Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys.
David Harrison

There was a time when being a "greaser" was a sort of calling and not a pejorative reference to Mexicans. For greasers, like the Travolta caricature in Grease, the Fonz and Sly Stallone in The Lords of Flatbush, and the British "rockers," every day was Halloween -- the leather jackets, the hair, the Garrison belts with the sharpened buckles, the boots, the tight Levi's. It was a declaration of class and culture.

And it was a post-war thing, like every other significant shift in the second half of the century. And it was not so much the kids coming back from the War, but the younger brothers of the kids, and the older kids of the kids, who took all that displaced, subterranean psychic horror show goo that the soldiers wanted to bury and fashioned a world unto themselves.

Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys are among the inheritors of that world, a third-generation rockabilly ensemble that lurks through the night in a converted early-'70s Crown Coach school bus, roaming the highways of America.

Inside, you'll find all the rudiments of rockabilly -- the clothes hanging in the back, Jeff West's standup string bass, Bobby Trimble's no-frills drum kit, Ashley Kingman's '57 Magnatone guitar, and Jimmy Roy's museum-piece steel guitar, a Sho-Bud with a serial number of Two, played some decades back in Faron Young's band (and Neil Young's, too!) by Ben Keith.

But inside Robert "Big Sandy" Williams, the band's lead singer and rhythm guitarist, there is a through line of stomp and romp rockabilly, doo-wop and R&B that he inherited from his music-loving parents.

"I was the child of a Mexican mother from Durango, and my father is a pretty redneck rockabilly sort of guy, originally from Oklahoma, which is where I got my taste for country and early rockabilly and Western swing," Williams, 39, says. "While other kids would be playing baseball, my father and I would be running around to swap meets digging around for 45s and 78s. We still get together and show off our recent finds. It's a friendly competition."

When Williams and the band recently performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Williams flew his father out to see the show and hang out backstage. "He was in heaven," the younger man says. "Talking to Little Jimmy Dickens and Porter Wagoner and some of the other guys." He adds, "It was really special for me to be able to do that. Having him there meant almost as much to me as actually being able to play there."

Williams' mom also played a major role in his early musical life. "It was about equal, really. My mom was into mostly R&B and doo-wop," Williams says. "Her older brothers were record collectors, and she was exposed to a lot of great stuff, and she gave me a lot of their records, too. I don't get to show as much of that side of it, but I have experimented some with that stuff, outside of the Fly-Rite material. I dig it with a passion."

Williams, for once, is found off-road, in his home in Anaheim, California, where he's burning CDs for the band to listen to during their never-ending road trips -- the band plays hundreds of shows a year.

"Right now, it's a country compilation -- Johnny Paycheck, George Jones, Carl Smith, Onie Wheeler -- some well-known and some obscure stuff," says Williams. "I look everywhere for rare records, like recently in Denver I found a bunch of obscure 45s. I look for artists that made a couple of records and pressed maybe 500 copies -- there are some great untold stories there. And then I do what I can to find out more about these guys -- look 'em up while we're out on the road or do Internet searches, find some of the guys who are still around. Recently, I got to talk to this guy Bobby Roberts, a really interesting guy who started out on the King label in the early '50s doing straight Hank Williams country and then went on to make some great rockabilly records including a track called (I'm Gonna Find) Big Sandy.'"

This, of course, begs the question: How did Robert become Big Sandy, anyway?

"Well, I used to have a jacket that had a name patch on it that said Sandy, and 15 years or so ago I decided I needed a stage name, and that had already become a nickname for me. It's like when you have a bowling shirt with somebody else's name on it. But in fact the jacket belonged to my uncle, Santiago, whose nickname was Santy, when he was a teenager, working in a garage."

The new Big Sandy record, It's Time!, is different from their other 10 releases. The entire CD was recorded live at the old Electro Vox studios, now named "Joey's Place," which sits across from Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. The Paramount session boys used the place to record and jam in the glory days.

"There was a definite vibe," says Williams. "The owner would come in and tell us about different people who had recorded there, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, for example, and other tidbits of information, and it was kind of inspiring. It made us feel like we were carrying on some kind of tradition. It felt right."

Sandy and mates also used a combination of old equipment and modern recording technology to create something that is fresh and vintage at the same time. There are echoes, figurative and real, of the '50s and of the intervening decades, and of a solid dedication to the form and function of that post-war sensibility. But every now and then you'll hear an unexpected riff or nuance or change in ambiance that Sandy's lyrics and music can't help but dictate, like how a knuckleball pitcher needs to throw a two-seam fastball every once in a while.

On the end track, "The Night Is for Dreamers," Williams paints a kind of Edward Hopper rockabilly portrait of people who look to the night and the music to escape the glare of the workaday world. "Joe didn't think she looked so special/But winter nights are cold and long/Sue found his conversation less than intellectual/And so they danced to that old familiar song."

"For that genre of music, I think it pushes the boundaries a little bit," he says, "and that's what we've been wanting to do lately, anyway.

"I like to put a more poetic touch into some of the songs," he adds. "And we do try to reach outside of the rockabilly world, by playing festivals, performing on NPR and on Conan O'Brien, and other kinds of scenes. We opened for Morrissey on a number of gigs some time back. And there are a lot of young people who are discovering this music -- thousands of people all over the place who love this music. Our crowds are mixed -- from regular folk to young kids who save to buy the cars and the clothes, but who really love the music. It's nice to find people who are passionate about it, people who don't just see it as a fashion thing."

And as for grease -- hey, Sandy, is it Brylcreem, Wildroot or Vitalis?

"I need something a little thicker," Williams says with a laugh. "Murray's Pomade and a little bit of Royal Crown. But you gotta dry-clean them pillow sheets."


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