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Big Sandy spins a turntable matinee

By Ken Burke, July 2006

"I'm not always able to listen to our records when we're done recording them," confesses Big Sandy. "This one I'm digging. Some of the things on there are a little bit different than what we've done before."

True enough, the 41-year-old rockabilly's new album "Turntable Matinee" boasts some compelling twists in the Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys formula. Mixed in with trademarked Bakersfield twang, cheek-to-cheek romantic shuffles and spirited allusions to obscure rockabillies is a slice of Latin-tinged romance and a surprising helping of Stax-Volt soul. "I was afraid to do it," admits Sandy. "I'm always afraid to do the things I end up doing."

Indeed, that fear initially applied to his own career. Big Sandy wasn't sure he would ever have any musical future at all. "I always daydreamed about it, but it wasn't until 1984, when I first got the courage together to try it out myself," he recalls. "Up until that point, I would just sit around my room listening to my old records and daydream about being on-stage."

Born Robert Williams in Los Angeles, the singer-songwriter with the smooth, intimate vocal style credits his parents for the eclectic musical tastes he now exhibits. "I consider myself lucky that my parents had tons of records around the house, and I just grew up surrounded by that type of music," says Sandy from Anaheim, Cal. "I was always moved by it more than any new music of the day."

"My mother has always been involved," he continues. "She's a huge music fan who would get to know some of these older guys. Don Julian of the Meadowlarks used to be a family friend...and we knew a couple of guys with Little Caesar and the Romans." In addition to recordings by such L.A. doo-wop groups as the Medallions, the Calvanes and R&B duo Don & Dewey, the youngster cut his teeth on discs by Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, George Jones, Lefty Frizzell and Ray Price. "That side of things I have my father to thank for," recalls Sandy.

Although he grew up during the disco '70's and new wave '80's, the youngster still found plenty of reinforcement for his retro musical predilections. "Well, growing up in L.A., the music was still in the air," he reminisces." Looking back on it, maybe I'm romanticizing it a little, but I sort of remember walking down a street on a Saturday and just hearing floating out of the air on KRLA - one of the local stations who'd play some great '50's music."

Despite his intense interest in the music of a bygone era, the youngster had no concrete plans to make his own music. "Coming up through school, all my friends knew exactly what they wanted to do after high school," he says with awe. "Even at a younger age, they talked about what they wanted to grow up to be. I had no idea. Like I said, I used to daydream about being a singer, but I never thought I could really do that. After high school, I went to college for a while. I was just completely lost until I met some other local musicians and ended up joining their group. Even then it was just for fun - something to do on a weekend. We'd play around town at house parties."

Big Sandy recalls his first formal band association well. "The Moondawgs. That was my first band, and they were kind of a jazzy, rockabilly outfit. At the time, they were doing mostly covers. I tried to bring some originals and more obscure covers - Joe Clay, Sleepy LaBeef - to the group. But, the other guys didn't really care for that stuff, they were more into the Stray Cats sort of thing. But I tried to steer it in my type of direction, and it didn't quite work, and there was a little conflict. The band broke up in about a year. A couple of months later, I started a new band with some of the same guys, but I said, 'Well, this time we're going to do it my way.' That was Robert Williams and the Rustin' Strings."

With the latter band, Sandy began incorporating a steel guitar and a more rural sound into his repertoire "I was a city boy with my heart in the country," he earnestly observes.

By 1988, the Rusting Strings gave way to the Fly Rite Trio - from the song "Straighten Up and Fly Right" - and a professional name change for their leader. "There was already a couple of other Robert Williams - a drummer and artist," he explains. "I used to have an old mechanic's jacket with a name patch on it that said, Sandy. The jacket was actually my uncle's. His name was Santiago, and his boss told him, 'We can't fit the whole name on the patch, so we'll put Santy there.' Well, they misspelled it as Sandy. Later on, when I started getting into wearing older clothes and styles, he gave me a lot of his old wardrobe. The jacket was one of the things I got, and I used to wear it all the time, so the Sandy name sort of became the big name."

After releasing albums on the independent Dionysus and No-Hit labels, Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys signed with Oakland-based HighTone in 1994. The seven albums of hillbilly boogie, western swing, jazz, doo-wop and flat out rockabilly he recorded for them comprise a remarkably consistent body of original work. Moreover, his constant touring over the last 12 years has enabled the group to sell a lot of records for a modern roots act - 25, 000 per CD at one point - and nurture a fan base that is still growing.

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