45s of Etta, Ray Moved Big Sandy

By Jeff Spevak - July, 2006

           Yeah, 8-year-old Rusty Williams had some Jackson 5 records. But you get the feeling they weren't in heavy rotation at his house. "My parents took me out to see live music all the time," says the fellow known these days as Big Sandy. "Ray Charles at the community center. I was just blown away by that. I remember going behind the building and seeing Ray Charles cussing out the musicians. The Raylettes, I think.
           These guys are in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. But it's also rock, folk, bluegrass, Cajun, mariachi and Western swing. Musicality whose seeds were planted years ago, in the suburbs of Los Angeles. A hothouse of melody.
           "I heard all of the country and hillbilly artists," Big Sandy says. "When I got to the age where I was going out on my own, the early '80s, that coincided with the rockabilly thing, along with the L.A. punk scene, with bands like the Blasters and X. The scene was thriving.
           "There's nothing dated about it. We just use some of the older styles of music to get our words across. Some people think of us as just another rockabilly band. But if you listen to our songs, we're progressive for the genre.
           "You do what you do and leave it for others to examine." And that you will, as the kind of musically discriminating readers who know their Spade Cooley.
           Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys' new album, Turntable Matinee, opens and closes with the two-part "The Power of the 45," what he refers to as "a shout-out to various artists," including Junior Parker, Ronnie Dawson, Lazy Lester, Chuck Berry, Etta James and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. He's less direct about it with the songs that fall in between "The Power of the 45," but your ears hear influences ranging from Buddy Holly to Memphis soul. He's exploring a lost world, and Big Sandy is a very stylish archaeologist.
           But the kind of single-mindedness that comes with that kind of devotion, particularly at an early age, can come with a price tag, Big Sandy admits. "I was lacking in some of the social skills that other kids were picking up," he says.
           So he was kind of a lonely kid, sitting in his room at home, listening to old 45 rpm records? "That's what it was," Big Sandy says. "After I graduated from high school, I took a few lessons on guitar. I met some guys at a house party, and they started passing the guitar around, I strummed a few songs, and they said they were looking for a new singer in their band."
           One rehearsal session later, and Big Sandy was out of his bedroom and in the band. "I really had to overcome the shyness and the nerves," he concedes. "Once I got a taste of that, I knew that's what I wanted to do.
           "I guess tequila can take the edge off of that." And Big Sandy concedes that there have been times when he's had a little too much of a taste of that. "Some of my music can be happy on the outside, but the words are dark," he admits. His music can be loaded with melancholy and loneliness. Out of it come songs like "Tequila Calling," about a descent into heavy drinking, and "When Sleep Won't Come" from the band's 2000 release, Night Tide, the true story of '40s Western swing king Spade Cooley murdering his wife.
           "That was a little bit of a dark period, kind of a drunk period," Big Sandy admits. His, as well as Cooley's. Tequila emerges again, coincidentally, in some of Big Sandy's recent musical mining, as he uncovers guys like Chuck Leo, who played saxophone for the Champs on their hit "Tequila." His real name was Danny Flores, and he also sang and played guitar. They called him "The Mexican Hillbilly."
           Big Sandy is fascinated by these characters, and his spelunking these days seems to have some self-awareness to it: His father is Irish American, his mother Mexican American. He and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos recently finished a project with the faux-Mexican surf band, Los Straitjackets, in which they're singing '50s and '60s rock-and-roll hits in Spanish. He's 42 now, but you get the feeling Big Sandy is still spending a lot of time locked away in his bedroom, lost in song.
           "Why," he asks, "would you want to get away from it?"

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