High-octane rockabilly band marks 25 years

Earlier this month in Grand Rapids, Mich., Robert Williams, aka Big Sandy, received a cake on stage. The cake wasn’t for his birthday. It was in honor of 2013 being Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys’ 25th anniversary year.

Formed in 1988 in a garage in Orange County, Calif., Big Sandy and the boys can count 3,000 shows and 14 albums among its accomplishments. For the band’s 25th anniversary, the group recorded the all-acoustic “What a Dream It’s Been.”

While Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys are known for playing high-octane rockabilly, the acoustic arrangements on “What a Dream It’s Been” reveal the band’s knack for country and bluegrass music.

“The bluegrass and country things work well in an acoustic setting, but the album also reflects how our musical tastes have shifted,” Williams said from Grand Rapids. “Maybe it has something to do with getting older.”

In up-tempo rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll numbers, vocalists get away with barking and shouting. On the other side of the coin, Williams’ “What a Dream It’s Been” songs exploit the sweeter, more expressive side of his voice. His singing for the album brings to mind one of his early influences, Elvis Presley.

“I had more room to stretch out,” Williams explained. “Listening back to the album now, I’m like, ‘Man, hey. Let’s get to work on more new songs.’ I want to go even farther with it.”

But Williams never wants to stop playing rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly.

“I want songs that have that drive to them, but I also want to do more than just that.”

Growing up in East L.A. in the 1960s and ’70s, Williams was surrounded by the classic doo-wop and R&B beloved by his Mexican-American community.

“I heard it when I walked down the street to elementary school,” he said. “The older guys were listening to the radio while they worked on their cars in the driveways. Within the Mexican-American community, there’s a sense of nostalgia that this music is a part of. I didn’t question it. The music was just in the air.”

Williams got more career-shaping influences from his parents’ big record collections. His mother’s records were all R&B and doo-wop. His dad preferred country, western swing, rockabilly and early rock ’n’ roll.

When the rockabilly revival of the late 1970s arrived, Williams was ready.

“I fell into that scene,” he said. “I knew that music.”

The L.A. scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s was vibrant. Local bands the Blasters, Los Lobos and X became national acts.

“We lived down in Orange Country, so Los Angeles seemed like a world away,” Williams said. “But we drove up to L.A. Bands like the Blasters and X were playing together. A lot of times there’d be a punk band headlining and a rockabilly band opening. It was fertile ground for music.”

But shy teen Williams initially allowed no one to hear him sing. He’d practice, though, singing along with records at home. “I dreamed about being on stage and singing,” he remembered. “It seemed like such a magical thing to me.”

Finally, at 19, Williams joined a local rockabilly band after getting enthusiastic encouragement from the group’s drummer.

Williams will return to one of his favorite venues, John Blancher’s Rock ’n’ Bowl in New Orleans, Wednesday. Indeed, Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys and Rock ’n’ Bowl are a great match. Williams is delighted, too, that the venue’s second South Carrollton Avenue location, which opened in 2009, retains the original Rock ’n’ Bowl’s charm.

“John has done a fantastic job with the new Rock ’n’ Bowl,” Williams said. “It still has that same feeling, that magic. But I was skeptical. I said, ‘How’s it going to be anything like the other place?’ But John really pulled it off. It’s like a deluxe version of the old Rock ’n’ Bowl.’ It feels like home playing there.”