“I never imagined in a million years where the music would take me to or the places it did,” confides Robert Williams, dressed to the nines in a crisp, black, 1950s suit with a subtly rainbow-flecked vintage shirt he picked up from Elsewhere Vintage in the Orange Circle. His hair is neatly combed and slicked-back, and the sharp lines of his attire and hairdo contrast with his soft face and gentle smile. “But man, what a ride.”
We’re tucked into the far-right corner booth of the Fling, the legendary old-school lounge, not unlike how the dive bar itself is tucked into the far corner of a blue-collar strip mall in a working-class neighborhood of Santa Ana. A few shots of Patron tequila in, and Williams is getting sentimental. He can’t help it—he was practically born nostalgic. And he’s a romantic at heart. As much as hopeless romantics are compelled to put on a good show, it always comes back to matters of the heart in the end.
“The band has been my romance,” Williams confides. “And it’s cost me a few romances, too.”
It’s a fact of life for many a career musician that tugs on the heartstrings like the bittersweet twang you get from pluckin’ on the strings of a Silvertone lap steel. It’s a hell of a realization, but damn if it isn’t the fuel behind the fire of just about every perfect song written.
This isn’t a new idea to Williams. He wrote his own perfect song exploring this idea some 20 years ago for his band, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys. “But now that song means more than ever to me,” he says, punctuating the sentiment with a hand to his chest.
“What a Dream It’s Been” is a duet, sung between Williams’ alter-ego Big Sandy and a young lady. What sounds like two lovers talking through the hills and valleys of the long, winding road of love, Williams confides, is actually an ode to his now three decades living the larger-than-life persona of a rockabilly icon and open-road troubadour. It’s a role that has brought Williams far from the modest apartment complexes in Fullerton he grew up in to the stages of the Grand Ole Opry, late-night television, and opening slots for legends such as Johnny Cash and Morrissey.
The young dreamer grew up primarily in Anaheim, raised at the crossroads of the sentimental romance of doo-wop—influenced by his mother’s passion for the genre—and the steady beat of old western swingers such as Bob Wills, a penchant inherited from his father. “While my other friends were out in the streets, playing baseball or riding their bikes around, I would sit in my room for hours and hours listening to old records,” Williams recalls. “I grew up listening to all these older records and just living in kind of a dream world.”
The bridge from that dreamland to the real world first opened for the teenage Williams at the influence of his parents. They’d take their children to see James Intveld, an early rockabilly-revival pioneer who’d play at Elks Lodges and Dutch Clubs around the county in the 1980s. At the time (and even still today), women would scream and fawn over the dreamy Intveld. “I couldn’t help but take notice of that,” Williams says playfully.
“To me, before I saw him, I thought that it was just this make-believe world from yesteryear,” Williams recalls. “He made it real and now. And that’s when I started thinking, ‘Well, man, I would like to try doing what he’s doing.’”
When Williams was 15 or maybe 17—he isn’t sure exactly—he started taking guitar lessons. “I have my mother to thank for that,” he says. “She saw an ad in the PennySaver.” His mother saw the passion simmering in her son and bought a package deal she found in an ad: Buy six lessons upfront and get a free guitar.
“I was nervous,” Williams recalls. “Up until this point, it was just dreams. But this was the time to get serious.” The axe that started it all was “just the cheapest guitar you could think of,” he says. “But for me, I loved it.”
“When I was a younger kid, listening to records, I would always visualize myself being the guy onstage singing to the crowd,” Williams says. “Suddenly, I had a guitar, and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, maybe I can really do this.’”
After taking a few lessons and writing a few songs of his own, Williams hooked up with a group of young high school musicians. The Moon Dogs’ raw energy had wowed him at a house show in Fullerton, and he had won them over with his rendition of Elvis’ rendition of “That’s All Right (Mama).”
“I had been to shows before, but [what] I got to see firsthand was these young kids playing music, and to see all these young teenagers responding to it and interacting with them. [I thought to myself] ‘I want this more than ever.’”
What started as one rehearsal and a song or two quickly turned into Williams and the Moon Dogs doin’ the mess-around on the regular. “I was doing more songs than the guy who was already singing in the band.” That didn’t sit well with the group’s actual lead singer, “so I got the boot from that band,” Williams says. “But I had the taste.”
That taste became a hunger. “I didn’t know it would be a career, but I knew I wanted to do more of it,” Williams says. “It was only later that it ended up taking over my life and becoming everything.”
So he set out on his own and started his own projects, various incarnations of the tried-and-true rock & roll band-name formula of the singer’s name and the [fill in the blanks]: Robert Williams and the Rustin’ Strings, Robert Williams and the Cyclones. . . . “I didn’t want to use my own name,” he explains. “Robert Williams doesn’t sound like a rock & roll name.”
At the time, he often wore an old jacket, a zip-up job that had belonged to his uncle Santiago, who at one time had worked as a mechanic’s assistant in an auto garage. His nickname was actually Santi, but the name patch had an anglicized misspelling and instead read “Sandy.”
“He would come out to shows, [and] just the mention of the name, he would well up and start to cry ’cause he was the original Big Sandy,” Williams says with pride. “He had the old English lettering ‘OG Big Sandy’ on the back of his car. [The name] has a family history for me that I’m very, very proud of.”
Another point of pride for Williams has been that of his Orange County roots. “There’s certain ones of us who claim this area,” Williams says, reminiscing about early days playing shows in Gwen Stefani’s family’s Anaheim back yard and longtime friendship with Dita Von Teese that goes back to when she was Heather Sweet of Irvine. “This is where we came from, and we are very proud of it. Yeah, I mean, we grew up under the specter of the LA thing, but yeah, there is some great damn stuff that came out of this area, you know, and it’s still coming out!”
Speaking of great damn stuff still coming out of Orange County, Williams assures us that Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys will continue performing as long as the fans show up—which they do. “Not that I have real serious laurels to rest upon,” Williams says, “but I never want to get to that point where I am just like resting on your laurels, like, ‘Yeah, I have done all this.’ I just wanna keep coming up with new stuff, new songs—keep moving forward.
“To me, it’s a nice feeling to know in my heart that the best stuff is still ahead of me,” he continues. “Nothing that has happened along the way has ever proved that wrong.”