Friday night has finally rolled around and droves of young people descend on the Foothill Club in Signal Hill as dusk settles on Orange County. It takes more than an hour for the line winding around the block and into the adjacent residential area to work its way through the doors. It’s a long but colorful wait.
Freshly combed DAs gleam in the glow of street lights and stiletto heels clack on the pavement. Rocker boys in Levis and white T-shirts rub elbows with dapper chaps in zoot suits. The parking lot glints with chrome: DeSotos, Packards, Plymouths and Chevys, all as meticulously groomed as their owners, except the cars are often twice as old as the kids driving them. It looks like an outtake from American Graffiti, but conspicuous body piercings and full-coverage tattoos are a dead giveaway that this is a Y2K rockabilly crowd.
It’s the last night the Foothill will exist in its vintage honky-tonk incarnation, and the faithful have gathered to bid it a fond farewell. Inside the club, pool sharks cluster around the tables, brandishing custom cues. The beer is flowing, and clouds of chatter spout from the rich red Naugahyde booths between numbers by Los Straitjackets, the surf en Español outfit that’s warming up the already glowing crowd. A few scattered groups of people dot the scuffed dance floor, and the requisite collection of social butterflies dart between tables and booths with occasional detours to the bar.
This is ground zero for Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, the must-play venue the band hits whenever it comes home from a tour. But the club owners aren’t nearly as committed to roots rock as the clientele or the talent; with an eye toward revenue, it will soon be stripped, gutted and refurbished as a salsa club — much to the dismay of Ashley Kingman. For the transplanted Brit and Big Sandy guitarist, it means losing an important chunk of personal history. (Though not entirely — he managed to rescue a table and four chairs as a keepsake.)
“The first day I moved here they took me to the Foothill and I was like, ‘Man this is where I’m gonna live,’” he recalls in a hefty cockney accent. “I ended up living near this place and now they’re gonna take it away. It’s the kind of thing where if somebody pumped some money into it and had an active booking policy of rootsy style music, somebody could have made it work.”
And it’s easy to believe him when the packed house is a-rockin’ and the dance floor is full of cool cats and their whirling-skirted kittens. The Foothill may be doomed to fade away, but the music Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys play is as stylish now as it was 45 years ago. It may not be cashing in on platinum sales or stirring up attention as sensationally as Eminem and the big pants crowd, but it’s at the heart of a subculture that has been going strong for decades.
“I know some people are into it because it’s just another scene to be into, to socialize,” says Big Sandy, aka Robert Williams. “But I know for a lot of people it’s much more than that. I think there’s a certain honesty and sincerity in a lot of this music that I find is missing in a lot of contemporary mainstream music. I’ve been involved in this kind of music and going out to shows for I guess 20 years. I’ve seen ‘em come and go — they get a little older, get married and stop going out. Right now it’s sort of on the upswing. It seems like there’s more young people coming in.”
Williams grew up in Orange County and spent most of his life in Anaheim. His parents were big music fans — dad was into country, honky-tonk rockabilly and Western swing, mom was a fan of R&B, doo-wop and blues. The only musician in the immediate family was Williams’ maternal grandfather, who played in a mariachi band, though he passed away long before Williams was born.
As a kid, his major musical influence was the wealth of old 45s his parents had accumulated. They were his favorite toys until his parents bought him a kiddie stereo that made it possible for him to play them rather than play with them. A whole new world opened for young Robert.
The music on the platters was mainly vintage material from the ’50s, but as far as Williams was concerned it was the hit parade of the day. He inherited the record-collecting bug from his father, who took him on expeditions to used record stores and thrift shops, where he tapped into an endless stream of new old music. Though he was aware of other types of music, he was perfectly content in his own alternate pop universe.
“I started going out on my own when I got a car and I would just buy whatever I’d find,” he says. “I’d find something on a weird-looking label, come home, try it and be like, ‘Whoa!’ That’s how I discovered new things. It was like I discovered this exciting world.
“At the time there wasn’t as many compilations and songs you can download from the internet. You had to go and dig around for it, but you’d make these little discoveries and feel like you were the only person in the world who knows about this record. Later I fell in with a group of people who were also into it and shared the same passion for this kind of music.”
Eventually he metamorphosed from a listener to a player. One day after he’d graduated from high school, Williams noticed an advertisement in a local paper called The Penny Saver for a music store that was offering free guitars to customers who signed up for lessons. Williams took the plunge. It wasn’t much of a guitar, but it was enough to send him on his way. Before long he’d mastered enough chords to replicate the music he’d been hearing most of his life, and except for a couple brief flirtations with contemporary popular music, his date with destiny was set.