Music News

Getting in Between Sheets

By day, Billy Sheets teaches special education to middle-schoolers in Los Angeles. But by night, he offers a different brand of instruction to swing dancers across Southern California. In a musical environment in which most combos make hep-cat Forties jazz and frenetic Western swing for the growing legion of loose-jointed lindy-hoppers, Sheets carves his path with a different blade: vintage R&B. "The thing about me is that I'm basically a blues singer and shouter," he admits. "But I do a lot of material that swings, so it's an okay match for people who are into this retro swing stuff."

For Sheets, a longtime fixture on the rhythm-and-blues circuit, his musical flexibility has proven to be a blessing. "The blues scene, it's almost like being in a ghetto in a way," he divulges. "For one thing, when you play a swing or jazz gig, usually it's a nicer club; you get treated better and you make more money. And you know what? It's easier to get work in them, too, if you play the right kind of music. There's more of a demand. It's also easier for me as a vocalist to get respect in the jump and swing scene, because in the blues scene, a lot of people are really into guitar playing and harp playing, and that is not what I want to do."

Indeed, what separates Sheets's music from that of his twelve-bar peers is the elevation of icy-hot drama and bluesy bomp over head-cutting and cliches. His latest recording--Please Tell Me Why, issued on the Big Clock label--offers ample reasons for hitting the floor, but its jump-blues format stirs the soul as well as the soles. With its emphasis on mood and conviction, the disc is a welcome alternative to the often emotionally challenged sounds of so many of swing's current recyclers. Furthermore, it eschews rambling solos in favor of punchy horns, giddy piano flourishes, snippets of to-the-point guitar sting and a deceptive sucker punch of an instrument: Sheets's voice. His cords amaze in their range and breadth, easily slipping from velour lover-man ululations to rousing field hollers.

According to Sheets, his biggest influence was Little Milton Campbell, a vocal pyrotechnician whose timbre could skip from avian to animalistic in the course of just a few lines. "He is probably my favorite singer," he acknowledges. "I got into him in the early Seventies. I had already been into Bobby Bland, and when I found out about Milton, I was in heaven." In the beginning, Sheets was so fond of the singer that he tried to imitate him--and was miffed when listeners didn't pick up on his efforts. "People used to tell me that I sounded like Roy Brown, and I'd think, 'But wait, I'm trying to sound like Little Milton.' Well, come to find out, Roy Brown was a heavy influence on Little Milton."

For Sheets, Campbell's appeal is rooted in his "unabashed melisma," a term he enjoys explaining. "Melisma has to do with vocal runs--taking one syllable and singing it with more than one note. Like where Milton sings, 'Baby plea-ea-ea-ea-ze.'" After his voice cascades down each elongated syllable, he says, "You see, 'please' is just one word, but it's got, like, five notes there. That's a technique that's in many different kinds of music, but it's a big part of the blues vocalizing that comes from gospel. That's what I like about Little Milton--that and his tone and vigor.

"If you look at a lot of the great R&B singers, they're able to croon and sing something mellow," he continues. "But what's really exciting is how they just start going crazy with it. To sing that style, you have to know how to sing. You can't just shout it and make your way through it, because they've got that ability to croon and then go into screaming, too."

The beauty of this dynamic tension and release is often lost on certain listeners, Sheets believes. "Because I can span both the blues and the swing genres, sometimes people who are stuck in those genres don't see it. Somebody who is a real hardcore blues fan will come to the show and think I'm not bluesy enough, and somebody who's a classic swing fan will think that I'm too bluesy." Laughing, he adds, "That makes me think that I'm in the right place."

Among the places where Sheets is being accepted these days are the shag clubs of the Carolinas. A more relaxed, restrained version of hand-to-hand dancing, the shag is a staple of the mid-Atlantic beach venues where it originated--and although Sheets has never seen it performed firsthand, the number of orders for Please Tell Me Why coming in from the area have inspired him to study up on it. "It's like swing dancing, but it's not as fussy," he comments. "They're more into mid-tempo blues shuffles and they shag to R&B, so in a way it's more versatile. I've also heard that one of the important things is that when you dance it, your movements should be smooth, so you can drink a beer at the same time if you want to."

For the time being, Sheets won't be heading to the Dixie shoreline to perform for his newfound followers, but he has begun to broaden his touring base beyond his L.A. stronghold. And while some prognosticators have declared that the touch-dancing craze is on its last legs, Sheets begs to differ.

"Maybe it couldn't stay at the height it was at, but I think it's still happening," he says. "I just played a place in San Diego that was open to underaged kids; it was two-thirds full, and it was almost all underage kids. That's the thing about this phenomenon--it cuts across a lot of boundaries, particularly of age. I don't think it's even reaching its potential yet."

Billy Sheets. 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, January 30 and 31, 9th Avenue West, 99 West 9th Avenue, $5, 572-8006.

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Marty Jones

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