As the longtime drummer of Stray Cats, Slim Jim Phantom helped return rockabilly music to the mainstream during the early Eighties, when he bashed out the swinging backbeat to songs like “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut.” The Cats’ string of Top 40 hits dried up after their first breakup in 1984, but the work didn’t. Phantom remained behind the kit, playing train beats, shuffles and punky percussion for everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Motörhead’s Lemmy along the way.
“I got to totally fan-boy out on him,” Chris Shiflett admits during his introduction to Walking the Floor‘s longest podcast to date, which focuses on Slim Jim Phantom’s lengthy career. Over the course of 100 minutes, the two talk about the Stray Cats’ earliest fans (including Joe Strummer and Robert Plant), the time Mick Jagger tried to sign the teenaged bandmates to the Rolling Stones’ record label (“It wasn’t much of a business conversation,” says Phantom, who remembers consuming most of Jagger’s cocaine supply during the meeting) and the amount of determination it took to kickstart a rockabilly revival during the heyday of disco, punk and classic rock.
Here are five things we learned from the episode, the last Walking the Floor of 2016. (Listen to the full podcast below.)
The Stray Cats discovered rockabilly music “through the backdoor.”
“The Buddy Holly movie came out in ’78 or ’79,” remembers Phantom, who discovered additional rock & roll icons – including Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry – from the liner notes of records by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Meanwhile, his father’s record collection exposed him to the honky-tonk of Hank Williams, and the jukebox at Max’s Kansas City introduced him to Eddie Cochran. Later, after rockabilly music had firmly captured the minds of Phantom, frontman Brian Setzer and bassist Lee Rocker, the guys began shopping for clothes at a local store “that sold square-dancing equipment and gear,” where they’d stock up on boot-lace and collar-point ties. “The road map [to rockabilly] was there if you decided to get past flares or long hair, or whatever the obvious thing was,” he says.
Long Island’s bar circuit may have been hospitable to glammed-up, gender-bending bands like Twisted Sister, but that didn’t mean locals were ready for a group of Sun Records disciples with greaser haircuts.
“It was just us,” Phantom says, speaking of his hometown’s lack of a rockabilly scene. “There was no one else.” Looking for places to play, the guys canvassed the local pub circuit, only to be turned down by every venue owner. “It was too weird,” he says, referencing the band’s retro look and throwback music. “Like, it was ok if you wore a feather boa and lipstick, but. . .” Instead, the Stray Cats wound up booking shows at a string of bars that didn’t normally host performances. They brought their own PA and played five shows a week, eventually attracting an audience of “tough guys” who “followed us everywhere.” Then, eager to expand the circle, the band headed overseas.
While living in London, the Stray Cats began making fans out of rock & roll legends.
“Ronnie Lane from the Faces met us in a pub and let us stay with him for a couple of days,” says Phantom, whose band’s gigs became a popular destination for the living kings of old-school rock & roll. Robert Plant, Jeff Beck, Joe Strummer and Keith Richards all showed up to the Stray Cats’ early performances in London, which helped the band attract the attention of major press outlets. Phantom remembers one British newspaper running the paraphrased headline of “All Five of the Rolling Stones Were at the Pub to See These Kids from New York.”
Before they signed with Arista Records, the Stray Cats were officially courted by the Rolling Stones, who wanted to sign the group to the Stones’ own record label.
“Peter Tosh was on there,” he says of the roster at Rolling Stones Records. “They had some cool stuff, and they were allowed to sign whoever they wanted. They wanted to sign us, and they wanted to produce it – Mick and Keith.” The Stray Cats agreed to meet with Mick Jagger, who invited the band to his office in Chelsea. There, decked out in a custom-made velvet robe, Jagger extended his best hospitality to the American teens. “He had some coke on an antique mirror with a carved straw,” Phantom remembers. The bandmates were shy about indulging, so they waited until Jagger left the room before snorting their way through most of the stash, leaving only a small remainder for their host. Upon returning to the room, Jagger apparently took it all in stride. “He came back in five minutes, and to his credit, he was really cool,” Phantom says. “He just looked at it. It was really obvious, but he wasn’t like, ‘Hey, so you guys liked it?'” The Cats left the office shortly thereafter, and, as Phantom remembers, “we weren’t so hungry for awhile.”
Decades into his career, Slim Jim Phantom is still one of rockabilly’s proudest ambassadors.
“Rockabilly is the original cool,” he tells Shiflett. “It’s the first thing. It’s before the Beatles. The Beatles were influenced by Gene Vincent, the Stones were influenced by Buddy Holly, Lemmy was influenced by Buddy Holly, Ozzy was influenced by the Beatles. . . It goes down the chain, and when you take the rope and go all the way to the bottom of the well, the bucket is rockabilly.”