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The Stray Cats’ Vintage Rock

How three kids from Long Island struck it rich by rediscovering their parents’ music

Stray Cats, Lee Rocker, Brian Setzer, Slim Jim PhantomStray Cats, Lee Rocker, Brian Setzer, Slim Jim Phantom

Stray Cats, (L-R) Lee Rocker, Brian Setzer, Slim Jim Phantom in Hollywood. Circa 1983.

Chris Walter/WireImage/Getty

The story is pure Stardust. Three hard cases in cat clothes and pipeline pompadours set forth from the provinces to seek stardom in a celebrated music capital. It is a dreary period. In the White House, an aged Republican president presides over an entrenched recession. A cold war is heating up. And on the radio, popular music has grown sleek and overstuffed. The hard cases have a more raucous vision — rockabilly. They record their primitive sounds in a small studio with a noted rockabilly booster producing. Their records sweep the charts. Soon, young people start turning up at their concerts wearing cat clothes — puff skirts, bowling shirts, the whole panoply of bagged-out, ducktail cool — and living to the considerable din of a single guitar, an upright bass and a bare-bones drum kit. Television spreads the word. Official notice is taken. Newsweek proclaims a “Rockabilly Revolution.” The hard cases have conquered the world.

It is 1982.

Such is the Stray Cats’ saga — if the history of a band that’s barely three years old can be called that. Wizened fogies from the Fifties may be forgiven a certain semi-irked amusement at this wholesale appropriation of another era’s musical and sartorial vocabulary — the quaint drape clothes, the bop-cat rhythms, all trotted out anew to goose up the graying airwaves. “Revolution?” Sha Na Na with chops is more like it. Who are these kids kidding?

Brian Setzer, the Stray Cats’ singer and guitarist, has returned to his roots in Massapequa, New York. The town is about an hour’s drive east from Manhattan and down into the suburban clutter of Long Island’s South Shore. Lacking Setzer’s exact address, one might as easily locate him by homing in on the ferocious backbeat booming out from his recently acquired town house. Where the din grows loudest, there’s a driveway; in it is parked a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. Cool wheels. Setzer is huddled in the back seat, fiddling with some minute decorative detail. As he ducks out of the gleaming black-and-yellow bomb, one notes the dancing letters on the back of his black leather jacket, which spell out REAL WILD CAT. It is late afternoon in suburban Massapequa; when Setzer stops the music, the silence that suddenly gathers over the trim lawns and neat, lookalike town houses nearby seems a mute reproach.

“I know they’re havin’ meetings,” Setzer says in his cheery New York honk, indicating the unseen neighbors. “You know: ‘What’re we gonna do about that guy?’ ” He laughs, but not meanly, at the thought of shaking up the straights.

Inside, there’s a chatty tour. The house is typical rent-a-pad: tan carpeting, burgundy drapes, undistinguished furniture. But Setzer has imposed his own style in no uncertain terms — here a pinball machine, there a gum-ball dispenser, everywhere rare, framed photographs of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent. Atop a modestly stocked cabinet of records — Vincent, Holly, Frankie Lymon — leans a lone photo of Setzer himself, yukking it up with Keith Richards.

Upstairs, in the music room, are more treasures. A small collection of vintage guitars — including the ancient hollow-body Gretsch that is his main stage instrument — stands along one wall. A Gibson banjo and a recently acquired Hawaiian slide guitar attest to his expanding musical interests. There are two tiny amps, assorted posters and souvenirs, stacks of Archie comics and Fifties hot-rod magazines. It’s like another world. And Setzer is the least aged object in it.

He is twenty-three, which is to say he was born in 1959 — the year Buddy Holly died, the year before Eddie Cochran released his last single, “Three Steps to Heaven,” and then cashed in his chips in a London taxi crackup. Gene Vincent’s glory days were over by 1959, and Elvis Presley was still in the army. Plopped on a sofa with a jug of Gatorade, a wall full of gold and silver Stray Cats records rising behind him, Setzer, with his piled-up pompadour, his gaudily tattooed arms, his Fifties memorabilia, seems the out-of-time incarnation of some dim, dead passion.

“I missed all this the first time around,” he says with a sigh. He’s certainly caught up on all the old news, though. It’s a brief enough tale: rockabilly was born in 1954, in the Sun Studios of Memphis, where Elvis Presley and guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black invented the rocking hillbilly blues. It was then propagated by such fiery evangels as Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, the crippled Gene Vincent and the Burnette brothers, Johnny and Dorsey. One could go on. But by decade’s end, the music had virtually disappeared, withered by death and personal disasters and commercially minded career detours. Rockabilly was gone before it ever really had a chance to go anywhere. But its legacy of power, pose and rock-cat style was never completely extinguished. Bands like the Beatles and Creedence. Clearwater Revival tended the flame in the Sixties; such revivalists as Robert Gordon, the Cramps and England’s Matchbox appeared in the Seventies; and as recently as 1980, the British art-rock group Queen scored a hit with a stripped-down rockabilly cop titled “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Now, the jitterbug ethos is twitching again. Because whenever rock seems played out and ready for pasture, rockabilly is always there to remind a new generation of the music’s still-marvelous possibilities.

Brian Setzer might be said to have taken up the torch from the Beatles. True, his mother and father, now in their forties, had known the Fifties firsthand. “They were rockers,” Brian says proudly. “I got pictures of my dad with the big, baggy suit and the James Dean, and my mom with the big hoop skirt. They were around for the first time.” His father, a construction worker, wasn’t musical; but he did like Hank Williams; his mother was an Elvis fan. But it was the Beatles who hooked Brian with their jangling guitars, and at the age of eight, he began studying the instrument with a teacher, picking up, in the process, the rather unrockabilly skills of reading and writing music.

By the time he turned thirteen, he was putting together little bands in the time-honored garage tradition, working out on Chuck Berry standards and essaying “the Allman Brothers’ cover versions of Willie Dixon songs and the Stones’ and Beatles’ cover versions of rockabilly songs. It was the kind of stuff I’m doin’ now, but twice removed. I thought the Beatles wrote ‘Honey, Don’t.’ Then my father wondered in one day and said, ‘Those four guys with the long hair didn’t do that song. That’s by Carl Perkins. You don’t know “Blue Suede Shoes”?’ “

Setzer was intrigued. He scoured specialty record stores and learned the entire rockabilly canon. By the time he reached high school, he was playing nights as a solo at little neighborhood bars: “Brian Setzer, the Rockabilly Rebel.” This was back in the disco days, so it was pretty strange.

“I was really kind of the only one who knew what rockabilly was,” he says. “I wore my hair in a pompadour, and black leather pants. I hate to admit it, but I used, like, a rhythm box, and I played a folk guitar, you know? I did everything from Elvis to Buddy Holly. My fondest memory is of having people walk by me to get to the bathroom and knocking the microphone stand — every night I’d have a bloody lip. These were, like, old-man corner bars, not rock & roll places, so it was really funny: all the kids would come in, and most of the old men would get mad and leave. But some would stay. They’d like it, you know: ‘I’m not goin’ home! Hell with the wife! I like this!’ “

Meanwhile, two other south shore kids had also felt the tug of rock’s roots. Jim McDonnel was a tall, transplanted Brooklynite, the son of a New York City fireman; he, like Setzer, had been turned, on to the original big beat by way of Liverpool. “My mother had the first Beatles album — I think my father bought it for her as a joke when they first got married. I heard ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand, ‘and that was it. Ever since I was yea big, music is all I wanted to do.”

McDonnel had taken up drums. His friend Lee Drucker, on the other hand — being the son of Stanley Drucker, longtime first clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra — had initially studied cello for five years. But classical music, he says, “didn’t really thrill me too much. Once you get to be like twelve or something, you hang that up.” So he started playing bass, first an electric and then an acoustic upright model. He and Jim teamed up as a rhythm section when they were thirteen, playing mostly in garage-type blues bands, and from then on, they were inseparable.

Lee and Jim were two years younger than Brian, but they knew him from school and from hanging out with his younger brother, Gary. Brian, for his part, liked their style, which was precocious for the period.

“I remember Jimmy wore like, a gangster suit with a big hat to school once,” Setzer says. “Just to freak everybody out. I thought, ‘Wow, look at this guy, that’s great — a man after my own heart.’ “

Jim remembers life in Massapequa at that time as being “kinda normal — playin’ baseball and smokin’ pot, you know?” But Brian felt confined, out of place. By the time he was seventeen, he had had it, especially with high school. “I just couldn’t stand it anymore. The teachers were sayin’, ‘You ain’t gonna graduate. You ain’t goin’ nowhere.’ So I said, okay, I’ll get a head start and drop out now.”

Free at last, Setzer took a subsistence job for a year on a fake-foliage assembly line — screwing artificial plants into pots — and played rockabilly at night. As his act grew increasingly popular, he recruited sidemen to help out. This expanded enterprise was billed as the Tomcats. Lee and Jim often came out to catch his shows, usually turning up in retro clothes that reflected their own growing drift from blues and R&B into rockabilly. All of Setzer’s gigs seemed to take place in joints with names like Pete’s Pasta and Ronnie’s Ravioli Room, but Lee and Jim liked what they heard. When two openings appeared in the little band, they joined up. “Jimmy had a snare drum in the trunk of his car, just waitin’,” says Brian. “That’s all there was room for on those little stages.”

In 1979, they changed their name to the Stray Cats and continued playing to ever more enthusiastic crowds around Long Island. But disco was still the prevailing provincial style, and the fledgling Stray Cats probably seemed as strange to the white-suited disco studs as original rockabilly must have seemed to the average Patti Page fan a quarter century earlier. And they couldn’t play any of the big local rock clubs, either. “You had to be a Zeppelin-type cover band with lights and stuff to work the clubs,” says Lee. “We couldn’t even walk into places like that dressed like this.”

Setzer made one independent attempt to bust out, taking a side gig with a New Wavish band called the Bloodless Pharoahs (two of whose tracks survive on a 1980 Red Star Records compilation album called 2×5). It was a frustrating experience: the Pharoahs played Manhattan — the big time — but they were only able to play there about once a month. So Setzer still made most of his money with his first love, the Stray Cats, who had tons of work on Long Island and had, by this time, developed a repertoire of between 200 and 300 songs.

A way out of this bind was suggested by Tony Bidgood, an expatriate Englishman who worked as a bartender in Philadelphia at such rock bistros as J.C. Dobbs’ and the Hot Club, where the Bloodless Pharoahs sometimes played. Bidgood was a hard-core British rocker from the old mod days, and Setzer was impressed with his tattoos and his lavish pompadour. Bidgood, in turn, liked the rockabilly numbers that Setzer occasionally interjected into the Pharaohs’ sets. “Man,” he told the young guitarist, “if you went to England….”

By June 1980, the Stray Cats — with “Lee Rocker” on bass and “Slim Jim Phantom” on stand-up snare drum — were ready for just such a major change. “Rock & roll was definitely not at its peak,” says Setzer. “And disco music had obliterated any kind of live entertainment.” So, with their pal (and now manager) Tony Bidgood in tow, the band scraped up the money for some one-way tickets, packed up a guitar, a bass and a drum, and flew off to England. Cold.

“We got off the airplane in London,” Jim recalls with undimmed amazement, “and we said, ‘Oh, wow, this is groovy! Yeah! Uh, now what do we do?’ We all looked at each other like idiots, you know?”

Fortunately, rockabilly had never really died in England. Bill Haley and Gene Vincent had worked there for years past their prime, and the fact that Elvis Presley had never performed in the U.K. was looked upon by really staunch Teddy boys as a kind of national tragedy. Suddenly, here were three real rockabilly kids, playing their own songs in the hallowed style. At last.

Of course, England being England, there were other considerations. The New Romantic fashion trend was sweeping the nation, and although Setzer dismissed it as “just an excuse for men to dress up like women,” the Stray Cats, with their earrings and tattoos and great, greasy pompadours, fit right into the glittery new style. They got noticed.

At first, they spent their days knocking on doors and their nights sleeping in all-night movies, or in Hyde Park. Finally, they got their first gig — opening for the Fabulous Poodles at London’s Music Machine. More jobs followed. Soon the record companies came sniffing around. The band signed a deal (for everywhere but North America) with Arista Records, home of the dreaded Barry Manilow. Setzer explains: “We were at a party one night with one of the guys from Arista, throwing Barry Manilow records out the window, and he was laughing — he thought it was great! We thought, wow, this is the record company for us.”

All they needed was a producer. It was a short-lived lack. “We played a show at the Venue,” Jim says. “Afterward, we walked backstage, and there was this guy in the back room drinkin’ the vodka. We said, ‘Who the hell is this? Get him outta here,’ you know? They said it was Dave Edmunds. I had his records, but I never really knew what he looked like. He approached us and said, ‘I gotta work with you guys before a modern-type producer gets his hands on you and kills your sound.’ “

Setzer said, “Yeah, we agree.”

Edmunds, a noted expert on the rockabilly sound, took the Stray Cats into a tiny London studio and started recording them. In November 1980, they released their first single, “Runaway Boys”; it crashed into the British Top Ten, as did its 1981 followups, “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town.” The Stray Cats were the talk of the city. Their faces — and, of course, their clothes — adorned the pages of such slick pop chronicles as The Face. Their self-titled debut album was an international smash, going Top Ten in Britain and creating a sensation on the Continent. In France, the band was feted by local bikers (Setzer himself buzzed around on the 1953 Harley he’d had shipped over from the States), and in Japan, where they toured for two weeks, their reception, says Jim, “was like Beatlemania — it was nuts.”

The Stray Cats’ vintage sound apparently stirred fond memories in many older rock stars, too. When the band played the northern industrial town of Birmingham, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant brought his wife and daughter out to see them. And after another gig at the Venue, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts stopped backstage for a post-show chat. Richards even left Brian a phone number for his country house and invited him to drop in for a jam. “I called him later, and he said, ‘Come on over.’ It was just an impromptu jam. He picked a guitar off the floor, like a ’58 Les Paul, and he started doin’ these Scotty Moore licks, ‘Baby, Let’s Play House’ and stuff. And he did them exact, you know. I mean, he knows all that stuff. We played all night.”

Still, Setzer and company couldn’t believe it when the Stones invited them to be the opening act for three shows on their 1981 North American tour. “I was in awe,” Brian admits. “That was an honor, to be on that tour.” Jim agrees: “I was on cloud nine. I just kept pinchin’ myself, you know, makin’ sure — ‘Hey, am I really up here with the Rolling Stones, or am I gonna wake up any minute in Massapequa?’ “

The Stray Cats’ exposure on the Stones’ tour helped make their first British album a big import seller here, but they still had no U.S. record company. And things were starting to turn sour in England. There were management problems (“Tony did the best he could,” says Brian, “but let’s face it, he was a bartender”), and with the release of the group’s second British album, Gonna Ball (recorded without Edmunds’ guidance), the fickle English music press started turning on them. Frustrated, and fearing stagnation, the band returned to the U.S. and signed a deal with EMI-America Records, which last June released Built for Speed, an LP drawn largely from their two British albums. The Stray Cats then embarked on an intensive U.S. tour, backed up by heavy video exposure on MTV. Built for Speed sold steadily throughout the summer and by fall had entered the Top Ten, as had their first U.S. single, “Rock This Town.” By January, after thirty weeks on the Billboard charts, the album had sold nearly 2 million copies.

Built for Speed‘s prolonged success has delayed until May the release of the Cats’ second U.S. album. Edmunds produced this one, and it’s their best-sounding effort yet (and a grateful Setzer returned the favor by donating a new tune to Edmunds for his own next LP). The record also features some new elements — swinging Hawaiian guitar, a striking doo-wop tune called “I Won’t Stand in Your Way” (on which Setzer is backed by the young, black a cappella group Fourteen Carat Soul) — along with such trademark rockers as “Eighteen Miles from Memphis,” “Something’s Wrong with My Radio” and a rousing stomper called “Cadillac.” To keep interest high till spring, the band will embark on a thirty-day tour on February 18th that will take them from Virginia up to Canada.

As if to cement their big-time status, Lee has moved in with veteran star companion Britt Ekland, whom he met in England last summer. (“I’m very much in love,” he says.)

Even Lee’s dad, the classical clarinetist, is beaming these days. “I couldn’t be happier,” says Stanley Drucker. “Music is universal. And they really are something — everybody smiles when they play.”

As for Setzer, he’s happy to be home again (“I’m a very American boy”), but otherwise, life is still pretty simple. He races around in hot rods, drives his Harley, plays poker, bets on the horses, sips a little Jack Daniel’s. Not bad for a kid from Massapequa. Not bad for rockabilly, either — it can still set you free.

There are some lingering problems — Fortune Music, which controls the rights to Eddie Cochran’s “Jeanie, Jeanie, Jeanie,” covered by the Cats on their first album, is suing the group for $5 million for changing the song’s words without permission; Setzer sees this simply as “the vultures descending” and says, “Fuck ’em.” Nothing’s going to spoil his dream come true. After all, he talked to “Sheriff” Tex Davis recently — the man who cowrote “Be-Bop-a-Lula” with Gene Vincent. Nice guy. He complimented them on their authentic rockabilly sound. He wished them every success in the future. And the kicker?

“He said, ‘Gene would be proud.’ “


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