On one of the many highlight tunes from his new album “Black Cat Bone,” bassist Lee Rocker retraces, in a little more than three minutes, the beginnings of a rockabilly-based career that has extended nearly three decades.
Titled “String Bass, Guitar and a Drum” after the core elements of the roots music he is devoted to, the song is one of the few instances where Rocker affords himself the luxury of looking back. It details a time at the dawn of the 1980s when he, along with a pair of fellow Long Island, N.Y., teens, moved to London to experience a pop music world in rapid flux.
Punk was everywhere. The Clash ruled the airwaves. Two-tone ska bands were the rage. And into this fiery scene, Rocker and his chums - guitarist Brian Setzer and drummer Slim Jim Phantom - threw a revivalistic rockabilly sound. Audiences flocked to it. Eventually, so did crowds back home in America. Thus began the reign of the Stray Cats.
“I would say that what we did back then worked, but that would infer there was a plan to it all,” said Rocker. “We were just dumb kids grabbing a guitar, bass and drums going, `Let’s go see if we can play some gigs.’
“I’m not very good at analyzing exactly why all this happened, except to say that the band always connected with an audience. We did know that.”
While the Stray Cats occasionally reunite for tours, the most recent being last summer, the bassist has spent the better part of the past two decades defining his own musical personality and finding a place where his brand of rockabilly can be viewed as something other than just a party-savvy retro attraction.
“People seem to think of rockabilly as `50s music,” Rocker said. “I don’t see it that way at all. I think rockabilly is a style, a certain sound and a certain feel. I definitely don’t like to think that it’s stuck in a time warp.”
Take a listen to “Black Cat Bone,” and you’ll better understand his reasoning. “The Wall of Death” blurs rockabilly tradition with bits of blues and surf references. “Free Bass” is a fascinating, unaccompanied acoustic bass groove full of percussive funk, folkish melody and jazzy suggestion. Most telling of all is a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” nugget “One More Night,” which sounds more like a joust between Buddy Holly and Richie Valens than the country serenade it was designed as.
“I’m a little skeptical when it comes to covers,” Rocker said. “I guess I don’t really think of them as covers. My test in playing other people’s music is to see if I can put my own stamp on it, if I can do something original with it. I don’t want to just re-create stuff. That’s pretty pointless.”
Take a look at Rocker’s professional life before and after the Stray Cats, and you get an even better idea of the expansive inspirations that fuel his rockabilly sound.
He began taking cello lessons at the age of 8, but Rocker soon became fascinated by the larger stand-up bass. One of his initial influences didn’t come from rockabilly or rock `n’ roll. It was veteran jazz bassist Ray Brown, who performed extensively with Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and scores of others.
“Without a doubt, Ray Brown was my favorite bass player,” Rocker said. “I grew up taking classical music lessons and learning to read and write music. But I listened to all kinds of things. I’m a jazz fan. I’m an Americana fan. So Ray’s playing, the way he would wind his way through the chords, always intrigued me.”
Flash forward to the late `80s, when Rocker recorded, performed with and befriended one of his idols: rockabilly great (and “Blue Suede Shoes” composer) Carl Perkins. Bringing rockabilly to the top of the charts with the Stray Cats was one thing. But working and becoming pals with one of the chief architects of the music remains one of Rocker’s biggest career thrills.
“This was just after the Stray Cats years. Working with Carl Perkins just lit a fire in me. Even when you leave the music he wrote and played out of the equation, he was a great, generous human being and a true gentleman.”
But what of Rocker the solo artist? Excluding reunion tours, the Stray Cats’ working life lasted roughly five years. Rocker’s solo career is well into its second decade. Whittle away the concert records, cover collections and anthologies from their catalogue, and you are left with perhaps five studio albums of Stray Cats material. Rocker has recorded eight as a solo artist. The Stray Cats spent 11 days making its 1981 self-titled, British-issued debut album. Rocker spent a year - with recording sessions alternating with touring so that both remained fresh - working on “Black Cat Bone.”
Given how much time he worked under his own name, is Rocker at all irked that many fans still view him first and foremost as a Stray Cat?
“I really don’t think about that,” he said. “I just try to focus on my music. I do my best work, put it out there and let the chips fall. My history with the Stray Cats I’m real proud of. I love the guys. We made great records. And there are probably some people out there for whom it is difficult to look beyond that.
“But I’ve also seen fantastic growth out there for what I’ve done with my own band. There’s still a lot of enthusiasm. I’m overjoyed by it.”
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