Lee Rocker ... something new with something old



           May 12, 2006 - Courtesy: John Wirt, www.2theadvocate.com


           Lee Rocker, along with fellow Stray Cats Brian Setzer and Slim Jim Phantom, revived rockabilly decades after its '50s heyday. With the Stray Cats and without them, Rocker and his upright bass have continuously put a pulse-racing spin on the vintage rockabilly and rock 'n' roll he came to love as a kid back on Long Island.
           Along with occasional Stray Cats reunions and a brief mid-'80s run with Phantom, Rocker and Slick, Rocker cut seven solo albums. Two of them, 1994's Big Blue and 1995's Atomic Boogie Hour, were released by New Orleans label Black Top.
           Rocker's especially enthusiastic about his latest disc, Racin' The Devil. It's his first for Chicago's Alligator Records. The singer-bassist-songwriter invested three years in the project. He took tapes of in-progress songs with him on tour and was in and out of the studio for a year.
           "I really got a chance to live with everything, as opposed to starting Feb. 1 and going, OK, this record's done on the 28th,' " Rocker said from his home in Laguna Beach, Calif. "I got to zero in on what I wanted and not compromise."
           As with every record he makes, Rocker strived to expand his roots-rock foundation.
           "I try not to tread over the same ground," he said. "I take what I love about traditional rock 'n' roll upright bass, twangy guitars, echoes and do something new with it. Not treating it like, Hey, here's some museum piece. Let's dust it off.' "
           On Racin' The Devil, Rocker's writing and musicianship show his mastery of the rockabilly and rockabilly swing the Stray Cats excelled at, as well as the more mainstream rock 'n' roll of Chuck Berry. There's even some rolling country in the mix.
           Rocker discovered rockabilly records in, of all places, a public library.
           "I remember walking through the library and seeing the Buddy Holly record and the Carl Perkins record," he said. "You weren't hearing this music on the radio then."
           Even before he borrowed the library's rockabilly collection, Rocker was a blues fan.
           "I didn't like what was going on in commercial music when I was growing up," he said. "It wasn't my thing and, playing bass, I wound playing a lot of blues stuff. I loved Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, James Cotton, and still do.
           "Then I discovered rockabilly music. It hit me. It was like, Wow, how come everyone doesn't know about this?' "
           Of course, Rocker's doing so with his signature upright bass.
           "It's got so much more rhythm and feeling than an electric bass. Nothing sounds like an upright bass. That's my thing and my instrument. Plus, you can't stand on an electric bass."
           The bassist found kindred spirits in fellow Long Island kids Setzer and Phantom.
           "We were in class together and jamming in people's garages and living rooms. It was kind of like, Hey, did you ever hear Gene Vincent?' "
           Early on, people thought the trio was strange, but they still loved the young rockabilly cats.
           "For all teenagers knew when we first started, we wrote Blue Suede Shoes,' " Rocker said. "And the band really had an instant power. Things happened quickly. We played in clubs out in the suburbs on Long Island, but one of the main things we were doing was playing CBGB's in Manhattan and Max's Kansas City. We took the music and hotrodded it even more. There was a kinship with the punk movement and what we were doing."
           The Stray Cats went fulltime in 1979. Shortly after the band's move to England in 1980, they got a hit record. The trio's 1982 album, Built For Speed, was immensely popular. The Cats' hit singles filled the radio and, in music-video form, the recently launched MTV. About 15 years into their existence, the Stray Cats ran their course.
           "It's like a marriage or something," Rocker said. "After 15 years of working together since you're 14 or 15, enough's enough."
           Rocker's run with the Cats became his avenue to working with his heroes Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore (one of Elvis Presley's guitarists) as well as former Beatles Ringo Starr and the late George Harrison and Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck.
           The late Perkins, Rocker said, "was a great guy and a huge influence. And I'd have to say a very humble, nice guy. That was good to see, because you come across all kinds of people."
           Perkins treated everyone from celebrity musicians to the guy mopping the studio floor with respect, Rocker added.
           Moore, Rocker said, "he's a real gentleman and a pioneer of rock 'n' roll. Two of the most influential guitar players of the last 50 years are Scotty Moore and Jimi Hendrix. Both of those cats had so much to do with how all the rest of us are playing."
           Perkins, for one, acknowledged Rocker's role in revitalizing rockabilly.
           "Carl was always great at saying, This is our music.' And that's the thing, to take it and do your own thing with it. That brings me back to Racin' the Devil. My goal is doing what Perkins and Scotty and Elvis did from a new place."
           Of course, Rocker's doing so with his signature upright bass.
           "It's got so much more rhythm and feeling than an electric bass. Nothing sounds like an upright bass. That's my thing and my instrument. Plus, you can't stand on an electric bass."


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