Bassist Lee Rocker Stays Close to Stray Cats’ Rockabilly
Modesto, Calif. — Go back and listen to the music of the Stray Cats.
Up front, you’ll hear the band’s shared vocals and uber-slick guitar work of Brian Setzer, but in the back — holding everything together — is the bass playing of Lee Rocker, every bit as responsible for the trio’s meteoric success in the early 1980s as the charismatic Setzer.
As Setzer moved along to other projects — most notably his swing-rock orchestra — it’s been Rocker keeping alive the rockabilly sound as revived by the Stray Cats during the dawn of MTV.
“The live show … incorporates my history,” said Rocker, 51, in a telephone interview from his home in Laguna Beach, Calif. “I’ll do all the important Stray Cats songs and all the other important songs in my career.
“But at one point in the show, I’ll break things down. The drummer will leave the stage and I’ll talk about how rock music started and we’ll do some traditional acoustic Americana rockabilly. It doesn’t come down in intensity, but it does come down in volume. We turn the clock back a little bit.”
Rocker’s own retro clock reveals a young man seemingly born to play music.
He was born Leon Drucker in Massapequa, on New York’s Long Island, and his father, Stanley Drucker, was a clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic for 61 years — the last 49 as principal clarinetist before retiring in 2009. His mother, Naomi Drucker, also a clarinetist, is a professor of music at Hofstra University.
“I played a lot of different things growing up,” Rocker said. “The only real rule we had in the house was that everybody had to play an instrument, but it was our choice. Around 6 or 7, I took to the cello and enjoyed it. I took lessons and learned to read music and so I always connected with stringed instruments.”
But he also connected with rock ’n’ roll, so when he was 13, he took up electric bass — a natural move for someone trained on cello — and started up garage bands with school friends. They played mostly covers, but Rocker discovered a love of a slightly different style — the blues.
“I did like rockabilly music, but my interests were broader than just rockabilly, and I think sometimes descriptions like that can be sliced a bit too thinly,” Rocker said. “I became aware of rockabilly music through the blues, from Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and the Allman Brothers. Willie Dixon was a great writer, producer and upright bass player. He was playing bass with Chuck Berry.”
It was a time of punk rock and synth-pop, but other young players in Massapequa also were doing some things with rockabilly, including two guys at Rocker’s high school — James McDonnell and Setzer.
The three — with Rocker now playing upright bass and developing his signature slap style — played together informally, then formed The Tomcats early in 1979. Within months, they were filling local clubs and drawing enthusiastic crowds to New York music hot spots CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. McDonnell took on the stage name “Slim Jim Phantom.”
“We were young, but we were connecting to a rabid audience,” Rocker said.
“We were drawing good crowds, but we weren’t getting the attention of record companies. We just had crowds who loved the show, but the record companies didn’t know what we were.
“We were in the middle of the punk world because we were different. It all was about sweat and passion and energy. Rockabilly is the original punk rock in so many ways, and we had a punk following.”
In June 1980, the Tomcats sold their gear to pay for one-way tickets to London.
“We moved to England with no master plan, but we went to see what was going over there,” Rocker said. “Maybe we’d go there for a month or two, then come back. But as soon as we started playing over there, we knew we were on to something. By the end of summer we had a record deal. It all happened so quickly, but it didn’t seem too quick for us when we had to sleep in the park. In the grand scheme of things, it was weeks of struggling, not months or years.”
Under their new name, the Stray Cats were the toast of London. They got a record deal and, with the legendary Dave Edmonds producing, pumped out their first album, containing the global hits Rock This Town and Stray Cat Strut.
The three-hour tour of England lasted two years.
They returned stateside with hits under their belts and stayed hot as the opening act for the Rolling Stones’ national tour.
The band’s first U.S. release, Built For Speed, was a compilation of the best songs from their two British albums, and spent 26 weeks as No. 2 on the Billboard chart, behind albums by Asia, Fleetwood Mac, John Cougar and Men At Work.
But the commercial success of the band also meant it was constantly on the road — touring, writing and recording simultaneously with little or no downtime.
The pressure drove a stake through the brotherhood of the band, and by late 1984, the Stray Cats were ready to break up.
“There was so much going on,” Rocker said. “It was four, five years of nonstop work and touring. If we had a better scheme, the wise move after about three years would have been to take six months of downtime, then regroup and write some songs.
“I have no regrets or complaints, but there were other ways it could have gone. Partnerships are a difficult thing to maintain. A three-way democracy is an ugly equation. Without an agreement, nothing happens, and to get three guys to agree on anything is difficult.”
While Setzer was joining Robert Plant’s Honeydrippers, Rocker and Slim Jim formed Phantom, Rocker and Slick, with former David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick. That band put out two albums and enjoyed some MTV success, but since 1994, Rocker has led his own band — only occasionally reuniting with Setzer and Slim Jim.
“The Stray Cats is something that’s been on and off for about 35 years,” Rocker said. “It’s all good. I think it’s the way it needs to be. We last did something together in 2009.”
The Stray Cats may be in the past, but Rocker’s style remains very much in the moment and in demand. He recently returned to England to teach a master class and found a new generation of upright bass players ready to embrace all styles.
But above all, Rocker still is playing rockabilly, and remains the genre’s foremost slap bass player.
“People should come down to see us because it’s a great rock ’n’ roll show,” Rocker said.
“Everyone in the band has been with me for at least a decade, so it’s a well-tuned machine that kicks butt.
“I couldn’t be prouder than when I play with these musicians. We have fun, and every night is different. You never know what you’re going to get.”