Former Stray Cats bassist to ‘rock’ OTW

Adding to the OTW lineup of national acts, with a new record label and a new album, former Stray Cats bassist Lee Rocker will perform at this year’s On the Waterfront festival.

Rocker’s solo career hasn’t been as prolific as Stray Cats co-founder Brian Setzer’s; however, he’s stayed true to the sound that influenced the band, making it a staple on the 1980s music scene. Since the early 1990s, Rocker’s been one of the top-drawing rockabilly acts in the world. His new album, Racin’ The Devil, hit stores in January.

A solid slice of Americana, the 12-song CD starts with a bombastic flare on the first track, “The Girl From Hell,” and does not offer much subtlety from there, including a snappy cover of The Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town.” Complete with the country twang and the drive of rock ’n’ roll, the album is dominated by the original cuts, nine of which are written by Rocker. Guitarists Brophy Dale and Buzz Campbell intertwine styles nicely. Jimmy Sage’s drumming completes the project, offering the true rockabilly fan a solid listening experience. At times, however, Racin’ The Devil gets a bit heavy, a sound that has worked well for the Reverend Horton Heat in the punk-rockabilly world, but could have been done without.

Known for his strong command of his stand-up bass, which includes spinning maneuvers, harnessing the large four-string like an electric guitar, and straddling it like a racehorse, Rocker is not just a showman. The CD does showcase Rocker’s slapback playing style, and mastery of the walking bass line. However, since his days as a Stray Cat, Lee’s vocals have been transformed into that of a natural crooner, flirting with different ranges, evident on the ballad, “Lost On The Highway.”

The new release also includes a new record label, and perhaps a new era for the band and Chicago’s Alligator Records. Known as one of the most popular blues labels in the world, Alligator and Rocker seem to fit well together. Although Racin’ The Devil is not a blues disk, it seems to blend into what the label has to offer.

Rocker said: “I think it’s a good mix. We have a lot more in common than less. It’s music that, ultimately, comes from the same place. It’s real American music, not made by machines but by people. It’s about passion and realness.”

Alligator is no stranger to the New York native, who has followed the label’s artists most of his life. According to Lee, most of his blues influences were Alligator recording artists.

“I had known about Alligator since I was a teen-ager,” Rocker added. “I have always loved the blues. A few years ago, I ran into Koko (Taylor) in Spain. She was with the folks from Alligator. We talked, and a couple years later, I was on their label.”

Born Leon Drucker in Massapequa, Long Island, in 1961, Rocker is the son of two world-renowned musicians. His father, Stanley, is a clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic. Naomi, Lee’s mother, teaches music at Hofstra University.

Urged by his parents, Lee began taking cello lessons at age 8, which widened his appreciation of music to include rock ’n’ roll. Picking up an electric bass followed, and he quickly mastered the instrument.

During grade school, he met two other musicians who eventually completed a close-knit trio. Rocker, Jimmy McDonnel (Slim Jim Phantom) and Brian Setzer began playing a variety of rock tunes before discovering what has made Alligator famous: the blues. It was also the work of rockabilly legend Carl Perkins that played an influential role in what became The Stray Cats in 1979, creating a resurgence of the genre, which has become a mainstay around the world.

After headlining famous punk haunts such as New York’s CBGB, the Stray Cats in 1980 moved to London, where they attracted droves of fans to their shows, including the Rolling Stones. A backstage meeting with Mick Jagger and company, which Rocker, Phantom and Setzer initially thought was a prank, resulted in supporting tours and friendships that continue today.

Rocker said: “We did a show in London and, one night, our manager told us that the Stones wanted to meet us. We all said, ‘Yeah, right!’ and thought he was joking. But we did hang out, and they did take us out on some tours. In fact, we’re still friends. Keith (Richards) was kind enough to play on a couple of my early solo records.”

A return to America spawned a whirlwind of success for The Stray Cats. Released in 1982, their first album, Built For Speed, became a mega-hit, holding the No. 2 spot on the Billboard chart for 26 weeks, behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller. According to Rocker, having a debut album do that well is something he will never forget.

Rocker said: “The Stray Cats took off like a rocket. For some reason, we really connected with people.”

In the early 1980s, the music that had been pumping through radio speakers around the world suddenly had faces to go with it, as MTV soon revealed that three of those faces were of The Stray Cats.

“We took an old style of music and put our own stamp on it,” Rocker said. “Nobody was really doing that. And then, around ’81 or ’82, MTV entered, and really helped us push it. Suddenly, everybody knew us.”

After the demise of The 'Cats in 1986, Rocker and Jim Phantom recruited ex-David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick, and formed Phantom, Rocker & Slick, scoring a minor hit, “Men Without Shame.”

In 1994, Lee released Big Blue, followed by 1995’s Atomic Boogie Hour, both on Black Top Records and the first two of his solo career. Four more albums followed, keeping Rocker busy in the U.S. and Europe, touring with ex-Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore in 2002.

Although The Stray Cats reunited in London in 2003 for the band’s 25th anniversary and did 18 European shows and a 2004 DVD, Rocker said he doesn’t feel a Stray Cats reunion will happen any time soon. Sad for some fans, but for Lee, he’s content with that. Noting that he and the other two ’Cats are still friends, Rocker keeps focused on his current projects, as do Phantom and Setzer.

Lee said: “I don’t keep in contact with Jimmy and Brian all that often at all. I have known them since we were 10, and I know them so damn well. It’s kind of all right. I know I can always call. I am proud of what I am doing right now.”

Lee Rocker and his band hit the On the Waterfront Verizon Left Bank Stage at 10 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 2. Tickets are $12 for a three-day festival button, if purchased in advance, or $14 for daily admission wristbands. More information about On the Waterfront can be found at For Lee Rocker tour updates and other information, visit

From the Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2006, issue

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