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The Stray Cats’ Lee Rocker on the Rockabilly Legends’ 40th Anniversary, New Album, Tour and Legacy
Looking like they stepped out of time machine with the dial switched to 1956, The Stray Cats emerged on the music scene in the early ‘80s with a stroking image, incendiary live performance and a trunk of catchy, radio friendly rockabilly flavored powerhouses that set the record charts on fire. “Stray Cat Strut,” “Rock This Town,” “Runaway Boys,” and (She’s) “Sexy & 17” were among the fusillade of hip swiveling, hell cat boppin’ signature tracks delivered by the trio. Returning to the music scene with a new album, 40, their first in 26 years, and bookmarked by an extensive European and U.S. tour, The Stray Cats are poised to “rock this town” worldwide.
Rock Cellar: This is the Stray Cats’ first album in 26 years. What made it the right time?
Lee Rocker: It’s amazing that’s it’s been 26 years since we did a studio album and 40 years since we first got together. Last year we decided to do a couple of concerts. We’ve done some concerts in these last 26 years; we’ve done some tours here and there. So last year we said, “let’s do these four shows,” and we got onstage in Las Vegas and for me it was the audience. Waiting to go out onstage and they’re playing “C’mon Everybody” by Eddie Cochran and walking out and having 20,000 people there and starting to play and they’re singing every word with the band.
It was a really emotional thing that people were there that believed in the band so much and supported us and the band sounded amazing, The spark was there; the chemistry as there and we really all from that first show, it got the conversation started. Then realizing the magnitude of next year being 40 years since we got together, that led to us getting into the studio and recording the record and this year going on a world tour.
Rock Cellar: Working in the studio, did the band’s innate chemistry return immediately or did it take some time to find the groove?
Lee Rocker: Yes, it was there right away. The thing is with the Stray Cats, when we’re at our best we do things one way and that is live, as live as possible. That’s what the Stray Cats are about; we’re a live rock and roll band.
It’s not overdubs and it’s not studio trickery. So getting into the studio was virtually the same as doing a concert. We set up in one room shoulder to shoulder, no headphones, and played, and I think one of the really unique things about the band is that there’s a lot of freedom in the music. The Stray Cats, when the three of us get together, there’s a spark that happens and it becomes almost conversational musically. So if there’s a guitar riff at the end of a solo and Brian (Setzer) ends a figure in a certain way I’ll react to that and alter my playing to that. Jim might put an accent and this happens back and forth between all of us.
So it’s not like these songs are written in a way like, this is how it goes. No, that’s not how it goes, that’s how it went that time. We go live and try to capture that magic. In a weird way we’re a rock and roll band that sort of has one foot in a jazz mentality in that way.
Rock Cellar: When the Stray Cats first got together, punk and new wave were the rage. Performing music with a ‘50s rockabilly flavor, did the band feel like its own island in the musical oasis?
Lee Rocker: Definitely we felt like we were in our own world. We all operate in a bubble, and I think I do musically outside of The Stray Cats, too, with Lee Rocker records and concerts. We do what we love and we’re good at this kind of music. You try and write a great song and you try to play it well, and as a musician you try to grow and always learn things. I think it’s just pointless to try and follow a trend.
The Stray Cats are this entity, this unique thing, especially at this point, and that uniqueness is the combination of the three of us. So it’s what it is and hopefully if you love it, you love it and if you don’t you don’t, but it’s a specific thing.
Rock Cellar: Your studio work from the early ‘80s was helmed by the great Dave Edmunds. What were the most significant contributions he made to the band’s sound as a producer?
Lee Rocker: Dave Edmunds produced the early Stray Cats records, which was the most important time ‘cause that set everything up for us. Dave was one of the early people coming down to see the Stray cats perform.
When we first moved to England without a record deal, pretty quickly, almost like we were shot out of a cannon, members of The Rolling Stones were showing up at out shows, Motorhead, Pete Townshend, a tremendous amount of people that were really bringing a lot of attention to the band. You can imagine with the Stones showing up and sitting in the front row there might have been a few photographers around and writers.
Dave was down there very early. After one of our first dozen shows we got back to the dressing room after doing the show and Dave was in there having a vodka and he goes, “Listen, I want to produce you guys, I know you have a lot of people vying to produce the band but I want to get in there before some record company gets involved and fucks it up.”
We loved Dave’s music. He’s a tremendous guitar player and producer. He let the band be the band and he recorded us perfectly. What he did for us is he let us operate and play and he kept an even keel and didn’t interrupt that process like a pop producer would have, “why don’t you play this here and change this part here?” It wasn’t that. It was creating the right environment and the records were record beautifully and mixed beautifully. He knew when to step in and knew when not to. That’s tough job to do and he did it magnificently.
Rock Cellar: The Stray Cats rise coincided with the birth of MTV, how did that play into the band’s success?
Lee Rocker: We started doing videos really on back in 1980 and we were still living in England. There were TV shows in England that would play them, but there was nothing like MTV. Then MTV came on shortly afterwards and grabbed up these videos and of course helped launch the band in America in a huge way.
As a fan I loved MTV back in the day when they played music. But it was a great vehicle. Since it was pre-internet, this was the way you got to see and hear music, and it became a whole other thing. We had a couple of interesting things that happened with the Stray Cats that really helped break the band. MTV was certainly one, and another was a TV show called Fridays. We were flying from London to LA and did not have a US record deal yet but we’d sold a lot of records in Europe. It was one of these British Airways flights, they called it a “pub flight” and it as fantastic thing.
You could sit at a bar for the whole flight. (laughs) Sitting there next to us we’re talking and having a drink with a guy who said, “You’re the Stray Cats. I produce a TV show called ‘Fridays’ and I’d love to have you on.” We said, “Great” and did the show. Cross the bottom of the screen they ran a ticker tape that said, “This band does not have a record deal in America.” That did a lot for us. In hindsight, I’m not so sure it happened to be a coincidence that the guy happened to be on the plane with us but I don’t think I realized that until years later.
Rock Cellar: From the group’s 1989 album Blast Off! comes “Gene and Eddie,” one of the band’s most underrated songs, an affectionate tip of the hat to two of the band’s primary influences, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran.
Lee Rocker: “Gene and Eddie” is a song that we wrote as a band and it’s a tribute to our musical heroes, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran of course. Those guys were a huge influence on us but not well known amongst the general public of course not like a (Johnny) Cash or a (Elvis) Presley. They were better known in England.
What was cool is that song fell together so beautifully just taking hooks and pieces and sowing them together in that song and I do love that one. It’s stood the test of time.
Rock Cellar: “Blue Suede Shoes: A Rockabilly Session,” featuring Carl Perkins and Friends, was filmed 34 years ago. Besides the Stray Cats, joining Carl were two Beatles, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Dave Edmunds among others. Take us back to the filming of that historic special.
Lee Rocker: The Carl Perkins and Friends things from back then was just an unbelievable experience and it led to so much for me personally. It was the first time George and Ringo has performed together in at least ten years. You had Eric Clapton there, Dave Edmunds, Carol of course, Rosanne Cash, Slim Jim, Earl Slick and myself. It was unbelievable sessions.
One of the really cool things about it is we spent a week rehearsing for it. It was a great hang with everyone and I was able to get to know everyone really well. Carl was this amazing person who put this together. I’ll never forget being there at the sound stage on the first day and I’m standing next to George Harrison which was mighty cool itself. We’re looking out the window and he goes, “Oh my God, it’s Carl Perkins!” Carl was just walking in and he was thrilled and George knew Carl over the years.
But I don’t think anyone could get over their excitement; Carl was the legend and an architect of rock and roll. It did lead to a lot of stuff for me personally, like some hangtime with George over the years. I saw him in LA socially a couple of times over the years, saw him at a studio in Los Angeles, Michael Kamen’s studio where he was doing some work. We’d been in touch a little over the years and I think the last time I saw him was at Carl’s funeral in Jackson, Tennessee in ‘98. George got up and did a Carl song.
Rock Cellar: George had to have been a fan of The Stray Cats, right?
Lee Rocker: Yeah, he loved the Stray Cats. He was a big rockabilly fan. He told me he was a member of the Carl Perkins fan club growing up and he would use Carl as his hotel check in, sometimes he would be “Carl Harrison.” So it led to me playing sessions with Carl and recording a little bit with Ringo in later years.
Over many years Carl and I did a lot of concerts together and TV shows; the soundtrack to Porky’s Revenge. It’s one of the few times where the sequel is better than the original. We recently discovered other tracks that we recorded with Carl Perkins, Slim Jim, myself and Dave Edmunds and that may be coming out on a UK based label.
Rock Cellar: As classic 50s rockers like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison had their legacy kickstarted by contributions of contemporary musicians with clout, I always had the fantasy that had Elvis not passed away, the Stray Cats would have been the perfect fans to have been involved in a legacy resurrection of Elvis.
Lee Rocker: That would been super cool. I think we could have done a good job with him. As a sidebar, over the course of my career over the last 40 years, I spent a lot of time with Elvis’s guitar player, Scotty Moore. He joined my band for tours and I played on his final record, All The King’s Men. He played on some of my records. We had a really tight, fantastic friendship and what a guitar player!
Arguably I would say he was one of the most influential guitar players in the history of rock, him and Jimi Hendrix.
Those two influenced the most people to play the guitar.
Rock Cellar: Playing stand-up bass, can you throw some props to Bill Black, Elvis’ original bass player who played a mean stand-up bass?
Lee Rocker: He was a really good player and he was great onstage. Perfect pitch and well executed. He was a monster of a player. Bill Black is one of my biggest influences, and Willie Dixon is another.
Rock Cellar: Going back decades to the formation of the Stray Cats, looking back was there one spot-on good decision that set the band on a course of success?
Lee Rocker: Going to England in June of 1980 was absolutely the right thing to do and none of it was planned and none of it was thought out. (laughs) We just did stuff.
In those early days we were playing Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s a little bit and playing in bars out in Long Island and we did not have a record deal. We took gig money and bought airline tickets for us and my bass and we went over there with no plan. We literally started knocking on doors at pubs and venues, and one thing led to another to another and it happened super quick after a couple of weeks of sleeping in Hyde Park and all-night movie theaters. It all came together. It wasn’t a plan, but it was a great decision for us to move to England.
Rock Cellar: If you had to boil down the band’s legacy to one song, what song would you choose and why?
Lee Rocker: It would have to be “Stray Cat Strut.” It’s original, it’s different, it’s a great song, the melody is great and all of the instruments speak plus it’s got a bass solo. (laughs)
All three of us have such prominence in it. That’s the other thing about the band, being a stripped down trio, there’s so much room for each of us to put a stamp down. I have been thinking a lot about The Stray Cats because it’s been a long time and we’re doing it now and I’m at a point in my life where I can have a little bit of a perspective on things.
I’m a forward-looking person, I’m always looking at the next thing and this is the next thing again and it’s super cool.