By Andrew Gilhooley / 411
When the Stray Cats released “Runaway Boy” in 1981, they turned a whole new generation on to rockabilly music. Riding on the tail end of the punk movement, the band’s distinctive visual style and retro sound won legions of fans on both sides of the Atlantic. After a string of hit singles and albums, the band broke up in 1984. The band has reformed and broken up several times since, with the various members enjoying parallel solo careers. This Friday, you can see what upright bassist Lee Rocker is up to these days by checking out his show at Moe’s Alley Blues Club in Santa Cruz.
Lee Rocker (real name Leon Drucker) grew up in Long Island, NY, and was friends with his Stray Cats bandmates Brian Setzer and Slim Jim “Phantom” McDonnell since age 10. As a child, he played cello (both of his parents were classical musicians) but switched to electric bass at age 13. “At that point, I was listening to rock and roll and loved it, like any kid,” he said, “and at a certain point it wasn't too cool to be carrying a cello to school.” After a year or two, he switched to upright bass and formed the Stray Cats with Setzer and McDonnell while the three were in high school.
After playing around New York for a couple of years, the band decided, more or less on a whim, to go to England. “It would have been a really smart thing to do in hindsight to have planned it, but we just went to Europe for the summer like a lot of kids do,” said Rocker. “But we went with our instruments, and the band got signed within about 3 or 4 months, and had a single right after that. It was pretty much a whirlwind throughout those years.”
After the breakup of the Stray Cats, Rocker further cemented his reputation as a world-class bassist, playing live and recording with some of the music industry’s top names, including Carl Perkins, Jeff Beck, George Harrison and Willie Nelson. In 2002, he backed Scotty Moore, best known as guitarist in Elvis Presley’s band.
Rocker also performs with his own band, and has released five solo albums, the most recent being 2003’s “Bulletproof.” Vintage Guitar magazine described “Bulletproof” as “as fine a rock album as you’ll hear in a while.” Comprising instrumentals, original songs and a few cover versions, “Bulletproof” is a fun and impressive showcase of Rocker’s skills, as well as those of his bandmates Buzz Campbell (guitar), Brophy Dale (guitar, vocals) and Jimmy Sage (drums).
Rocker’s live show is a mixture of his songs, cover tunes and, more recently, Stray Cats songs. “For a bunch of years after the Stray Cats, I didn’t do Cats songs, and I really don’t know what I was thinking at the time,” he said. “A few years ago I said to my band, ‘Let’s do a couple of these songs.’ I’m having a ball playing the. If you have hit songs, you should be out playing them.”
After more than 25 years of playing rockabilly, Rocker’s commitment to it is as strong as ever. “It’s definitely the music I love,” he said. “It’s something I started playing when I was a teenager and never let go of.”
First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, September 29, 2005
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