ambassador for the devil's music

Update: June 16, 2000
  • The Cat's Back. Former Stray Cat Lee Rocker went from cello to upright bass - rockabilly hasn't been the same since. Article by William Athey - Salt Lake City Weekly

    Blues, rockabilly, roots-rock, americana - call it what you like. But to Lee Rocker, it's all just American music. "My thing has always been American music. Rock-n-roll was 'the devil's music.' It was pure energy, and rockabilly is the original punk music," claims Rocker. With his mew solo effort "No Cats" recently released on Upright Records, Rocker is showing the world that nobody knows "the devil's music" better.

    Growing up on Long Island, Rocker and his pals, Brian Setzer and "Slim" Jim Phantom, never wanted to do anything more than play music...their music...the devil's music. They played all over New York and eventually moved to London in the early 1980s where they received a record contract and sold seven million records worldwide as The Stray Cats. The band re-introduced "the devil's music" - or rockabilly as they called it - to a new generation of kids and adults. Rocker's aggressive-style as the band's stand-up bass player provided exactly the right ingredients for rock-n-roll's shift into the video age, giving "the devil's music" a new look and feel that propelled The Stray Cats to super stardom and earned them a Grammy nomination plus an opening slot on tour with The Rolling Stones. Not bad for a bunch of teenagers in the '80s.

    Of course, it would be easy for Rocker to rest on his laurels after the success of The Stray Cats. Certainly, any musician could retire after such recognition. But what most people don't know is that Lee was still in high school when The Stray Cats' stardom hit. "People tend to forget that I was only 17 when the Cats phenomenon began. And, I'm as much a contemporary of Beck as I am a dedicated fan and friend of Carl Perkins."

    Rocker solidified his well-earned respect in American music when he was invited to perform on the Showtime special, "Blue Suede Shoes," which included Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Dave Edmunds, George Harrison, and Carl Perkins. Perkins, the late, legendary pioneer of rockabilly, saw something special in Rocker. Together, Perkins and Rocker were responsible for the soundtracks of several films and performed together on the Tonight Show. Rocker is especially proud of his work on Perkins' last album, "Go Cat Go," on which he played alongside Paul Simon and John Fogerty, as well as being included in Perkins' biography.

    With the death of Perkins, Lee Rocker, whether he likes it or not, has now become the dean of Americana music. "No Cats" constitutes Rocker's first truly solo effort, although, he collaborated on several albums after The Stray Cats, including "Phantom, Rocker and Slick" (featuring ex-Cat "Slim" Jim Phantom and Bowie guitarist Earl Slick), and "Cover Girl" (also with Phantom and Slick) spawning the top 40 single (penned by Rocker) "Men Without Shame," and two albums with his second post-Cats project Big Blue.

    Featuring guest performances from Elliot Easton of The Cars and the legendary Leon Russell, "No Cats," has achieved a truly organic quality. With drummers Jimmy Sage and Steve Duncan (formerly of the esteemed country act The Desert Rose Band) alternating on different tracks and the complementary solo and rhythm work of two strong guitarists, Adrian Demain and Mike Eldred, Rocker has unified and honed his musical assault, achieving a single consciousness divided among many players. Songs such as "Rumblin' Bass" and "Miracle In Memphis" echo the passion of this true American original. The catchy melodies and lyrical images lift his material above standard roots-rock revivalism. Rocker intends on generating the same kind of excitement in the United States as Americana music receives in Europe. "You can always count on American music to become popular in the cycle of music," says Rocker. "It is the original and when people get tired of listening to the flavor-of-the-month, they always return to their roots and those roots are now known as Americana, but I just prefer to call it 'the devil's music.'" Lee Rocker will make sure the devil gets his due by touring both the U.S. and Europe over the course of 1998.

    Lee Rocker is currently available for interviews. Please contact David Crowley at The Lee Solters Co. at (213) 651-9300.


    Lee Rocker, No Cats. Self-release CD Review By Buddy Seigal

    The ex-Stray Cats bassist's first release on his own label finds him turning in an ambitious, wildly eclectic album that shows off his strengths to much better effect than did two earlier releases with his first post-Cats project, Big Blue. Raging rockabilly numbers like "Ramblin' Bass," "Miracle in Memphis" and "Little Piece of Your Love" (penned by Leon Russell, who also guests on piano) maintain their roots sensibility while stretching out beyond three-chord cliches. Rocker also dabbles in some chooglin' Tex Mex (including a cover of Blondie's "One Way or Another"), and there's an anthemic, eminently soulful country-tinged ballad in "Hard Rain."

    Rocker, a resident of Laguna Beach, is a ferocious upright bassist whose precise, rhythmic slapping comes off like a cross between a locomotive and an atomic metronome. If his fretwork isn't exactly what you'd call submetronome. If his fretwork isn't exactly what you'd call subtle, the joy and power with which he attacks his instrument remains among the key elements of this album's success - not to mention an underrated component of the Stray Cat's throbbing sound. As a singer, Rocker's m.o. is much like his playing: he pushes out songs from the chest in an in-your-face style that works well with his material. On "No Cats", Rocker is joined by a number of solid sidemen, the most impressive of whom is ex-Forbidden Pigs guitarist Adrian Demain, whose slick , jazzy solo on "Love Me Good" and Clarence Carter-like soul pickin' on "Memphis Freeze" are pure delights. "No Cats" is available at select retail outlets throughout Orange County and at all of Rocker's concerts.

    From _The_Pitch_, No. 521, May 7-13

    When the Cat's Away

    by Jon Niccum

    "For some reason, rockabilly music got tied to an era. It's the only kind of music I can think of that is so closely linked to a specific time period," Lee Rocker explains on his cell phone while passing through Toledo, OH. "But things have broken loose lately, and I think it's down to people not trying to treat rockabilly as a museum piece anymore."

    For ex-Stray Cats bassist and current solo artist Lee Rocker, the current resurgence in rockabilly, roots, Americana, No Depression (call it what you will) styles is in many ways encouraging.

    "A lot of young people are rediscovering American music on their own. It's not like a record company or the industry is shoving it down anyone's throat," he says. "It's just naturally there."

    Rocker's new solo album _No_Cats_ is proof of that statement, providing a catchy, eclectic approach to songwriting fueled by his blistering upright bass work. It's rare to hear a bass player so dominant on a recording, but for Rocker (who put _No_Cats_ out on his own Dixiefrog label), that's kind of the point of the album...and its title.

    "I get asked a lot of Stray Cats questions, so I thought that was my answer. You know, here it is: NO CATS. There's nothing too snide about it. I didn't mean it to come across as anything negative. I'm real proud of the records we made and what we managed to accomplish...I was 17 when we did the first Stray Cats record, signed our first deal in Europe. People expect to see some old man up there onstage now. I'm only 35," says Rocker, who adopted his professional name (he was born Leon Drucker) around the time of the band's overseas signing.

    It's hard to believe that is has been 16 years since The Stray Cats were all the rage, selling over two million copies of their U.S. debut _Built_ _for_Speed_, enjoying a top 10 hit with "Rock this Town" and having their videos plastered all over MTV. Although The Stray Cats progressively tried to outdo their own image with increasingly exaggerated pompadours and pretty-boy facial makeup, Rocker still fondly recalls the spectacle of it all.

    "Maybe I'm a little embarrassed about some of the makeup," he says laughing. But beyond the ealry 80's greaser glamour, Rocker stresses the importance the Cats had on the legacy of modern rockabilly music. "We were the first band since the original generation in the mid-to-late '50s, probably from '59-'82, to have a legitimate hit playing rockabilly," he says. "Or even a band to have a track with upright bass on it being a hit of the magnitude of 'Rock this Town' and 'Stray Cat Strut'. I think we helped bring it back and continued that legacy that came along since then, like Reverend Horton Heat."

    The initial impact of the Cats was memorable but brief, as the group called it quits in 1983. Bassist Rocker, drummer Slim Jim Phantom, and ex-David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick went on to form Phantom, Rocker, and Slick, releasing two records on the Cats' old label EMI America. The original Stray Cats reunited in 1986, putting out four records during an on-again, off-again period that found the band meeting with little commercial success. By 1993, the members had gone their separate ways once more. Rocker briefly fronted the trio Big Blue, but it wasn't until this year that a Rocker project was denoted by his sole name on the marquee.

    Now handling the lead vocal chores, which the musician says, "I've gotten really comfortable with, especially recently," Rocker again finds himself in the spotlight, touring on the strength of a terrific record. _No_Cats_ is filled with fine guest appearances by Cars' guitarist Eliott Easton and songwriter Leon Russell, and is a close approximation of the energy of Rocker's live showmanship (which often finds him climbing on ihs upright bass like a stepladder or gracefully twirling it like a dance partner, calling to mind phenomenal upright performers of the '40s and '50s). But the bassist is quick to point out what he does is not just mired in the past.

    "I've always tried, especially on this record, to do music that is rooted in rockabilly. But to do it '1998' and try my damnedest not to do stuff that would have been done in the '50s. Like 'Rumblin' Bass' (the record's opener) never would have been written in the '50s, in terms of chords, lyrics and phrasing. There's just a lot of other influences that I've been exposed to that have come along since then," he explains.

    "Rockabilly music in the '50s was completely innovative stuff. It was the original punk music and it was outrageous. People burned records and threw tantrums. They were breaking new ground with it, so it seems like a shame there was a lull there for awhile where people just kept treading over the same ground. Just from getting a chance to hang out with (Elvis' guitarist) Scotty Moore and Carl Perkins and those original guys, they're all for expanding the style. The last thing they want to hear are these bands just doing their licks over and over again."

    Rocker's relationship to some of the style's greatest originators goes a little deeper than just "hanging out" with them. When Carl Perkins passed away last January, Rocker wrote a tribute to his in the _Orange_County_ _Weekly_, recounting how the guitarist had influenced a whole generation of young performers.

    "I got to work with him (Perkins) over the years, and especially the last year we got really close. I think carl will be most remembered for 'Blue Suede Shoes,' which really started the revoloution," Rocker says respectfully. "You can trace so much back to him -- through the influence on The Beatles and the rest of it. It was like throwing a rock into a pond and the ripples just kept going. There's a deep reverence among musicians for him, but I'm not sure how much the general public knows of him."

    That may change. Rocker has been talking to Perkin's family and those running his estate about doing a film similar to _The_Buddy_Holly_Story_, which could expose a whole new generation to his idol. "I honestly don't know who we would cast as Carl at this point. That really would be the key to it," Rocker believes.

    "Right before he died we had been working together on a TV show that was going to trace Carl's music," he says. In fact, Rocker did play a London TV show titled _Carl_Perkins_and_Friends_:_A_Rockabilly_Session_ years ago, that found him sharing the stage with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Roseanne Cash. Rocker admits that the best part of being famous is the access it gives him to his idols.

    "I'm so thrilled every day when I get to work with Eliott or Leon Russell, or Scotty Moore calls me on the phone," he says. "I'm always taken aback by it and always grateful to be thrown in with those folks."

  • Rockabilly Hall of Fame