Lee Rocker revived the rockabilly sound movement with his band the Stray Cats in the early 1980s. Rocker co-founded the band with Brian Setzer and “Slim Jim” Phantom when he was a young teen. The trio would go on to become rock n’ roll legends, cementing their legacy with double platinum records and a Grammy nomination.
Since then, Rocker has dedicated himself to a solo career as a bassist and vocalist. Performing around 60 shows a year, Rocker is set to play a concert here in Galesburg. On Thursday, Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m., Rocker is playing at the Orpheum Theatre.
Rocker was surrounded by music his entire life. His father played for the New York Philharmonic and his mother was a music professor. Growing up in the 1960s, he describes the era as similar to the way things are now: false and over-produced. Immediately, Rocker was drawn to the music of Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran and Carl Perkins, which he felt was the antithesis to that sound.
“They were totally, totally, important to me. I mean, those were the roots to where it all came from,” Rocker said. “I was really fortunate to work with Carl Perkins over the years and some of Elvis Presley’s original musicians as well.”
Rocker first got acquainted with them through his local music store. He would spend hours scanning racks of records in his hometown of Massapequa, Long Island. Often times, he’d pick an album to purchase just because the cover art looked cool. It helped that his future bandmates were seriously getting into music at the same time as him.
“Setzer, our guitarist, he lived two blocks to left and Slim Jim was two blocks to the right,” Rocker said. “Really, our band started in my dad’s garage.”
After playing a few clubs on the Island, the band decided to test their luck over in London. The decision to go to London, despite a rocky start that included sleeping on park benches and all- night movie theaters, ended up working out amazingly for the Stray Cats.
Since the British punk-rock scene never died down in London, the vintage, rockabilly sound of the Stray Cats was well-received. During this time, as the Stray Cats were inducted into the British “it” crowd, they were introduced to producer David Edmunds and signed to their first label. When asked what he believed differentiated British punk rock from American rockabilly, Rocker stated that there was indeed a lot in common, but definitely never felt like his style of music was entirely punk.
“Rockabilly music is more of a player’s genre, where being proficient and learning an instrument is part of it. I love the expression of punk-rock, but for me it was more about the expression than the technical music aspect. That’s fine too, but with my background I loved how rockabilly combined those things,” Rocker said.
Though Rocker started out playing cello, he switched over to the upright bass. He felt the rhythmic energy of the instrument moved him. The upright bass means a lot to him; it takes pure dedication to move a 6 foot instrument around the country. However, the bass best captures the authentic sound Rocker searches for in his music. Rocker came out with a line of “Rocker Model Basses” in collaboration with Barrie Kolstein.
“I have to say, I’m really happy with the Kolstein Collection. I’ve been playing Bass for about 40 years and It’s just a beautifully crafted instrument. We went with this tuxedo style bass that’s jet black with a white trim,” Rocker said.
Rocker’s experience with the instrument and rockabilly as a genre is evident through his performances. A lot has changed for Rocker since he was a young break-out artist. Learning new instruments, touring and being in the studio have gotten much easier.
Rocker has had his fair share of fame, he wants his solo work to be successful, but he no longer pays attention to the industry aspect of music. What is more important to Rocker is that he puts himself and his soul into his music. To him, success is being able to connect to as many people as possible.
“With streaming, and just the access to music, I think the positive side is that such a broad amount of choices allow people to discover things. This music had such a uniqueness and such an organicness, that it always will appeal to people,” Rocker said. “Rockabilly rock and roll is alive and well, sometimes it’s underground and sometimes it’s above ground, but it’s always there.”
With Rocker, it is clear that he loves what he does, whether he sells four records or 4 million. He doesn’t resent his earlier years either. He feels nostalgia for the times where he, Setzer and Phantom were together “rocking out.” The Cats have been talking about a reunion for next year. For Rocker, the Cats will always be his brothers.