July 18, 2019

The Stray Cats’ Lee Rocker on His Music Career, leaving New York

The Stray Cats from L-R: Lee Rocker, Brian Setzer, Slim Jim Phantom. Photo by Russ Harrington

The Stray Cats is single-handedly the band that put rockabilly music back on the record charts in the early 1980s. Formed by guitarist/vocalist Brian Setzer, upright bass player Lee Rocker and drummer Slim Jim Phantom in the Long Island town of Massapequa, New York, the trio first found fame after moving to England. 40 years after starting up in 1979, the music of The Stray Cats – the massive hits, of course, include “Runaway Boys,” “Rock This Town,” “Stray Cat Strut” “(She’s) Sexy + 17,” and “I Won’t Stand In Your Way” – still sound fantastic and remain on classic rock radio playlists worldwide.

Last year, The Stray Cats regrouped to record a full-length album titled “40.” Made with producer Peter Collins (Rush, Bon Jovi, The Brian Setzer Orchestra) and engineer Vance Powell (Jack White, Chris Stapleton, Arctic Monkeys), “40” was recorded in Nashville and features a dozen original songs. The Stray Cats will be embarking on a world tour this summer in support of “40,” including an August 28th show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.

An awesome factoid that not everyone realizes about The Stray Cats is the background of the earlier-mentioned bassist Lee Rocker. Rocker — born “Leon Drucker” — is the son of classical clarinetists Stanley Drucker (the retired principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) and Naomi Drucker (a famed music professor at this writer’s undergraduate alma mater, Hofstra University). Rocker’s touring and/or recording credits otherwise include George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, Keith Richards and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty. Rocker also had the distinction of being nominated for a Grammy Award in 1982, the same year his father was, making the Druckers/Rockers the second father-son duo to be nominated for a Grammy in the same year.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Lee Rocker by phone about the past, present and future of his career. Transcribed below is a few minutes from our May 2019 chat, while my full interview with Rocker will air later this summer via the “Paltrocast With Darren Paltrowitz” podcast.

Jewish Journal: You first had your fame in the U.K. then it happened again in the States. At what point did you say, “I’m done with New York” and you moved west?

 

LR: There were a lot of years really of living like a rock and roll gypsy, you know? I mean, we were on tour most of the time for those early years, but probably summer of 1980 I moved to London and was there for a couple of years. I moved back to New York City then around ‘83 or ‘85 or so. I moved to the West Coast and actually now these last number of years, I’m so happy, I really split my time between New York and California.

JJ: Was the Long Island music scene supportive of you in the early days? Or was that leaving in response to it not being supportive?

LR: Well I didn’t know much about the scene out of Long Island. We would play a lot of different bars really and it definitely went well. That was the proving ground for the band. We’d be every Thursday at one club, every Friday at another, and it really gave me the confidence and the understanding of what was going on. That first Thursday somewhere, we would have 20 people. A week later there was 50. The following week there was a hundred and the week after that there’s a line down the block. That happened on Long Island at a couple of different clubs and at the same time we were doing it, we were playing Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, going into the city. That was a little bit more of a scene…

So I don’t know if that scene on Long Island was supportive or not but people absolutely were. And that really gave us the confidence to go, “You know what? This is happening, let’s try London.” That was a function of being in New York City mainly and people going to record shops. Back in those days, there was two or three rock and roll newspapers that came out weekly, the “Melody Maker,” the “New Musical Express”… They were all based out of London so it covered what was going on there… We wanted to be part of it and that’s where everything was really happening at that moment.

JJ: Did you start off as your first instrument on the upright bass?

LR: No, I’m from a family of musicians. My dad was the solo clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic and my mom was a clarinetist also and a teacher at Hofstra University. The only rule that we ever had growing up, and it wasn’t a house of a lot of discipline in a real house of artists, really was that you had to play an instrument, that you had to take lessons. So I started at about 7 years old playing cello and took lessons to read, write music and I did that from about 7 to around 12 or so, then switched to electric bass… A lot of the music that I loved was blues music and rockabilly. I was discovering it had an upright bass so I had to get myself one, and that’s really how that came together.

JJ: One of the amazing things to me about your career is that The Stray Cats is only one part of it. For example, the band that you and Jim had with Earl Slick, you had a couple of major label albums there. You played with two Beatles, etc. At the same time, people go, “Oh yeah that’s the guy from The Stray Cats.” I’m curious if there’s an accomplishment that you’re most proud of in your career.

LR: I’m overall really proud of what I’ve done. I always try to improve and learn more… What you say is true, I mean, The Stray Cats are a huge part of what I am and it’s the foundation was that’s where it started. I think for all three of us… That will be in the first sentence, the three words, separate obituaries, will be the words “Stray Cats.” But certainly I did two records with Earl Slick, Keith Richards was on it, Nicky Hopkins from the Stones. I played a lot with Carl Perkins, Scotty Moore — Elvis Presley’s original guitar player joined my band and toured with me and I recorded with him… I’ve got so much to be happy about.

Actually one of the things that I do now, we’re embarking on a lot of Stray Cats concerts and the new album, but in addition to that even throughout this year, I’m probably doing 40 performing arts centers with my other band… We have screens and video and stills and it’s a concert. But I also tell stories and talk about the reasons why I’m doing some songs… That’s a really cool thing that I’ve been enjoying and that’s what I’ve been mainly doing this last 2 or 3 years up until this monumental 40th anniversary.

JJ: Were you bar mitzvahed? Is there a memory that you can share related to that?

LR: Well I wasn’t, but I have to say culturally I’m pretty steeped in the culture and food and music and art.

JJ: So finally, any last words for the kids?

LR: Figure out what you love and just go for it and don’t compromise.


More on Lee Rocker and The Stray Cats can be found online.