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Lee Rocker: Road Tested, American Made

By Published: April 10, 2006

AAJ: You took cello lessons when you were a kid. So many kids take lessons for a while and then give their instrument up. Why do you think you didn't just quit?

LR: I loved it and I really just think that it's in my heart always. It's just something that I really always connected with. My parents are both classical musicians: My dad is solo clarinet with the New York Philharmonic for 58 years and my mom is also a classical musician. I come from a long line of musicians, my grandfather played jazz saxophone, and I always loved it. It's kind of a family business to a degree, you know? So I grew up with all kinds of music, from classical music to jazz to rock and roll of course, I grew up in the '70s. I played cello, I played electric bass, and then the records that really hit me and just moved me was stuff with upright bass. It was a real natural kind of progression from where I started and then electric to kind of move over and end up on the upright.

AAJ: That progression does make sense, but here's something that does not make sense: Why do three teenagers who form a band around the idea of playing roots rock and roll move to London in 1980?

LR: all worked out well...but it wasn't a matter of brains or a plan, I've got to tell you that. I was 17. The other guys in the band were 18 and 19. We were a pretty successful New York band playing the joints of the day—CBGBs and Max's Kansas City, all those places out in the suburbs—and when June of 1980 hit, the summertime, we just wanted to do something different and saved up some gig money and flew to London to see what would happen. And we never came back. Had a record deal very quickly, after a couple of months—I think within six months there was a record out—and it just went. It was a fantastic, fantastic experience, a fantastic life. But it definitely wasn't planned out.

AAJ: For those who weren't paying attention, or perhaps were not around, how would you describe the pop music scene of 1980? And what do you think the Stray Cats tapped in to, that made your music so popular?

LR: I think that, you know, it was a mixed time, and I've got to say that the London music scene was starting to heat up. There was great stuff starting in the early '80s with The Clash and hopefully us in the Cats and The Pretenders and a couple of other bands.

I think the US scene was really bad and that was part of the reason why we left. There was a lot of overproduced synthesized kind was the end of disco, the rock bands had become synthesized and these giant production acts kind of stuff and...

The Stray Cats, it's real music. It's real instruments. It's no machines and it's about passion and energy and playing well. That's the one thing that we always really tried to do—not tried, but were—was to be musicians. I think there were a lot of bands out there that really weren't musicians.

AAJ: A lot of punks seemed almost proud of the fact that they weren't musicians, that they couldn't play.

LR: And the thing I like about punk rock is the energy and the passion, but they can't play. When you start to deal with stuff more in terms of roots or Americana or rockabilly, you've got to be able to play. But it's got that same intensity.

AAJ: Your No Cats solo record (Solid Discs, 1998) features, as guests, Leon Russell and guitarist Elliott Easton. One can sort of connect rockabilly music to Russell's, but how does the lead guitarist for The Cars end up on a rockabilly record?

LR: I've been lucky to work with a lot of great players. You know, it's a small world out there in a way. Leon, I had met...I was doing some shows, I know Willie Nelson over the years, and Willie was doing some West Coast dates that were Willie Nelson and Leon Russell. I wound up being on the bill at a couple of those gigs. I've always been a huge fan of Leon's, had never met him before. Went down to the sound check and started talking to him. He's got this great left hand on the piano and he was playing some stuff at sound check and I said, "Wait a second, could you do me a favor? Play what you're doing with that left hand for a second. I wanted to see where he was putting the bass thing, it was kind of New Orleans-feel stuff. I grabbed my bass and we started to mess around and we became friends. So he played on that record and we wrote a song together, "Screaming Hunger . He's a great guy.

AAJ: And Elliott Easton?

LR: Believe it or not, I know him since I'm a kid, and we grew up in the same hometown. Yeah, he lived about three or four blocks away from me.

AAJ: Your album Lee Rocker Live (J-Bird, 1999) features a great medley that runs together songs by some real "roots rock legends: "Big Boy Crudup, Bill Monroe and Jerry Reed.

LR: Ah, Jerry Reed, "Eastbound and Down.

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