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Lee Rocker: Road Tested, American Made

Chris M. Slawecki By

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If there's a club or a bar or a theatre that has a stage with electricity and amplification, no matter how obscure or winding the road it's on, it's almost a sure bet that Lee Rocker and his upright bass have played a gig there.

Rocker's stock in trade has been the American roots music rockabilly pretty much since the day he first picked up that upright as a teenager on Long Island, NY. He hooked up with local musicians Brian Setzer and Jimmy McDonnell and, collectively inspired by the primal genius of Carl Perkins, Muddy Waters and other legends whose country music and rhythmic blues simmered in the cauldron of fledgling rock and roll, they formed a roots-rock band of their own. Jimmy McDonnell went on to become Slim Jim Phantom and the band became The Stray Cats.


Lee Rocker and his best friends (courtesy of www.leerocker.com)



The Cats' cathartic mix of roots-rock music and punk-rock energy was like nothing else in the rock and popular music scenes of 1980, and their American album debut, Built for Speed, held the #2 position on the Billboard album chart for 26 weeks and was kept from the top spot only by Michael Jackson's ubiquitous Thriller.

Lee Rocker and his bass never really left the road, even after those Cats had scattered. In between performing with such roots-rock legends-turned-friends as Carl Perkins, Dave Edmunds, even legendary Elvis' guitarist Scotty Moore, he performed and recorded as a front man for groups of his own, consistently true to his musical roots—the roots-rock music of rockabilly.

Does he sometimes hear that his music simply copies styles from a bygone era—that rockabilly is an anachronism (jazz musicians who play swing can hear the same question.)? "My whole take with everything I do is, I don't try to recreate anything, he suggests. "I think it's just a pointless thing, to do that. To me, it's more about putting your own stamp on it and doing things your own way, and not trying to create—this probably applies to jazz as well—music as a museum piece. 'Okay, this is how they did this then, I'm doing this song...' Well, hell, then, that's a good reason not to do it that way!

This past January, Rocker released his debut recording for the venerated Chicago blues label Alligator Records. Racin' the Devil captures the energy of his current working band with drummer Jimmy Sage and guitarists Buzz Campbell and Brophy Dale. "I like to do something different on each album I do, he says of this project, which took more than a year to complete, "and this is by far the most diverse CD I've ever done.

On Racin', Rocker explores the entire breadth of rockabilly, from "The River Runs, steeped in sweet country music as pure and potent as a jug o' backwoods moonshine, to "Rockin' Harder, into which guitarists Buzz and Brophy drop Chuck Berry buzz saw riffs classic and hot, to the swing instrumental "Swing This that ends the set.

It's also full of songs from a life long-lived on the road, most notably "Rambling and the travelogue "Texarkana to Panama City ( "Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee/ These are places that you really just got to be/ Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi/ From Texarkana to Panama City... ).

In addition, Rocker and crew roughhouse the Stray Cats' mega-hit "Rock this Town and "Running From the Hounds from the Phantom, Rocker and Slick album Rocker cut with Cats drummer Slim Jim Phantom and David Bowie lead guitarist Earl Slick. Updating "Town's lyric to "I put a quarter into that can/ But all they played was techno, man provides a mischievous twinkle. Perkins, highly regarded among rockabilly's founders, is feted with a boot-stompin' twin-guitar rave up of his relatively obscure tune, "Say When.

"This is the best record I've ever made, Rocker says. "I worked harder on this record than any other I have done. I took my time with it and squeezed and twisted all I could out of the band and myself. After squeezing and twisting, Rocker spoke with AAJ in the following interview.

AAJ: When one thinks of rockabilly, the name that most immediately comes to mind is Carl Perkins, and the sound that comes to mind is full of guitar twang. But what about musicians other than guitar players? Who were some of the great rockabilly bass players, for example, or piano players, that inspired you?

LR: I don't think there's been anyone else that I know in rockabilly who was an upright bassist that fronted a band. I would say the closest in my mind, someone who I really idolize and is a hero of mine, was Willie Dixon. A blues artist, of course, and a songwriter and singer and record producer and upright bassist. He was a cat who besides doing his own stuff and all the Chess stuff, played with Chuck Berry and kind of walked the line between a lot of different forms of American music.

AAJ: How about your favorite pianist?

LR: Johnnie Johnson.

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