Rockabilly icon talks about his classical heritage, co-founding the Stray Cats, new projects and lots more
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
October 11, 2010
Born Leon Drucker in Massapequa, Long Island, in 1961 to world-renowned classical musician parents, Lee Rocker grew up surrounded by all types of music, making his choice of a musical career virtually inevitable. In the late 1970s, Rocker co-founded the Stray Cats, along with Brian Setzer and Slim Jim Phantom, introducing rockabilly music to a mass audience. Lee now enjoys a busy career as a solo artist. His solo releases include Racin’ the Devil and Black Cat Bone.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing. Weren’t you first exposed to classical music?
LR: I’ve been exposed to all kinds of music, ever since I was born. My parents are classical clarinet players and my sister is a singer. My dad, Stanely Drucker, recently retired from the New York Philharmonic after sixty years as the first clarinetist and my mom is a member of the American Chamber Society. So I had a really well-rounded musical background. As I kid, I took cello lessons. I also took piano and guitar for a while.
FBPO: How did your parents feel about your newfound appreciation for rock & roll and your disdain for the cello? Did they have other aspirations for you, as far as your musical career?
LR: Growing up, there were always rehearsals and there was always live music being played. Of course the radio was on a lot, too, with everything from classical to opera to jazz, blues or rock. I was a rock kid growing up in the 1970s like most other people my age. My folks were always supportive of my playing. I was always serious about music and I would practice and rehearse with my bands constantly. My passion was blues and rockabilly. I always gravitated to the low end of things, so bass is my thing. I never felt any disdain for the cello. In fact, I still have one that I play once in a while.
FBPO: What did you do, musically, between the first time you picked up the electric bass and the time the Stray Cats came into being?
LR: After starting on cello, I picked up the electric bass and played that as my number one instrument from the time I was about 13 to about 16. That’s when I really discovered blues and rockabilly music, the stuff that rock was built on. I heard Elvis, the Sun sessions, Carl Perkins and the Johnny Burnette Trio. The slap bass on those records blew me away! The bass was the pulse and the heartbeat, the engine. I knew that’s what I wanted to play. My favorite bass player was, and is, Willie Dixon. Dixon not only played great bass, but was a great writer, record producer and singer.
FBPO: Tell me about the formation for the Stray Cats.
LR: Stray Cats was started by Brian Setzer, Slim Jim Phantom and me. We all were friends, having grown up together in New York. Jim and I were in the same grade in school and Brian was a year or two older. We had all been in different bands as kids and would jam together sometimes at parties. We fell together because of our passion for American rock & roll. We spent years and years together and we know each other so incredibly well. It’s like we’re brothers. We knew early on that the three of us together had a special power and magic.
We quickly went from playing backyard parties for friends to packing night clubs on Long Island and in NYC. Then we moved to London in 1980 and all hell broke loose! The Rolling Stones, Robert Plant the Clash and the Pretenders were all at our early shows in the UK. The Brits took to us and we landed a deal with Arista Records within three months of getting there.
FBPO: The band sure enjoyed a lot of success, particularly in the early ’80s. There must be a standout experience you can share – maybe a good road story?
LR: I think there are too many to tell. Let’s save those for the book!
FBPO: Talk a little about your life after the Stray Cats. How would you describe your solo career?
LR: At this point I’d describe my solo career as the thing that makes me the happiest, aside from my family. I play about fifty to seventy-five shows a year, which, for me, is the perfect number. My band is solid and talented and my bandmates are my friends. On guitars, I have Buzz Campbell and Mr. Brophy Dale. On drums I have the master San Francisco session cat, Jimmy Sage. We’re playing songs from throughout my entire career, from Stray Cats to my newest record, Black Cat Bone. We also do classic rock & roll.
FBPO: Tell me about Black Cat Bone.
LR: Black Cat Bone was a labor of love. I spent a lot of time on the writing and recording, probably more than a year, on and off. I dig it, but what’s most important is what the fans say about it. I’ve gotten great feedback!
FBPO: What’s keeping you busiest these days?
LR: Probably thinking about my live show — the arrangements, song order and the whole flow of the concert. I’m constantly tweaking it and making small changes. Right now, I’ve got the best live band and concert set of my entire musical life, bar none! From the Cats to 2010, it’s the best I’ve ever been.
FBPO: What lies ahead for Lee Rocker?
LR: Well, I’d like to keep doing the same as I’ve done for the last thirty years.
FBPO: What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically oriented?
LR: When I’m not playing, listening to or writing music, I spend as much time as possible with my wife Deborah and my kids. I’m a big basketball and baseball fan and I like to go to Lakers and Angels games. I ride my bicycle and I split my time between NYC and California.