Lee Rocker: Go Cat Go!

COVID-19 couldn’t keep this Stray Cat out of the house

Lee Rocker (Art: Ron Hart)

In 2019, rockabilly legends The Stray Cats released the album 40 (so named because it marked their 40th anniversary) and undertook an extensive world tour.

It was a triumphant time for the band – but then, like all musicians, bassist Lee Rocker found himself at loose ends when the COVID-19 pandemic prevented any further shows. But old habits die hard, and Rocker found a way to hit the road again – resulting in his new album, Gather Round, released on January 22 via Upright Records.

“My wife and I actually have an Airstream [travel trailer] and we crisscrossed the country, just the two of us and our little dog,” Rocker says, calling from his Laguna Beach, California home. “For me, it created solitude but also, in a weird way, a little bit of normalcy because I’m so used to the travel and going from place to place.”

While a couple of the songs on Gather Round predate the pandemic, Rocker says he wrote the bulk of the tracks during this epic road trip.

Despite the dark times in which it was created, Gather Round is exuberant, putting Rocker’s innovative upright bass playing and high-spirited vocals front and center. “Definitely, it’s a record I feel very close to and care a lot about,” he says. “It’s a fun record. I just felt like I wanted to project happiness – and the big middle finger to 2020: ‘I’m going to have a little enjoyment out of this, anyway!’”

While Rocker has steadily released more than a dozen solo albums since his 1994 debut, Lee Rocker’s Big Blue, this new album is actually the first to feature all original songs since 2007’s Black Cat Bone. “I’ve written songs, and had songs that I’ve written on other records here and there,” he says, “but to do a full collection and put them together and do it old school – there’s a real sense of self in there. And a lot of caring throughout the whole process.”

Lee Rocker Gather Round, Upright Records 2021

Rocker played most of the instruments on the album himself, though it also features Buzz Campbell on guitar/backing vocals, Larry Mitchell on drums/percussion, and Matt Jordan on piano/organ. Instead of gathering in a recording studio, the pandemic forced them to work in a different way this time.

“I was using a studio based here in Southern California and I would have my musicians [in my band] send their parts in, so we never actually sat down in the same room,” Rocker says. “I would go into the studio – they’d have the door unlocked for me. The engineer would be in the control room behind the glass. I would walk in with my own microphones and set them up. And have a mask and headphones. It was sort of like being underwater or something!” he says with a laugh.

Although Rocker is pleased with all of the songs on Gather Round, he thinks fans will be particularly interested in the track “When Nothing’s Going Right,” which he originally wrote for the Stray Cats’ 40 album. “I showed it to the other Stray Cats and they said, ‘We love it – let’s cut this one!’ So as I was working on this [new] record, I’m digging through my files and I’m going, ‘Let me listen back to [that], where it started from, with the original inspiration to it.’ I think some long-term fans are going to find that interesting, to be able to A-B that song from those two versions,” he says.

 

AUDIO: Stray Cats “When Nothing’s Going Right”

Rocker has a theory about why his music has connected so strongly with those fans for four decades now: “What we’ve done, with the Stray Cats and my solo music, I think is not middle of the road,” he says. “It’s got some uniqueness. It doesn’t sound like everybody else. And it’s got history to it – it’s based in rockabilly. People have been incredibly loyal and it’s really gratifying.”

Continuing to come up with fresh ideas isn’t a problem for Rocker, who says playing upright bass is, in itself, a big inspiration. “I’m still discovering new things, which kind of amazes me,” he says. “I’ll go, ‘Jeez, why didn’t I think of that 25 years ago? I didn’t know I could do that!’ That’s the instrument that I feel like I’m one with when I play. It’s a very physical thing and it’s a whole-body thing. I’ve been around the world a hundred times because of that bass.”

Rocker has become renowned as one of the world’s most famous upright bass players – but when he was growing up in Long Island, New York (real name: Leon Drucker), he started out on a very different path.

“I grew up in a family of classical musicians,” Rocker says. “My dad was the solo clarinet with the New York Philharmonic for 61 years, and my mom was a baronet [clarinet] player and a professor of music at Hofstra [University]. The only rule that we had growing up was, you had to pick an instrument and take lessons. So as a little kid I started on cello at six or seven years old, and played that until I was twelve or thirteen.” 

At that point, Rocker says, he discovered rock and roll, rockabilly, and the blues. This was a pivotal moment for him. “That sound of the upright bass was all over those records,” he says. “It’s the motor that moves it all. And I thought, ‘Let me try that.’”

 

VIDEO: Lee Rocker “Graceland Auctions”

Taking the stage name Lee Rocker, he formed a band with his high school friends Brian Setzer (vocals/guitar) and Slim Jim Phantom (drums). Calling themselves The Stray Cats, they began playing the New York City club circuit, performing at legendary venues such as CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City.

Even though The Stray Cats were playing New York when that city’s scene was focused on punk rock, Rocker says their modern rockabilly music was welcomed. Still, when they heard that rockabilly was flourishing in London, England, they decided to relocate there. Rocker was only seventeen years old when they made the move.

The band had to become squatters when they arrived in London, but this dire situation didn’t last long because they quickly established themselves as leaders in the scene. They released their self-titled debut in 1981, and soon found fame on both sides of the Atlantic with hits such as “Stray Cat Strut,” “(She’s) Sexy + 17,” and “Rock This Town. “It came together so quickly, really,” Rocker says. “I was under eighteen [years old] when I signed the record contract. Things took off, and it was like being shot out of a cannon.”

The Stray Cats (Design: Ron Hart)

Though the Stray Cats were popular, they have gone on long hiatuses throughout their 40-year history, so Rocker undertook a successful solo career. Since the band’s reunion for the 40 album and tour, and with his solo career also back in play, Rocker is learning how to make the transition back and forth between them. “There is a little bit of adjustment. It’s a different kind of approach,” he says.

Regardless of whether he’s playing with the Stray Cats or with his own band, Rocker says he never minds playing the song that made him famous. “Every time I hit the stage, I’m excited,” he says. “There’s adrenaline and happiness, and I think it just pours into the music. Some of these songs really have hit the point where they’ve gone beyond the test of time now, and I’m very proud of them so I’m happy to do them.”

Still, Rocker is pleased to add new songs into the mix with Gather Round. “I’m very happy with it,” he says, “and I’m really looking forward to 2021 and trying to get out there and play this music!” (If that isn’t possible this year, though, perhaps Rocker will again make the rounds in his Airstream…)

 

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Katherine Yeske Taylor

Katherine Yeske Taylor began her rock critic career in Atlanta in the late '80s, when she interviewed Georgia musical royalty such as the Indigo Girls, R.E.M. and the Black Crowes while she was still a teenager. Since then, she has done hundreds of interviews with a wide range of artists. She has written for dozens of magazines, including The Big Takeover (national), Aquarian Weekly (New Jersey), Stomp & Stammer (Atlanta), Creative Loafing (Atlanta), Jam Magazine (Florida), Color Red (Denver) and Boston Rock, among many others. She contributed to two books (several entries for The Trouser Press Guide to the '90s, and a chapter for Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama). Additionally, she has written liner notes and artist bios for several major acts. She currently lives in New York City.  

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