As a kid growing up in Long Island, New York, standup bassist Lee Rocker would marvel at Earl Slick's razor-edged guitar work on the 1974 David Bowie concert album, David Live. He never expected that 10 years later he'd be playing with Slick in a band called Phantom, Rocker & Slick. But first he and drummer Slim Jim Phantom would hook up with guitarist-vocalist Brian Setzer and conquer the world as the Stray Cats.
In 1982 the Stray Cats' North American debut, Built for Speed, spent 26 weeks at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart, kept from the top spot only by Michael Jackson's Thriller. Even before the record-buying public started rediscovering its love of bare-bones rockabilly, Rocker understood that his pompadoured trio was something special. "I knew that we instantly connected with people," he recalls, on the line from a San Diego recording studio. "Just as a club band around New York it clicked, and the audience reacted. It was a really powerful thing."
As awe-inspiring as the Stray Cats were back then, it's safe to say that Rocker's current group—which includes Texas-born guitarists Brophy Dale and Buzz Campbell and drummer Jimmy Sage—is just as magnetic. At least that's the impression one gets from Rocker's sixth CD, Racin' the Devil. It includes a revamped version of the Stray Cats' biggest hit, "Rock This Town", and a slide-infused remake of the Phantom, Rocker & Slick fave, "Runnin' From the Hounds", but it's originals like the plaintive "The River Runs" and "Lost on the Highway" that really impress. Stray Cats fans who remember seeing him slap away at his upright bass in the shadow of Setzer may be surprised by what a fabulous frontman Rocker turned out to be. "I was sort of the George Harrison of that band," he says, "so I would sing here and there."
Of special significance to Rocker is his rollicking rendition of the obscure Carl Perkins ditty, "Say When". "I love Carl," he points out, "and I got to work with him a lot over the years, from the '80s until he died [from throat cancer in January of '98]. I was just listening to a Carl Perkins box set I picked up in Europe, and I'd never heard that song before, and I'd never seen it on a U.S. collection. That kinda piqued my interest."
Rocker is currently laying down tracks for his follow-up to Racin' the Devil, which he expects to have out on Alligator Records by the end of June. If it's anything like the current disc, roots-rock fans can rejoice. If not, hey, there's always a chance the Stray Cats could re-form, as they did in 2004 for a 25th-anniversary tour of Europe.
"There's nothin' on the books at this point," reveals Rocker, "but I wouldn't say no to it in the future."
Lee Rocker plays the Fairview Pub on Monday (March 19).