By Sander Roscoe Wolff, RLn Contributor
Rockabilly juggernaut Lee Rocker, best known for playing bass with the Stray Cats, will be one of the headliners at the New Blues Festival this Labor Day weekend.
For more than 30 years, Rocker has been electrifying audiences the world over. His greatest success as a star and a recording artist came when the Stray Cats burst onto the world stage in 1980 with a series of hit singles and performances that thrilled audiences.Their song Stray Cat Strut made it to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 a year after rising to No. 11 in England.
A native of Long Island, Rocker is the son of two classical clarinetists. His father, Stanley Drucker, served as principal clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic for 61 years, and his mother, Naomi Drucker, taught at Hofstra University for more than 50 years.
In a recent interview, Rocker discussed how timing and being a student of music has contributed to his longevity.
“I grew up in a house with constant music,” Rocker said. “My earliest memories are of rehearsals in the living room, falling asleep to music, or listening to clarinet lessons being given in the music studio. It was a constant. They were classical players, but there were all different styles of music on the radio, on the stereo.”
Rocker said there was just one rule in his home: Everyone had to play an instrument. He tried several but, at age 7 he took up the cello, playing it for 5 years.
“As a young teenager, I started playing rock ’n’ roll, and picked up the electric bass,” he said. “Then, a few years later, I circled back to the upright bass. It was a natural progression.”
Rocker’s love of the blues inspired him to explore recordings by Willie Dixon and discover Dixon’s collaborations with Chuck Berry.
“Those were the days where you’d haunt record shops, and I’d sit there for hours looking at the covers, trying to decide if I was going to spend whatever it was to buy this without hearing it,” he said. “I came across Elvis Presley’s first Sun Sessions record, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly… It was a process of discovery.”
Rocker lived in a Long Island neighborhood called Massapequa, part of Oyster Bay. The allure of New York City, just a train ride away, was irresistible.
“I’d cut out of school, take the Long Island Railroad into the city, and hang out in Central Park,” he said. “Later on, as a teenager, the two main spots I’d hang out at were CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. I spent my teenage years playing there in different bands, and also watching everybody else.
“Actually, the jukebox box at CBGB’s had the Sun Sessions’ That’s Alright Mama and Blue Moon of Kentucky right next to Rock & Roll High School by The Ramones. There were a lot of things going on. It was a real melting pot of styles and looks. That was an inspiration in a lot of ways.
“There was an underground seed of a rockabilly movement, and there was just so much energy and creativity going on in the city. Me and my high school buddies formed different bands. At about 16 we were the Tom Cats, (me, Brian [Setzer], and Jim [McDonnell, aka Slim Jim Phantom]) and we would play the city clubs, and corner bars on Long Island.”
Leading up to the summer of 1980, the band was clicking with ever growing audiences.
“We’d play a club for 40 people, and come back the next week and there would be 100 people, then 200 people,” he said. “We were starting to really be a big local thing. We’d never met anyone from a record company, but we knew what we did was connecting with an audience and everyone was having a great time, including us.”
As summer approached, the trio decided to go to England, where they’d heard their style of music would be well received.
“I was 17 at the time, and the other guys were 18 and 19,” he said. “In June, we moved to England. We bought four plane tickets: Three for the band and one for the upright bass.”
When they arrived, they knew nobody, and had no place to stay. They slept in all-night movie houses and, during the day, in the park.
“We started to knock on doors and get some gigs. By August, we had settled in, we had gigs, people were showing up, and the city was really talking about us,” he said. “Early on the Rolling Stones came down to a show we did and that put a lot of light on us.”
In addition to the Rolling Stones, artists like Robert Plant and Ronnie Lane of The Faces began to champion the band.
“It was amazing,” he said. “There wasn’t any time to analyze it, or digest it. It was like being shot out of a cannon. It just happened. It was fast and furious. We got a record deal in August or September. By October we had our first single out, Runaway Boys, that was a hit, a top 10 single in England. We were going over to the continent to play concerts in France, Germany, Holland, Belgium and Finland. Then came Stray Cat Strut and Rock This Town, and things just took off.”
The band released 10 albums, sold 10 million copies and earned 23 gold and platinum records. Their last record came out in 2004. Since then, Rocker has been steadily working on his own projects and collaborations with Earl Slick, Keith Richards, Nicky Hopkins, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson and Leon Russell.
Rocker is planning to draw from the span of his entire career for his performance at the New Blues Festival.
“What I’ve been doing these last couple of years is really looking at my whole career, from the very start through Phantom, Rocker & Slick, cherry-picking things from those early days as well as more recent records,” he said. “Once in awhile, I’ll pull something up that I haven’t done in a long time, which keeps it fresh for me and the audience. I’ve also been enjoying telling some stories on stage, digging back and thinking about where these songs came from, and communicating in that way. It brings a whole other dimension to the show.”
Rocker will close the festival, playing at 6 p.m. Sept. 4.
Details: NewBluesFestival.com, LeeRocker.com.