Photo credit: Bob Steshetz
This story was originally published on The Orange County Register site on Feb. 28, 2012
Lee Rocker's career has come full circle. On the just-issued Night Train to Memphis, the 50-year-old cat who got his start in the late ’70s has reworked some favorite songs into a self-produced tribute to his musical heroes and friends, as well as a celebration of the enduring power of rock ’n’ roll.
“I feel like this record is me doing what I do best — it’s songs and music that I’ve played for a lifetime,” says the longtime Laguna Beach resident, who changed his name from Leon Drucker to Lee Rocker when he and pals Brian Setzer and James McDonnell (better known as Slim Jim Phantom) formed Stray Cats in 1979.
Night Train serves up versions of classics made famous by Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley, among others, plus a blistering original and even a reworked Stray Cats cut.
“It’s my take on some classic stuff,” Rocker says. “Some of these songs I did myself or with the (Stray) Cats. I worked with Carl Perkins a lot, and I did ‘Honey Don’t’ and played ‘Night Train to Memphis’ with him, actually.”
In addition to his role as fast-fingered double-bassist in Stray Cats, one of Rocker’s more notable turns came in October 1985 at the Carl Perkins and Friends concert, where he joined George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Rosanne Cash and several others in saluting the rockabilly legend.
“I also got to perform quite a bit with Scotty Moore (Presley’s guitarist in the ’50s), who toured with my band, and D.J. Fontana, Elvis’ drummer.” Naturally, among the dozen tracks on the new album is a medley of “That’s All Right Mama” and “Blue Moon.”
“It’s a roots record that has got a lot of roots to me, and it was recorded with very little technology. I don’t think there are any musical overdubs except on maybe one or two songs (for which he or Buzz Campbell added banjo or dobro over their respective bass and guitar playing). So in a lot of ways it was a real rock ’n’ roll record how they used to be done.”
Not only was the recording process more old-school but the album was completed very quickly: “Sometime last winter I went into the studio for three days with the band, and then over the summer might have gone in and finished it over the course of a few days. It’s a record that went down very easy … it wasn’t an agonizing experience like sometimes things can be.
“And I think that’s pretty telling — when it’s right, it just happens. We just sat down and played. It’s really what I’ve been playing live for a lifetime and what the guys in the band – Brophy (Dale on guitar), Buzz (Campbell on guitar) and Jimmy (Sage on drums) – have been playing with me for more than a decade.”
Along with a variety of solid rockabilly tunes, there’s a healthy blend of blues, bluegrass and even gospel elements fused into the material on Night Train. Rocker showcases his superb voice on several tender ballads, closing things out with Don Everly’s “So Sad” and the Felice & Boudleaux Bryant-penned Everly Brothers gem “All I Have to Do Is Dream.”
Then there’s his remake of “Built for Speed,” the title cut from Stray Cats’ breakthrough album, which turns 30 in June: “(That) is a song close to my heart … (but) I wanted to do something different with that. This is the rockabilly/bluegrass version.”
There’s a directness and honesty to Rocker’s throwback style that eludes so much of modern music’s focus-group, mass-marketed thinking. Yet an original song as straightforward as “Slap the Bass” can still explode out of the speakers. (It’s “what I do,” he says simply. “I had a platform to showcase that. It’s about the bass.”)
As for this weekend’s release party, Rocker knew all along he wanted it at the Coach House: “I’ve played there so many times and seen so many other great shows there. It’s that home away from home … it’s a natural.”
Lee Rocker plays Saturday, March 3, at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, in San Juan Capistrano. Graceland Mafia and Space Rocket open. Tickets are $18.
Photo, from last year’s Doheny Blues festival, by Bob Steshetz, for the Register.