Brian Setzer

  • The Stray Cats

About Brian Setzer

Brian Setzer, of course, knows exactly what rockabilly should sound like; after all, he ushered it back into the rock mainstream during the punk- and New Wave-saturated late 70s and early 80s. The Massapequa, N.Y., native was a music fan in general when he became taken with one of rockabilly’s early icons–Eddie Cochran. “One day I saw a picture of him and said, ‘Wow, that guy looks really cool.’ Then I found out he did ‘Summertime Blues’ and it blew me away–I thought The Who did that, y’know? (laughs) Then I heard ‘Something Else’ and, man, that’s MY kind of rock song.”

SETZER began looking the part as well as playing it, and even though the jock crowd at his high school didn’t like it he found kindred spirits in Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker; together they formed the Tomcats, changing the moniker to the Stray Cats after they moved to England in June 1980 and finding an immediately receptive audience that led to tours of Europe and Japan and opening slots for the Rolling Stones. “The kids were ready for us, but the record companies weren’t,” SETZER recalls. Among those fans was British rocker Dave Edmunds, no stranger to rockabilly himself and the producer of two of the trio’s first three albums.

“They’re as natural as you can get,” Edmunds said at the time. “They look great and play great. I think it’s as good as any of the 50s rockabilly. BRIAN SETZER, he’s like Eddie Cochran–he writes great songs and is a great guitar player who still hasn’t tapped all his potential.”

The Stray Cats’ homecoming in 1982 set off a hurricane of rockabilly revivalism that included two hit albums and a trio of Top 10 singles–“Rock This Town,” “Stray Cat Strut” and “She’s Sexy + 17.” More importantly it gave the genre renewed respect on a global level. “Rockabilly music should be up there in regards with blues music,” SETZER says. “It should be playing in arenas. And, I think, it’s better than the blues because it has a style to it, it has accomplished musicians playing it and it’s totally American. So I think it’s very underrated music that should be more in the forefront of our culture.”

There’s more than rockabilly in SETZER’s loaded bag of music, however. After the STRAY CATS disbanded in 1984 (with periodic reunions in subsequent years), he surprised fans with the earnest Americana of the critically lauded The Knife Feels Like Justice in 1986and has gone on to explore a variety of musical (and lyrical) forms, tearing it up on albums such as Live Nude Guitars, getting deeply personal on Nitro Burnin’ Funny Daddy, taking a stab at iconic classical music compositions on Wolfgang’s Big Night Out and reminding us (as if we needed it) of his fleet-fingered virtuosity on Setzer Goes Instru-Mental! He was also one of the vanguards of the 90s swing movement, defying naysayers by forming the BRIAN SETZER ORCHESTRA, a 17-piece, guitar-led big band that became a concert favorite and sent the lively “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” up the charts and into TV ads.

Along the way SETZER has been honored with three Grammys as well as the Orville H. Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award and a best-selling line of Gretsch signature model guitars bearing his name. He played Eddie Cochran in the 1987 film “La Bamba” and was animated for “The Simpsons” in a 2002 episode that also featured Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

ROCKABILLY RIOT, of course, finds the iconic SETZER back in his “native habitat,” sounding like the same pompadoured kid who came out of Long Island more than 35 years ago. But rest assured there’s more to come, in directions even SETZER himself probably can’t predict. “I gotta tell ya, to me it’s all just music. I know people like to put little labels on things so they can make it tidy. But for me, it all comes from the same mom and dad, which is the blues, jazz, country, swing, rock ‘n’ roll. There’s no reason to be limited to just one thing, ever.