Lee Rocker gets under a new set of covers
When Lee Rocker went into the studio last year to record new material, the only agenda the ex-Stray Cats bassist had in mind was to make use of all the instruments he's amassed over the decades: cello, ukulele, mandolin and autoharp, just to name a few. So he began by playing familiar songs reminiscent of his childhood, ones he often has stuck in his head.
Before he knew it, he had cut an EP's worth of work, including renditions of the Beatles' "Come Together," Elton John's "Honky Cat," the Allman Brothers Band's "Rambling Man" and Eddie Rabbitt's country crossover hit "Drivin' My Life Away."
"The initial thing was that I just wanted to have some fun and play these instruments," Rocker says. "I go into the studio pretty often, and I found myself returning to this project over and over again. In terms of creativity, this was a very different thing, I found, than working on a record of original music, which I've done so many times.
"I've done covers over the years but I haven't really done a collection of them like this. After being a recording musician for 30 years, it was a chance to be a little artsy, like painting with a different palette and creating some different sounds."
To usher in the release of his new set, "The Cover Sessions" (due March 15), Rocker will perform these remakes as well as some Stray Cats staples and selections from his solo repertoire Saturday night at the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana.
As a resident of Orange County (specifically Laguna Beach) for more than 20 years, he's excited to share his latest wares with a hometown crowd: "I go way back with the Galaxy. I dig the place, and we've got a great show" that includes a set from another local hero, Big Sandy.
LIFE AFTER THE CATS
Alongside Long Island high school buddies Brian Setzer and Slim Jim Phantom, Rocker (born Leon Drucker) formed the most popular and enduring group of the '80s rockabilly revival, scoring big with early-MTV hits like "Stray Cat Strut" and "Rock This Town."
But the trio had a bumpy career, initially splitting up in 1983, after which Rocker and Phantom got together with occasional Bowie guitarist Earl Slick to form Phantom, Rocker & Slick. The Cats got back together in '86, only to go on hiatus again in '92, opening the door for Setzer's career as a successful big-band leader.
During that time Rocker released his first solo effort, "Big Blue," in 1994, and has since put out five more recordings, including his last full-length disc, 2009's "Rock This World."
Stray Cats, meanwhile, last played a string of shows in 2008 – and caused some confusion at its appearance at Pacific Amphitheatre during the annual OC Fair that summer, where official merchandise indicated the gig would be the last North American Stray Cats show ever.
Three years later, Rocker, now fully focused on his solo career, says that "possibly" the end.
"Never say never," he says about the potential for another reunion at some point. "But there's definitely not anything on the books nor have we talked about doing any dates. At this point, I'm just having a good time doing these other things. It's a little bit looking-back in a sense for me. Maybe I'll change my mind one day, but for now that's the past."
Beyond the new EP, Rocker has been working on another full-length album he hopes to have out by summer. It likely would include a few newly written tracks plus a slew of covers he's played live for years, including Johnny Burnette's "Rockabilly Boogie," Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock" and some Everly Brothers tunes he's fond of.
He's also one of the promoters and performers at the annual Revival Fest in Austin, Texas, in May; a larger-scale version of O.C.'s Hootenanny, it will feature Reverend Horton Heat and Hank Williams III this year.
ROCKIN' WITH CARL AND LEON
Yet, though he says he's bursting with creativity at the moment, Rocker, who turns 50 in August, is still buzzing from another recent endeavor: Broadway.
Earlier this year he spent two weeks playing Jay Perkins, brother to rock 'n' roll legend Carl Perkins, in the musical "Million Dollar Quartet." The show chronicles how Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Perkins came together at Sun Records in Memphis on Dec. 4, 1956, for one of the most storied jam sessions in history. The production includes some of that quartet's biggest hits: "Blue Suede Shoes," "Great Balls of Fire," "Matchbox," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Who Do You Love?"
A huge fan of Perkins, Rocker saw the musical and soon realized he knew a few people involved with the project, who later asked him to momentarily join the cast.
"That was an awesome experience. There were a lot of rehearsals that went into it, and I'm not necessarily an actor. But the set of this show is Sun Studios in Memphis, and I'm a bass player, playing music I've played my whole life – so it wasn't exactly a stretch for me.
"If they would have said, 'Hey, we're doing "Apollo 13" on Broadway. Would you like to do it?' I'd be like, 'Yeah, but I don't think I'd be good.' This was a fit. It was really made for me in a sense."
Perkins wasn't the only artist to have a profound impact on Rocker's career, of course. He shared, for instance, how he absorbed loads of showmanship tips during Stray Cats' first tour with the Rolling Stones: "Just witnessing and watching what those guys do – they were an influence on how to be on stage, how to use a stage."
Elvis Presley and his first guitarist Scotty Moore also rank high on Rocker's list, and he's collaborated with another of his idols, Leon Russell. He feels fortunate, though, to have had the chance to write once with Perkins before he passed in 1998.
"Carl was so inclusive – when we were together it really felt like hanging out with a brother, like, instantly," he recalls. "He was so incredibly sweet and talented.
"With Leon ... he's a different kind of character. I went up to his place in Kentucky for a day or two to write with him, just to appreciate his musicianship, I think. And me being a bass player ... he's got this left hand on that piano, that kind of Oklahoma, Southern left hand (thing), where he puts the bass notes that I find really fascinating. I stopped him once – just like 'wait a minute, show me what you're doing with that left hand there.'"
Rocker admits he doesn't perform as much as he used to. He's done with extended tours, he says, though he still manages to get out as often as he can to play one-offs and festivals. He'd rather spend time in the studio or at his Laguna Beach home with wife Deborah and his kids: Justin, 20, currently attending Chapman University; and Sadie, 18, who goes to college in New York.
Though Rocker has lived in London and was born and raised on the East Coast, he's always had a soft spot for Southern California.
"Laguna Beach is just one of those really magical places," he says. "It's really a small town in a lot of ways, and it's a friendly, artistic, interesting place to call home. I love it."
Contact the writer: 714-796-3570 or email@example.com