Original Bastard

For Lee Rocker, rockabilly isn't a style but a way of life.

Style, and then some: Lee Rocker
Style, and then some: Lee Rocker
Twisted upper lips, shiny pompadours, and leopard-spotted jackets are the image of cool for a certain segment of the population—a segment that traded the family home for an RV with bumper stickers that dispel wisdom such as "No. 1 Grandpa" or "I Brake for Tourist Traps."

The rest of the masses, weighed down by roughly one piercing per capita, see the old image as a museum piece for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but not much else. Those punks who still cop the style—such as Mike Ness and the Rev. Horton Heat—make up for it with a brash, modern reinterpretation of the sound. But some folks have taken it all the way.

The Stray Cats, for example, somehow managed to rekindle the flame of rockabilly amid the clutter of early '80s synth-pop. Excitable critics handed out titles such as "deans of Americana music" or "saviors of roots rock" to the members, Brian Setzer, Slim Jim Phantom, and Lee Rocker. Fifteen years later, guess who's still carrying the torch?

"The last thing I want to do is something that's a museum piece," stand-up bassist and singer Lee Rocker says. "Rockabilly was the original bastard form of music. It broke new ground and shook things up."

When the Stray Cats hit the charts, it was the first time since the '50s a band with a stand-up bass had done so—but now, seemingly, we can't get rid of the damn things. "It's always called "'50s music,'" Rocker says. "Maybe because of the style—the haircut and the clothes." Yeah, that might have something to do with it, even though the pompadoured Rocker admits that, at the time, rockabilly wasn't defined by one style. Jerry Lee Lewis, for instance, had longish hair and wore powder blue suits. So what's more important these days, the music or the style?

"The validity question always stumps me," Rocker says. "There's a huge underground cult for it. The style is part of the attitude, but I don't think it's the most important thing. It's edgy; it's tough."

Rocker's latest, Lee Rocker Live, is indeed edgy and tough. The album is dedicated to the late Carl Perkins and features two of his songs, covers of artists from Hank Williams Sr. to Leon Russell, and a smattering of Rocker originals. "I wanted to do a straight-ahead rockabilly record in tribute to my heroes," Rocker explains. "And with playing roots music, the really hard part is capturing the energy on tape, so I wanted to capture the band's intensity on stage. That was my goal."

Mission accomplished. For those of us not old enough the first time around, Live, which races from song to song with barely a heartbeat in between, is a glimpse at what early rock shows must have been like. "Rock and roll is really meant to be played in clubs, when you come down to it," Rocker says.

After the demise of the Stray Cats, he and Slim Jim all but vanished into the bars, while Setzer went on to pioneer the rebirth of swing. But Rocker doesn't miss the media spotlight, and he doesn't mind that he wasn't asked to join the Brian Setzer Orchestra.

"It's just more about the music now," he says. "It's getting a little perspective on things, too. With the Stray Cats, the media crush was insane. It's better being underground; it's more focused. With a band, everything is a negotiation or a compromise."

Besides, since leaving the Strays, Rocker has shared the stage not only with his idol, Perkins, but also Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. Playing with Perkins earned Rocker a new friend, with the patriarch fingering him to be musical director of a TV documentary about rock music. When Perkins died, he and Rocker were working on a new show that was to trace Perkins's life through music, a project that is now up in the air. Perkins's family has invited Rocker down to the old man's studio to listen to all of his unreleased material. Rocker, though, does not feel pressure to keep Perkins's ghost alive.

"I don't think it's an obligation to Carl," he says. "It goes on, with me or without me. I don't have to carry some kind of torch. It's the kind of music that speaks to me and comes out of me. It's just something I love to do."