In 1985, when rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins taped a cable-television special celebrating his career, most of his backing musicians were middle-aged British rockers who’d spent their pimply teen years listening to Perkins’ music on BBC radio in the ’50s: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Dave Edmunds, etc. One of the few exceptions was Lee Rocker, a ducktailed child of a Philharmonic clarinetist father and a music-professor mother, who was born well after “Blue Suede Shoes” completed its chart run. Introducing the slap-happy bassist to the studio audience during that show, Perkins simply added: “He’s tough.”
If toughness is measured by a stubborn allegiance to a musical genre that went out of fashion nearly a half-century ago, Rocker definitely qualifies. With his high-school pals, Brian Setzer and Slim Jim Phantom, he even helped to bring rockabilly back into vogue (and to rub video shoulders with Duran Duran and Adam Ant on a then-new MTV) for a brief period as a member of the Stray Cats. After stints playing with Perkins, a reunited Stray Cats, and session cheese-meister Earl Slick, Rocker recently emerged as a bona fide frontman. Surprisingly, he’s a perfectly serviceable vocalist, with a touch of Peter Case when he drops to his lower register.
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Rocker’s latest album, Racin’ The Devil, his first release on the venerable Chicago blues label Alligator Records, won’t stun anyone with its lyrical profundity. It spews out the stock shout-outs to cars, endless American highways, mindless troublemaking, and hellhounds nipping at the strings of Rocker’s double-bass. But on the musical front, Rocker keeps mixing things up, injecting hints of blues, surf, swing, borrowed riffs from “Raunchy” and tongue-in-cheek quotes from the Munsters theme. There’s absolutely nothing new happening here, but the results are fairly appealing, nonetheless. You could say the same about Rocker’s entire career.
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