40 years ago, when the Stray Cats were struggling to make a name for themselves, they auditioned at the Past Time Pub, a nightspot on Long Island, New York, near Massapequa, where the band formed in 1979. The club never called them back.
But on August 2, the Stray Cats finally got their chance to play at the venue, which now operates as the Revolution Bar & Music Hall. The occasion was an invitation-only concert for SiriusXM subscribers.
The gig was a fun homecoming for what is undeniably one of Long Island’s most successful and famous bands. Through massive hit singles like “Rock This Town, “Stray Cat Strut,” “(She’s) Sexy + 17” and “Runaway Boys,” the Stray Cats single-handedly revitalized classic American-style rockabilly in the early 1980s.
While the trio — guitarist/vocalist Brian Setzer, upright bassist Lee Rocker and drummer Slim Jim Phantom — hailed from New York, they first found success in England, where musical tastes of the era were more open to their retro style. “The Stray Cats rank as one of the greatest bands to ever come out of the island and certainly one of the most influential,” explains John Blenn, a Long Island–based author and professor of music business at Five Towns College. “There was a thriving rockabilly scene in the late ’70s, early ’80s, and they were the trailblazers. They had such catchy pop hits that many overlooked what strong musicians they were. Brian used to play in prog-rock bands long before his rockabilly days, so he was a versatile and exceptional player.”
Lee Rocker views the band’s early days as being formative for their reputation as a strong live act. “We’d play every Thursday at one club, every Friday at another, and it really gave me the confidence and the understanding of what was going on,” he says. “That first Thursday somewhere, we would have 20 people. A week later, there was 50. The following week, there was a hundred, and the week after that there’s a line down the block. That happened on Long Island at a couple of different clubs. And at the same time we were doing it, we were playing Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, going into [Manhattan].”
Slim Jim Phantom remembers the auditioning process as being a key part of playing out all over New York. “I think, probably everywhere, Monday would be audition nights, a ‘go and play for 20 minutes’ kind of thing. If you got a call, they give you another gig.” And what type of material would the Stray Cats play at these sorts of auditions? “We would have probably done a couple Gene Vincent songs or an Elvis Presley song from the Sun Sessions,” Phantom explains. “I know we did have ‘Rock This Town’ before we went to England.”
The Revolution Bar & Music Hall date was likely the most intimate show that the group has played in decades, but the gig made Phantom anxious for a different reason. “All my cousins [live nearby],” he explained by phone before the show. “I have 12 people to get in and make sure have a parking spot and on the guest-list. It is so nerve-wracking. I think it’ll be fun. It’s a little bit more organization when you play New York or L.A.”
The Stray Cats’ performance came on the heels of the group releasing 40 (Surfdog Records/BMG), their first new album in more than 25 years. The disc’s May 2019 release was preceded by three singles — “Cat Fight (Over A Dog Like Me),” “Rock It Off” and “Cry Danger” — and helmed by Peter Collins (Rush, Bon Jovi, the Brian Setzer Orchestra) and engineer Vance Powell (Jack White, Chris Stapleton, Arctic Monkeys). According to Phantom, the success of the Stray Cats’ performance at the 2018 Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend inspired the recording of 40.
“I think we were kind of positively affected by that, and it set Brian off to wanting to write songs. Within the next few months he got in touch and said, ‘I’ve written three more. You want to hear them?’ He played them over the phone, very, very loose demos of him with an acoustic guitar. So we went in very quickly when we decided to do it. The course of it maybe took a few months.”
While the Stray Cats have toured occasionally since disbanding as a full-time group in the early 1990s, all three of its original members have kept busy in the years since. Setzer is, of course, the leader of the Brian Setzer Orchestra, whose 16th annual Christmas Rocks! tour launches in November. Lee Rocker regularly releases solo albums — 2019’s The LOW Road is the latest — and frequently performs with his solo band. Notably, he was part of the cast of the Broadway hit Million Dollar Quartet as bassist Clayton Perkins. Slim Jim Phantom currently hosts a program on Steven Van Zandt’s SiriusXM channel and plays in the band Kat Men with Imelda May guitarist Darrel Higham and bassist Al Gare. He’s also been part of a variety of supergroups, including Col. Parker (with former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke), the Head Cat (with Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister), Men of No Shame (with Sex Pistol Glen Matlock and Bowie/Lennon guitarist Earl Slick) and Dead Men Walking (with the Alarm’s Mike Peters and the Damned’s Captain Sensible).
So are the Stray Cats here to stay after the current world tour in support of 40 wraps? Phantom thinks so but is taking a measured view. “I think that after a certain point that’s how you do it: one tour at a time and one record at a time.” Beyond being happy with 40, Rocker views the Stray Cats’ legacy proudly. “The Stray Cats are a huge part of what I am. I think for all three of us, that will be in the first sentence in our separate obituaries: the Stray Cats.”
As per Setzer’s reputation as a guitarist, many people view him as one of Long Island’s greatest of all-time, if not the greatest. Then again, he’s not the only guitarist who has called Long Island home. “Setzer is a fantastic player and one of the elite,” Blenn says. “But you gotta keep in mind that Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Blue Oyster Cult’s Buck Dharma and Tommy Byrnes from Billy Joel — who was with the Stray Cats as second guitarist on their last tour before they went on break in the 1980s — are from here too. And guys like Ritchie Blackmore have had a Long Island address for decades.”
As a three-time Grammy-winner with an Orville H. Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award and multiple signature Gretsch models though, Setzer is undoubtedly the greatest guitarist to have ever graced the stage of the Revolution Bar & Music Hall.