You know who’s one of the most incredible, underappreciated guitarists/musicians of our time? Brian Setzer, that’s who. Besides being able to flat-out jump, jive and wail on his now signature model series of Gretsch hollow-body guitars, he’s a revivalist of two distinct, forgotten and historically significant musical genres: In two decades, first resurrecting Rockabilly, with the Stray Cats, and then later doing the same for Swing music with the audacious formation of the Brian Setzer Orchestra – the only time ever, to my knowledge, that a full 19-piece Big Band had ever been fronted by guitar.
In the early ‘80’s, with Madonna and Michael Jackson dominating the pop music scene, as well as the first days of a channel named “Music Television”, along came three skinny, tattooed boys from Massapequa, Long Island – Brian Setzer, Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom – who called themselves the Stray Cats and played Rockabilly music, last heard by artists like Bill Haley, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, and yes, Elvis Presley, but not since the late ‘50’s. Their first U.S. release, 1982’s Built For Speed, immediately rocketed them from obscurity to one of the biggest bands¹ of the moment with huge hits ‘Rock This Town’, ‘Rumble In Brighton’, ‘Runaway Boys’, and the song that became inescapable on MTV and in some ways their trademark, ‘Stray Cat Strut.’² I saw them live that year in New Orleans, and their neo-Rockabilly tornado almost ripped the walls off of the venerated Tipitina’s venue, a landmark show for sure. It was a short run though; After releasing just one more album, Rant N’ Rave with the Stray Cats which produced the notable hit, ‘(She’s) Sexy + 17’, the members went on to separate projects and the Stray Cats broke up in 1984 (among Setzer’s gigs following that time were playing with Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, and as the concert guitarist for Robert Plant’s side band, The Honeydrippers).
After releasing a number of solo albums, Setzer proceeded to go about as against trend as possible in 1994, returning to his love of music from the Fifties, this time the swinging jump blues best known by Louis Prima and Big Joe Turner, as he assembled the Brian Setzer Orchestra, a preposterously large operation filled with the lush and complex big band arrangements of a 15-piece horn section, but unmistakably still led by the Rockabilly guitar stylings of Setzer. The BSO (as they’re known in shorthand) has gone on to release 9 studio albums – in my book, each one more stupendous than the last – and among them has branched off once into classical music, with the miraculous Wolfgang’s Big Night Out (2007), and thrice to marvelously updated Christmas tunes, on Boogie Woogie Christmas (2002), Dig That Crazy Christmas (2005), and Rockin’ Rudolph (2015). The Yule-themed output has actually created yet another huge and successful retro category for Setzer, as he and his rocking orchestra have played the famed Rockafeller Center tree-lighting ceremony multiple times, and is currently celebrating their 15th anniversary performing throughout the holiday season with its Christmas Rocks! concert extravaganza (I’ve seen it with my family a bunch of times, and it’s at least as much fun as kids have opening presents on Christmas morning).
Speaking of family, mine will also always have a special connection to Setzer. On July 22, 1999 I took my then-5-year-old son Max to New York City for his first-ever rock concert to see the one-and-only Brian Setzer Orchestra. Looking back, I must’ve been a little crazy to bring him into the throngs of that free Central Park Summerstage show with teeming crowds in the scorching sun, but there he sat perched up on my shoulders, blissfully unaware, to take in one of this generation’s greatest, multi-talented, multi-genre, most influential, 3-time Grammy-award-winning guitarists and band leaders – even if too few people realize it.
And, there may soon be another chance to revisit both Setzer and family history: Just announced this week, the reunited Stray Cats will be playing at Musilac Music festival in France in July of 2019, as the kick-off for what will become the band’s 40th anniversary tour (they’d first formed in 1979). The cities and dates are as yet unannounced, but if they come anywhere near the East coast, I’ll be there. Maybe Max will put me on his shoulders.
So, having covered the impactful pillars of his career with the Stray Cats and the Brian Setzer Orchestra, let’s instead feature a thoroughly ridiculous video from Setzer’s mostly unrecognized 2014 solo album, Rockabilly Riot, with the song ‘Let’s Shake’, which between jiggling of both Jell-O and dancers, skateboard pratfalls and popping champagne, does manage to fit-in some classic Setzer finger and fret work – first from 1:17 to 1:36, then in a series of snarling solos beginning at 2:34 (interspersed with some killer piano pounding, as well as managing to name-check three vintage “shake” songs: ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’, ‘Shakin’ All Over’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’). These may be largely empty musical calories but, like the ice cream shake also appearing in the video, just desserts for a man who’s been winningly shaking things up now for four decades.
¹Biggest in popularity, while still smallest in size – besides Setzer on guitar/vocals, there was only Rocker on the stand-up bass, and Phantom, whose entire drum kit consisted of one snare and one cymbal, which he played standing up.
²In the October 1998 issue of Guitar World magazine, Brian Setzer’s solo from ‘Stray Cat Strut’ ranked No. 92 on the “Top 100 Guitar Solos of All Time” list.