Singer, songwriter, guitarist
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brian Setzer, along with his band the Stray Cats, clawed their way up the charts in both America and Britain with their rollicking rockabilly revival. Top ten hits and memorable music videos were prevalent in the early years of Music Television (MTV). The group disbanded in the mid-1980s and by the end of the 1990s, Setzer was again at the forefront of another revival. This time it was a rejuvenated form of swing which he and his orchestra brought to popularity.
Setzer was born on April 10, 1959, in Massapequa, New York. When he was young, his family moved to Long Island, New York. His introduction to music came at an early age as he took up studying the euphonium, a tuba-like instrument. Setzer would play this for the next decade or so. He also learned to play guitar. When he was a teenager, Setzer often traveled to New York City to visit some of the local jazz clubs. These jazz-filled jaunts began to lay the groundwork for some of his critically and commercially acclaimed latter day works. Inspired by yet railing against punk, Setzer formed a rockabilly trio with his brother and a friend in 1979. They named themselves the Tom Cats. They also had a rock alter ego called the Bloodless Pharaohs. Setzer left the Tom Cats in 1980 and connected with some school friends, drummer Jim McDonnell, also known as Slim Jim Phantom, and bassist Leon Drucker, also known as Lee Rocker. They called themselves the Stray Cats.
Realizing that America was not ripe for a rockabilly revival, the Stray Cats packed up their bags, sold their possessions, and moved to England because they thought that the musical climate would be more responsive to them there. They were correct. While in London, they met Dave Edmonds who offered to produce their debut album. The Stray Cats signed to Arista in England and recorded their self-titled debut in five days. The Stray Cats was released in early 1981, and it yielded two top ten British singles.
After the wildly successful chart run of their debut album, the Stray Cats embarked on a tour of America with the Rolling Stones Their second album was released later in 1981. Although it was in the same mold as their debut album, Gonna Ball was widely dismissed by the rock press in Britain.
Undaunted by this set back, the Stray Cats signed with EMI America after their world tour. Early 1982 saw the release of Built for Speed, the first Stray Cats album released in America. It was a compilation of tracks from their first two British releases. Built for Speed raced up the American album charts and landed in the top five. The singles “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town” made the top ten.
Rant and Rave with the Stray Cats followed in 1983. The first single, “(She’s) Sexy & 17”, went top five in
Born on April 10, 1959, in Massapequa, NY.
Formed the Stray Cats, 1979; later moved to England and signed with Arista; released Stray Cats, 1981; released Gonna Ball, 1981; signed with EMI America and released Built for Speed, 1982; released Rant and Rave with the Stray Cats, 1983; disbanded the Stray Cats, 1984; went solo and released The Knife Feels Like Justice, on Razor and Tie, 1986; released Live Nude Guitars, on EMI America, 1988; formed the Brian Setzer Orchestra and released Brian Setzer Orchestra, on Hollywood Records, 1994; signed to Inter-scope and released Guitar Slinger, 1996; released The Dirty Boogie, 1998; released Vavoom, 2000.
Awards: American platinum sales certification, Built for Speed, c. 1982; Grammy Award, Best Pop Performance by Duo or Group with Vocal for “Jump, Jive An’ Wail,” 1998; Grammy Award, Best Pop Instrumental Performance for “Sleepwalk,” 1998; Orville H. Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Interscope Records, 2220 Colorado Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90404, website: http://www.interscoperecords.com. Website —Official Brian Setzer Orchestra website: http://www.briansetzer.com.
America. But by the end of 1984, Setzer decided to disband the Stray Cats. Occasional reunions brought the band back together from time to time. In 1986, the Stray Cats released Rock Therapy. Blast Off followed in 1989. The band reformed again in 1994 to release Choo Choo Hot Fish, and Original Cool two years later.
Setzer decided to try his luck at a solo career as a roots based rock guitarist. He released The Knife Feels Like Justice on the independent label, Razor and Tie, in 1986. Two years later EMI America released Live Nude Guitars.Setzer maintained a relatively low-key musical profile for the next few years until 1992 when he was invited to jam with some horn players in an impromptu jazz session at a neighbor’s house. The resulting product was intriguing. It was a big band sound with an electric guitar in the lead.
The group called themselves the Brian Setzer Orchestra. In 1994, they released their self-titled debut album on Hollywood Records. It was full of jazzy swing numbers that struck a responsive chord with audiences, as was witnessed by the sold out tour that followed the album’s release. This was definitely an idea whose time had come. What lured fans was the modern twist on an old favorite. The group updated swing while retaining the aspects of the genre that make swing unique.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra signed on with Interscope and released their second album, Guitar Slinger, in 1996. Guitar Slinger experimented with jump blues and Texas swing blues. By this time, both audiences and the music industry were starting to take notice, as numerous swing and swing-inspired bands began to populate the musical landscape.
All of this paled in comparison to what occurred in 1998 when The Dirty Boogie was released. The third Brian Setzer Orchestra album was a swinging smash hit with its covers of the Santo and Johnny instrumental classic “Sleepwalk” and the Louis Prima cover of “Jump, Jive, An’ Wail.” The latter of these was ever present on radio play lists that year.
The hard work finally paid off when the Brian Setzer Orchestra won two Grammy Awards in 1998. The first was for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for “Sleepwalk.” “Jump, Jive, An’ Wail” won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by Duo or Group with Vocal. In February of 1999, Setzer was awarded the Orville H. Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to guitar playing.
Refusing to rest on their laurels, the Brian Setzer Orchestra released Vavoom in 2000. Commenting on his successful style to iMusic Contemporary Music Showcase online, Setzer said, “I didn’t go into this looking at it like a novelty. I didn’t know how many records we might sell or gigs we might do. But I knew this was musically valid. It’s been a huge undertaking but it’s worth it. How many people can say they did something that had never been done before?”
The Knife Feels Like Justice, Razor and Tie, 1986.
Live Nude Guitars, EMI America, 1988.
With the Brian Setzer Orchestra
Brian Setzer Orchestra, Hollywood, 1994.
Guitar Slinger, Interscope, 1996.
The Dirty Boogie, Interscope, 1998.
Vavoom, Interscope, 2000.
With the Stray Cats
Stray Cats, Arista, 1981.
Gonna Ball, Arista, 1981.
Built for Speed (includes “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut”), EMI America, 1982.
Rant and Rave with the Stray Cats (includes (She’s) “Sexy &17”), EMI America, 1983.
Rock Therapy, EMI America, 1986.
Blast Off, EMI America, 1989.
Choo Choo Hot Fish, JRS, 1994.
Original Cool, Castle, 1996.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com(January 25, 2001).
“iMusic Contemporary Music Showcase—Brian Setzer Orchestra,” http://imusic.artistdirect.com/showcase/contemporary//briansetzerorchestra.html (January 30, 2001).
“Stray Cats,” http://home.wanadoo.nl/rock_and_roll/straycat.htm (January 25, 2001).
“Woodstock: Artist Bio:Brian Setzer Orchestra,” http://www.woodstock.com/html/biow.0061.shtml(January 30, 2001).
—Mary Alice Adams
Best-selling album since 1990: The Dirty Boogie (1998)
Hit songs since 1990: "Jump, Jive an' Wail"
Asolid music education, respect for history, energetic singing, and technically proficient guitar picking helped Brian Setzer modernize, revitalize, and capture the nearly forgotten fire of
the venerable and influential American genres of rockabilly and swing.
Raised in Massapequa, New York, Setzer began learning guitar as a kid. By the time he was a teenager, he had absorbed his teacher's jazz lessons and loved coloring his assigned songs with jazzy modulations. Though he didn't know it at the time, his learning how to read and write music, as opposed to just playing by ear, would become a key advantage in his eclectic career.
With Slim Jim Phanton and Lee Rocker, Setzer assembled the rockabilly-revival Stray Cats in 1979. The group used classic Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley moves as influences, but added a little bit of Rust Belt lyrical menace to the mix. The group scored big with "Rock This Town" and "Stray Cat Strut" from Built for Speed (1982), and "She's Sexy + 17" from Rant N' Rave with the Stray Cats (1983). Setzer did most of the songwriting, and his quivering vocals seemed to arrive from a 1959 time warp. By 1984 Setzer thought his band mates had let success go to their heads. He quit and headed to Los Angeles to regroup.
His solo debut, The Knife Feels Like Justice (1986), finds Setzer groping for a solo identity. Produced by Don Gehman, the album follows the mid-1980s album-rock template of punched-up backbeats and jangly guitar. Setzer comes across as a minor-league Tom Petty or John Mellencamp. The music lacks Setzer's energetic stamp, and his vocals don't remind anyone of his Stray Cats days either. Gone is his rebellious sneer, supplanted by a more generic baritone. Interestingly, his move to Los Angeles seems to have awakened him to the Chicano movement, as "Maria" and "Aztec" promote Mexican conquest of the southwestern United States. While the title track was a middling rock-radio hit, many observers guessed that Setzer's best days were behind him.
Spot Light: Swing Dance Revival
One of the late 1990s most interesting fads, swing dancing, was started by a rocker who hadn't had a hit in fifteen years. Brian Setzer, who had already recorded two so-so selling albums with his Brian Setzer Orchestra, persevered once again to release The Dirty Boogie (1998). One of the cuts is an uptempo cover of the Louis Prima chestnut "Jump, Jive An' Wail." With a bouncy sax riff and a traditional twelve-bar blues structure, the only thing modern about the song was its production value. But improbably, the tune caught on at radio and helped propel a revival of swing dancing, which the press extolled for its emphasis on touch and athleticism. Just as "Stayin' Alive" sent middle America to discos, "Jump, Jive An' Wail" sent it to ballrooms. Here was a song from the last person anyone expected to score a hit in 1998, done in the style least likely to jump to the upper reaches of the Top 40 charts. While swing didn't take over the charts, the retro hipness of "Jump, Jive An' Wail" rescued the style from its musty stereotype and made it a cool activity for young couples to participate in for years to come.
The Stray Cats reunited for the indifferently received Blast Off (1989) and suffered an even worse flop with Choo Choo Hot Fish (1994). However, Setzer had another project in the works that led to a comeback—the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Fusing jazz, blues, and rockabilly with a meatier big-band backing, Setzer updated 1940s swing music and helped promote awareness of the genre, just as he'd done for 1950s rockabilly in the 1980s. The Brian Setzer Orchestra (1994) represents a bold move; few critics thought the public would care about a washed-up rocker digging even further into the nostalgia well. Another risk for Setzer was financial—he had gone more than ten years without a money-making hit, and first-class big bands are expensive. But though the album wasn't a blockbuster, it sold well enough to convince Setzer he was on to something. "Lady Luck" channels Sinatra with a swing tempo, baritone vocals, and the resigned lyrics "bartender, pour a double." He more overtly pays tribute to Sinatra on the jazz ballad "September Skies." Setzer nimbly shifts to Paul Shaffer–like jazz/rock with "Ball and Chain." The call-and-response "Sittin' on It All the Time" provides double-entendre humor over a squealing sax solo. Setzer doesn't use his Stray Cats voice, using a more dignified croon, and he finally shows he has important contributions to make outside the group.
Setzer sounds more like his Stray Cats self on The Dirty Boogie (1998), also recorded with the orchestra. Slinging his words instead of crooning them, Setzer leaves no doubt that he's reverted to his old singing style. More confident, he mugs with theatrical élan on the minor-key blues title track. The socially conscious poet of the mid-1980s has given way to the upscale hipster urging listeners to follow their wanderlust on the jazz/rock/swing "Let's Live It Up."
Still restless, Setzer formed a three-piece rock band in 2001, the '68 Comeback Special, whose name pays tribute to Elvis Presley's famous NBC concert. His group's Ignition! (2001) contains his usual explosive fire and shows off his excellent guitar playing. Setzer adopts an advanced-rockabilly style called flatpicking, whereby he plays the melody with his thumb and fingers and squeezes the pick in his palm.
Aside from the occasional misstep, Setzer has made a career out of creating his own trends instead of following others'. With his rebellious voice, amazing guitar playing, and knowledge of many styles, Setzer has given his fans a history lesson and a peek into the future.
The Knife Feels Like Justice (Razor & Tie, 1986); The Brian Setzer Orchestra (Hollywood, 1994); The Dirty Boogie (Interscope, 1998); Ignition! (Hollywood/Surf, 2001).