Lee Rocker gives audience recollections of rockabilly

Lee Rocker
Lee Rocker

Lee Rocker, who performed at Pala Casino’s Infinity nightclub March 5, is best known as the bassist for the Stray Cats. When the Stray Cats released their first album in 1981, they provided a return to the hit charts for rockabilly music. It should thus have come as no surprise to those who attended Rocker’s concert at Infinity that he’d perform some of the Stray Cats’ greatest hits, but would also pay tribute to other rockabilly artists.

Lee Rocker and the other three members of his band were on stage for 91 minutes and performed 24 songs. The concert began with “Stray Cat Strut” and also included the Stray Cats hits “Sexy and 17” and “Rock This Town”, but some of the songs preceded the Stray Cats’ revival of rockabilly.

“We’re going to play this music, this rockabilly music, like we did when we first started,” Rocker said.

Rocker said those words prior to the sixth song of the night, which was “That’s All Right”. The significance of that song is that it was Elvis Presley’s first single. The “B” side of that single was “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, which was Rocker’s next song.

The eighth song was the Carl Perkins hit “Honey Don’t”. Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash were known as Sun Records’ million dollar quartet. Rocker referred to those four as the Mount Rushmore of rockabilly. “I was lucky enough to spend a lot of years working with Carl Perkins,” Rocker said.

“I think we all carry a responsibility to pay homage to those guys,” said guitarist Buzz Campbell.

Normally Rocker uses two guitarists, Campbell and Brophy Dale, while Jimmy Sage plays the drums. Sage lives in the San Francisco area and Dale is a Long Beach resident so the band at Pala consisted of Rocker, Campbell, drummer Larry Mitchell, and keyboardist Joey Guevara. Campbell lives in Temecula, Mitchell also lives in Riverside County, Guevara lives in San Diego County, and Rocker – when not on tour – splits time between New York and Laguna Beach.

The Pala concert was the debut of Mitchell and Guevara with Rocker’s band. That might have been noticeable for fans who have seen Rocker extensively in the past, but for those unfamiliar with Rocker’s supporting musicians, verbal revelation rather than any performance flaws would be necessary to know that Mitchell and Guevara were performing with the band for the first time.

“Guys who have been doing it as long as Joey and Larry, it’s a lot easier than it sounds,” Campbell said. “Those guys did their homework.”

The newcomers also had the benefit of Campbell’s assistance. “I was doing a lot of cueing,” he said.

Campbell, who has been a regular on Pala’s Center Bar stage with Hot Rod Lincoln and also performed with Sha Na Na at the Pala Events Center prior to the 2010 opening of Infinity, felt that the Pala venue was a suitable place for the initial concert with Mitchell and Guevara in the band.

“The best way to learn to play together is just playing,” Campbell said. “Pala’s kind of a low-pressure situation.”

The proximity of Guevara to Pala allowed Rocker to add a keyboard player to the band. “He kind of likes the element it brings,” Campbell said.

“Lee’s getting to the point where he’s sort of diversifying,” Campbell said. “It’s fun for him to do something different.”

The tenth song was “Miracle in Memphis”. Rocker explained that he wrote the song to describe the first time he heard rockabilly music. He followed that by trading his bass for an acoustic guitar for “Memphis Freeze”.

Rocker also used the acoustic guitar for “City of New Orleans”, which was the 17th song, and Campbell utilized a six-string banjo for the song originally recorded by Steve Goodman. Rocker had a slower pace than Goodman. Rocker also modified the lyrics; he didn’t add any new lines but duplicated some verses while eliminating others.

That change in lyrics is bad from a purist’s standpoint, but made a statement for the revival of nostalgia. Rocker eliminated the final stanza of Goodman’s version, and the final words of that stanza are “This train has got the disappearing railroad blues”. When Goodman wrote “City of New Orleans” in 1970 intercity passenger rail was in decline and threatened with extinction. The same might have been said for rockabilly in the era when the folk and psychedelic genres dominated airwaves, record sales, and concerts. The revival of passenger rail literally took an act of Congress, which oversaw the formation of Amtrak. The revival of rockabilly a decade later was the result of the act of a record producer who was able to market the Stray Cats’ initial albums and singles back into a popular music environment which in the early 1980s was led by next-generation Motown and new wave artists.

“I don’t think we could have done anything wrong with that audience,” said Campbell. “They were just happy that we were there.”

“We had a blast,” Campbell said. “I had a great time.”

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