I first became aware of Brian Setzer when he played Eddie Cochran and covered “Summertime Blues” in the 1987 sleeper hit La Bamba. This was pretty inspired casting – most of the big-name musicians in the movie were played by real musicians rather than actors, and Setzer not only lives for this style, but he’s got charisma to spare in portraying the young Cochran.
What I didn’t know was that Setzer was on his way to being washed up. The band that made him famous had broken up three years earlier, and while he’d been working consistently, he sure wasn’t headlining shows or cracking the Billboard top ten. Three minutes of screen time and a cover song on a double platinum album was the biggest thing he had going on. But what neither I or anyone else could know is that he would launch a pretty unexpected comeback not long after this.
Despite appearances, Setzer was not born with a Gretsch in his hands. He started learning guitar around age eight, and got into rockabilly thanks to his father’s ignorance of popular music trends. He says that one day when he was listening to the Beatles’ cover of “Honey Don’t,” his dad walked by and started singing along. He asked his father how he knew the words, since it was a new record, and his dad replied that it was an old Carl Perkins song—“I don’t know who these ‘Beatles’ are, but I know Carl Perkins.” A little research taught the budding guitarist that many of the earlier songs played by the Beatles and Rolling Stones were covers of classics from the Sun Records era.
As a teen, Setzer bounced around a few different acts before forming a rockabilly band called the Stray Cats, with a couple of other dudes who had similarly appropriate stage names—bassist Lee Rocker and drummer Slim Jim Phantom, who plays standing up for some reason. The trio gigged around New York and Philly with limited success, then decided to move to London when they heard a Teddy Boy revival was brewing beneath the punk and New Wave scene out there. Their version of rockabilly showed off a high level of musicianship with just a dash of punk, and it went over well in the UK.
The Stray Cats released two records in Great Britain in 1981, and their self-titled debut went to No. 6 on the UK charts. It included both of the hits for which they’re best known, “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut.” The follow-up, Gonna Ball, didn’t do as well, but it was still enough to get them a U.S. release. Built for Speed came out stateside in 1982 and featured eleven tracks from their British records, plus the newly recorded title track.
Things were going pretty good for the Stray Cats. They had hit records. They toured the U.S. and Europe. Slim Jim Phantom married a Bond girl. Keith Richards and Ringo Starr were seen at their shows. (“There hadn’t been a rock and roll band for so long, they wanted to come and see what one sounded like again,” is how Setzer explained that to Dick Clark on American Bandstand.) But while the band did well, the members weren’t getting along. In 1984, they finished the last tour and called it quits.
Setzer found work playing with Robert Plant’s rock ‘n’ roll throwback supergroup The Honeydrippers, and you can find some really poorly recorded live shows of theirs on YouTube if you’re interested. In 1986, he released a solo album, The Knife Feels Like Justice, that swung toward the heartland rock sound of artists like John Cougar Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. I suspect this was supposed to showcase a more mature Brian Setzer: his lyrics hit on topics like nuclear proliferation and economic despair, while his sound gained more studio polish.
This record has a few solid tracks, but to go from a rockabilly revivalist to impersonating Bruce Springsteen is tough. The charts were not favorable, though Setzer still landed a spot in the first Farm Aid concert. Seems incongruous, given the country-friendly lineup, but then again, the Beach Boys and X both played that show too, so …
The La Bamba gig was in 1987, and Setzer’s second solo record, Live Nude Guitars, dropped the following year. I think it’s better than his first solo foray. He dumped the pensive roots rocker persona, but also broke out of the narrow rockabilly niche that sometimes made listening to more than three or four Stray Cats songs in a row a tiresome endeavor. This album incorporated horns, backup girl singers, and even synth (thanks to the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart producing), bringing a southern blues flavor to Setzer’s sound, which felt like a natural progression.
This album did worse commercially, barely registering on the charts. And so began Brian Setzer’s slow descent into has-been-ville. After Live Nude Guitars, he didn’t release any solo albums for another 13 years. The Stray Cats had gotten back together for a record in 1986, then put out two more in ’89 and ’90. Neither was very well received; either the whole “rockabilly today” sound had gotten old, or the band just wasn’t feeling it. Even the album titles were stupid, like 1994’s Choo Choo Hot Fish. This track is pretty good:
While the Stray Cats were going stale, Setzer decided to follow a different dream: to lead a big band. According to the program from the Playboy Jazz Festival, where I saw him perform in 1996, Setzer had wanted to be a big band leader from a young age. Sounds weird, but what do I know? He started the Brian Setzer Orchestra in 1990. Despite the quizzical looks he probably got at first, this was the best decision Setzer ever made.
Musically, it opened up a much wider palette for him to play with. Most of the songs from the eras he paid homage to had never been covered by modern artists, so he had a huge back catalog to borrow from, and he could expand on those idioms as a composer as well. That included swing-era jazz charts, Frank Sinatra/Bobby Darin vocal numbers, some R&B, and Louis Prima jump blues — on top of the doo-wop, rockabilly, and blues-rock he was already playing, because it turned out nearly every kind of music Setzer digs also meshes conveniently with the big band sound.
Fortune favors the bold. Setzer’s big band experiment positioned him to ride the Swing Revival wave of the late ’90s, which featured bros wearing porkpie hats in bands that all seemed to be called “Daddy” something, who peppered their lyrics with archaic, even racially tone-deaf lingo. Technically speaking, most of the songs from this mini-genre are more “jump blues” than “swing,” but let’s save that pedantry for some other time. The point is, after The Mask (1994) and Swingers (1996) helped popularize bands like Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Royal Crown Revue, Setzer was more than happy to take advantage.
That’s from the BSO’s third album, 1998’s The Dirty Boogie, which is easily their most accessible—it went double platinum. In addition to the above Louis Prima cover (you may have heard the original in a ubiquitous commercial for The Gap around the same time) it also showcases a vamptastic Gwen Stefani on the duet “You’re the Boss,” a Grammy-winning cover of the ’50s instrumental hit “Sleep Walk,” and a rollicking version of Setzer’s own Stray Cats number “Rock This Town,” revealing he was actually a big band artist this whole time.
Playing with a big band lit Setzer on fire as a musician, in case you couldn’t tell from those videos, where he’s having the time of his damn life. Over the last 22 years, he’s put out 15 studio records—nine with the orchestra and six as a solo artist—and reunited with the Stray Cats for multiple tours. Of course, quantity doesn’t always equal quality, and there are a few questionable decisions on these albums. I can overlook trumpeter Kevin Norton rapping in the middle of an otherwise faithful cover of the Glenn Miller standard “In the Mood,” but let’s just pretend the album where the BSO covers classical music in a swingin’ big band style doesn’t exist.
Still, the dude’s having a great time, so who can complain?