For over three decades, singer-musician Brian Setzer preached the gospel of American roots music, from rockabilly to swing, through a variety of successful groups, including the hard-charging Stray Cats, his big-band Brian Setzer Orchestra, and a handful of solo efforts that established him as a leading player on the retro-revival scene. He first parlayed his dizzying guitar work as a member of the Stray Cats, a rockabilly trio that found fame in England before striking it rich in America in the early 1980s with such classic Fifties-styled rave-ups as "Rock This Town," "Stray Cat Strut" and "(She's) Sexy +17." Following the band's demise, he tried his hand at the brand of working-class Americana parlayed by Bruce Springsteen, but found few takers. Setzer then returned to the past with the 17-piece Brian Setzer Orchestra, which touched down in the midst of the swing revival in the late 1990s to score a huge hit with "Jump, Jive an' Wail," a song that received much attention for its use in a popular GAP commercial. The enduring popularity of rockabilly, jump blues and swing/jazz kept Setzer busy for the better part of the next two decades, which found him fronting not only his Orchestra and two new bands but also releasing a string of eclectic solo work which flirted with bluegrass, instrumental rock and more introspective work. Setzer's tireless dedication to the flame of classic rock-n-roll made him one of the more prolific talents in popular music.
Born Brian Robert Setzer on April 10, 1959 in Massapequa, NY, his musical interests developed along twin lines from an early age. His first musical instrument was the tuba-like euphonium, which spurred a fascination with jazz and big bands. By his teens, Setzer's tastes had expanded to blues and punk rock, which informed one of his earliest groups, the Bloodless Pharoahs, which played the New York club scene. By the late 1970s, he and Pharoahs bassist Bob Beecher, along with Setzer's brother Gary, had formed a second group, the Tomcats, which hewed closer to 1950s-styled rockabilly. That band gave way to a new trio, the Stray Cats, which Setzer formed with friends Lee Drucker and Jim McDonnell, who later adopted the monikers Lee Rocker and Sim Jim Phantom, respectively. Their brand of amphetamine-paced rockabilly failed to catch on with the club scene in Long Island, which prompted the trio to follow in the footsteps of many rockabilly pioneers and head to London, where American music and fashion from the '50s remained popular among a certain section of youth subculture.
The band quickly captured the attention of the British music industry, as well as members of the U.K. rock elite like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, who had cut their teeth on the original version of the Cats' rockabilly sound. Fellow roots rock enthusiast Dave Edmunds of Rockpile fame produced their self-titled debut album, which rose to No. 6 on the U.K. albums charts, while three singles, including "Rock This Town" and "Stray Cat Strut," reached the Top 20. Their popularity soon attracted interest from American labels like EMI, which compiled tracks from the Cats' first two U.K. releases for an American album called Built for Speed (1982). Response to the Cats in America was equally positive, with the album reached double platinum status on the strength of the aforementioned singles, which broke into the Top 10 on the Billboard 200. A second American album, Rant N' Rave with the Stray Cats (1983), generated a Top 5 hit with "(She's) Sexy + 17," but by the following year, the band had called it quits due to a variety of conflicts. Setzer quickly established himself as an in-demand guitar for hire on records with Bob Dylan, among others, before releasing a solo LP, The Knife Feels Like Justice (1986). Its roots-rock sound, which hewed closer to Bruce Springsteen and the punk band X, received little attention from its label, EMI, which led to its fast demise. A second solo record, Live Nude Guitars> (1988), failed to break into the Top 100 on the albums chart, though Setzer enjoyed some success during this period as the touring guitarist for Robert Plant's retro-minded band the Honeydrippers, as well as for his performance as Eddie Cochran in the Ritchie Valens biopic "La Bamba" (1987). A series of reunions with the Stray Cats, which resulted in a handful of albums between 1986 and 1992, produced no hit records, which resulted in a second breakup.
In 1994, Setzer decided to combine his first musical loves - rockabilly and big band music - by launching the Brian Setzer Orchestra, a 17-piece ensemble that played a blend of jump blues and swing music. Their initial offerings, including a self-titled 1994 release and 1996's Guitar Slinger (1996), generated little interest from the music-buying public, but regular touring helped to produce positive word of mouth for the group. Setzer's tenacity paid off in 1998 with The Dirty Boogie, which landed in the middle of the swing revival of the late 1990s. Its lead single, a ferocious cover of Louis Prima's 1956 hit "Jump, Jive an' Wail," earned massive radio airplay and a 1999 Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. It helped that it was used in a groundbreaking GAP commercial. A second single from the album, a cover of Santo and Johnny's ethereal "Sleep Walk," won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental. The new millennium found Setzer simultaneously fronting four different musical acts, including his orchestra, which released a slew of records between 2000 and 2010, including two collections of Christmas music, a live album and an album of rockabilly takes on classical compositions.
A cover of the Duke Ellington standard "Caravan," from 2000's Vavoom!, brought Setzer a third Grammy. He also reunited successfully with the Stray Cats for tours of Europe and America in 2004 and 2007, respectively, before returning to the Continent for a farewell tour that also took them to Australia and New Zealand. In 2001, he launched a new rockabilly group, '68 Comeback Special, which released its debut album, Ignition!, in 2001. Setzer also continued to dabble in solo efforts, many of which offered a marked contrast in sound and content to his established acts. Nitro Burnin' Funny Daddy (2003) offered a collection of originals that took a more introspective tone than his usual sound, though he quickly returned to that aesthetic for Rockabilly Riot Vol. 1 (2005), a tribute album featuring covers of singles released by the legendary Sun Records label. A 2006 record titled 13, offered a mixed bad of musical styles, including reunions with Rocker and Phantom and a single, "Back Streets of Tokyo," which broke into the Top 10 on the Japanese Billboard chart. The remainder of the decade saw releases by Setzer with a new backing band, the Nashvillains, as well as another concert album with the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Brian Setzer Goes Instru-MENTAL! (2011), a collection of instrumental-only covers of period pop, rock and country standards, as well as a pair of bluegrass tracks.
By Paul Gaita