How the Stray Cats Learned to Strut
Three Long Island kids with high hair, pink jackets, and two-tone shoes were not the norm
By Slim Jim Phantom
It was 1979, and through the right research and quest for cool, we found rockabilly music and instantly fell in love with the sound and style. I started out finding out about rockabilly through some of the older English bands. The Beatles and Stones both covered classics by Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly. The Who had covered Eddie Cochran. A cousin of mine had a copy of Blind Faith, and I heard Buddy again on their version of “Well, All Right.”
These types of records were easier to find than the originals. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t think these songs were just more album cuts by those huge bands. No one at FM rock stations pointed out that all the English groups had strong American roots and worshiped our original rock & roll stars. As much as we loved these 1970s rockers, they didn’t invent the blues.
At a certain age, all musicians should want to get to the roots of the music they like. This was our time. WCBS 101.1 was the New York oldies station that played doo-wop and big hits from the 1950s, and I found myself tuning in a bit more. I was also listening to WRVR 105.5, a jazz station, and I’d try to see any of the original cats whenever they played at the Village Gate in the city or Sonny’s Place on Long Island. These guys were so good and their chops were so far beyond what I thought I could do that it helped me stay on the path, to look out for a type of sound and look that I could make my own.
I’d also go into the city to see any type of new wave band. There was virtually no place for anything like that on Long Island. Punk rock had kind of already come and gone. Even new wave, skinny-tie, slightly left-field stuff was discouraged and ridiculed. Blondie, with one of my fave drummers, Clem Burke, had broken through, but the look had not. Elliot Easton from the Cars is a Massapequa native, had gone to our school, and moved to Boston after he graduated. He came to see us at Arthur’s Bar, and there was a little talk of him producing a demo. He’s still a good buddy and was another shred of proof that someone from our neighborhood could get out of town, make a record, and go on tour.
The jukebox at Max’s Kansas City had some things I wasn’t aware of. It had the Ramones, Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps “Be-Bop- a-Lula” and “Race with the Devil,” and Elvis Presley’s first few singles on Sun Records. I was ready to be exposed to this stuff. When I heard “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and saw some pictures of Elvis in his heyday as “the Hillbilly Cat,” the world stopped spinning for a split second, and I knew what to do.
A couple of days later, I went to an alternative hair salon on St. Mark’s Place, cut off all my hair, and had it greased and sprayed into a pompadour style. The wisecracking, downtown hipster girl doing my hair told me, “It’s about time.” She was right.
I walked across the street to Cheap Jacks and bought some baggy, pleated, gray sharkskin pants, pointy black shoes, and a black bowling shirt. I left the clothes I came in wearing on the floor of the changing room. I walked up to Penn Station, took the train home, and just turned back up at home and acted like nothing happened. There were, of course, the stares and disbelief from family and neighbors. Brian had adopted the rockabilly look a few months before and was playing by himself with a rhythm box in a few small bars. I started turning up, and we became a two-man gang.
I encouraged Lee to get a double bass, and I started to experiment with different ways of setting up the drums. There were pictures of Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps where Dickie Harrell was standing up behind the drums. We thought this was supercool and unique. I took it one step further and moved the drums to the front of the stage and used only the basic pieces I needed to play rockabilly. Since then, I’ve seen pictures and heard about a few other people playing the drums standing up. At the time we formed the Cats, I didn’t know about of any of them besides Dickie Harrell. He would later tell that he only did it in photos. No one had ever moved the drums to the front of the stage and stood in a line with the rest of the band. I think I may have been the first guy to stand on top of them, too. We played a lot of gigs, and that gave me time to develop the stand-up style. We always encouraged each other to push it further and experiment with the showmanship onstage. Years later, in front of a bunch of name drummers, Tony Williams, maybe the best drummer ever, said that this change was my original contribution to the world of drums.
We wanted to create a situation where we could play the music and look the part. We started to do a fun band called Brian and the Tomcats in a few bars in and around Massapequa. The established rock clubs on Long Island would not book us. It was too weird. It was still the 1970s on Long Island, and dinosaur rock and Southern-tinged, long-haired boogie was still the rage. We weren’t even punk rock. It was weirder even still. Three young kids with high hair and pink jackets, baggy pants, and two-tone shoes were not the norm.
We learned and played Elvis, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Ricky Nelson, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins covers. Each of us was in our other “serious” band that we hoped to get record deals with. We got together to play rockabilly cover songs for fun on nights we weren’t rehearsing or playing with our other bands. The Cats had an instant chemistry, and it came across to the audience. The interaction onstage was good right away. There was an understanding of not getting in the way of the other guy. Everybody had the moves and knew when to pull them out.
We really loved this music and felt comfortable with each other. We were still very young but had all had a good amount of experience doing gigs. We seemed to instinctively know how to pose for a photograph and really looked like we belonged together. Every great band has distinct personalities and slightly different looks but presents a united front to the outside world. Not every band translates into a bobblehead doll; I think the Cats always did.
The three of us are certainly different people, and there have always been rubs, especially in later times, between the other two. Everyone has grown up a little, but each guy, me included, is basically the same person he was when we started this thing. It was a little fate and good luck that we had the pieces we needed right there in our school and that we met up under all the right circumstances. The history of rock & roll is full of these chance bits of kismet. I’m still grateful for the accident of where I grew up and who I grew up with. The luck of the draw was with us.
Right away, there was a feeling that it would be us against the world. After a few months, the handwriting was on the wall. The Tomcats, our fun band, was the one everybody was coming to see, and we were packing out these little bars on Long Island in a scene we had created on our own. We started to do the Cats full-time.
Since we were so young and made such a big impact on the rock & roll culture at the time, it’s impossible to step away from it. I never wanted to. I’m proudly the drummer from the Stray Cats and will happily have that as my epitaph. The others have tried to distance themselves more. After our initial success, I felt I didn’t have anything left to prove. The trick is to keep it going, which I know now is the hardest thing to do.
Like Hyman Roth told Michael, “This is the business we’ve chosen.”
Excerpted from A STRAY CAT STRUTS by Slim Jim Phantom. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC. Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers.
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