top of page

Brian Setzer: A Hero of Rockabilly and Swing

When compiling a list of the greatest singers/guitarists in the history of music you’d an extensive group of legends. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, George Harrison and B.B. King are just the few to name. However, no list would be complete without the inclusion of an artist who’s responsible for almost single-handedly shaping rock ‘n’ roll. An artist who’s performed this feat twice in their illustrious career. An artist who revitalized two genres that left critics wondering how they even returned. An artist who embodies the meaning of virtuoso, Brian Setzer.

Hailing from the Empire State of New York, Setzer began his musical journey humbly in Long Island. During his youth he would frequent jazz clubs and become fixated on the big-band style that made the genre thrive. Setzer dedicated himself to learning how to play guitar in the same style and later form his own band. These pursuits would introduce him to fellow musicians Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom who shared an appreciation for his tastes. Their combined passion formed the band The Stray Cats. The influences of rockabilly and punk would inspire to evolve their sound further. However, realizing that audiences had no interest in their music, the band would take a chance by travelling to the UK. Their leap of faith decision would prove to be fruitful.

During their first stay in the country they would be discovered by legendary new wave recording producer Dave Edmunds. Sharing their love and passion for rockabilly, the producer coached them to be pioneers. This work would result in the release of their 1981 debut album Stray Cats. Audiences were astounded by their 1950s style and modern edge that made their music memorable. The album catapulted them to superstar status in the UK as the hit singles “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut” paved the way. The former would be accoladed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame due to its significance for the genre. In remarks to reintroducing an old genre Setzer stated “I was taking this outdated piece of music—dusted it off and I kinda put my stamp on it.”

The group’s status as international performers would be their opportunity to comeback to the U.S. as stars. The release of their third album, Rant n’ Rave with the Stray Cats, lamented them to platinum sales. Music’s most iconic reviewer, Robert Chrisgau, heralded the album calling it “bigger and rawer”. Their hit single “(She’s) Sexy + 17” powered through the charts during the 1980s with airplay in rock and punk radio. However, their run of success would fizzle out like a candle as the group soon disbanded in 1984. But Setzer loved his music too much to simply end his career so suddenly.

Setzer launched a solo career and experimented into other genres with his 1986 debut album The Knife Feels Like Justice. Critics praised his change to a more roots-based sound dubbing it as “sincere” and “genuine”. His status as a new age rockabilly icon landed Setzer a role in the cult classic film La Bamba. Setzer portrayed the legendary Eddie Cochran while performing one of the singer’s greatest hits, “Summertime Blues”. The film would be a hit and Setzer’s role as one of rockabilly’s greatest songwriters would earn praise. But Setzer wasn’t satisfied and knew he could give audiences something more from his music.

By 1990 the songwriter had formed an ensemble of musicians that would perform a genre that hadn’t seen contemporary status in decades, swing. Naming the group, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, they would be a forerunner to enliven swing and jump blues. Critics and audiences alike were captivated by Setzer’s arrangement. Their cover of Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” awarded the band a Grammy for Best Pop Performance. The group followed their success into the 2000s with grand stage tours internationally accompanied with Christmas albums.

A Feeling of nostalgia while reminiscing over early success would leave Setzer missing The Stray Cats. The band had reunited periodically over the years for quick recordings and short tours but continued their hiatuses. They would officially reunite once again in 2019 and recorded their latest album 40 in Nashville. But no matter who Setzer is with, he continues to show the same fiery passion for what was a niche genre years ago. An artist whose talent as a guitarist/songwriter breathed new life into music and certified him as a legend.

Written by Trenton Luber


bottom of page