Three Decades A Stray
Rockabilly legend Slim Jim Phantom heads to the Astor Theatre this Sunday, June 15, with guests The Fireballs, Day Of The Dead and The Insinnerators. BOB GORDON reports.
Answering this interview call in Los Angeles, Slim Jim Phantom refers to the city as “the Perth of America,” and he would know.
“The first time I ever went to Perth was with The Stray Cats in 1981,” he recalls. “I’ve been there quite a few times and it’s always like home. Any excuse to go, any combination of guys, I’m going.”
He does and he has. Whether with The Stray Cats, or as a guest of Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot tour in 2012, Slim Jim Phantom is a drummer who was born to perform. His dance card is always full.
“I think that keeps it real,” he says. “It’s the reason why you started doing this in the first place 100 years ago because you wanted to play gigs and you dug the feeling and if you were playing to an audience of 10 or 10,000 people, it’s was always a bonus.
“I try to work on keeping my original goals and feelings and aims kind of the same. And I still kinda like the same stuff. So I go around the world – to Perth, Australia – playing songs that I was on and playing a Gene Vincent song after that. When we were starting out if you said, ‘sign on the dotted line, sell your soul, you can go to Australia 35 years later’ … I woulda signed in two seconds, you know?”
Slim Jim grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and met fellow Stray Cats Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker in school. The first music he heard was his parents’ jazz records, but he found rock’n’roll. Drums, he has often joked, chose him.
“My family weren’t musical,” he says. “My father was a firey, he and my mother were just regular Irish, New York types, pretty much right out of the book. Rock’n’roll was around the school and like everywhere else it was on television, you know, American Bandstand. Very early on I became aware of it and it always seemed like something that I could do. I tried it and got good enough at it so they bought me a little drum kit and I just embraced it.
“We played any chance we got, lucky I had the other two. Especially Lee, we played together very young – the first time I had a drum kit and the first time he ever had a bass. There were guys around, where we went to school, like 10 or 20 musicians who were all pretty good. Brian being the best one. And there always seemed to be someone’s parents who’d let you play in the basement or garage if you didn’t bother anybody too much. I wouldn’t say we were nurtured so much, but we were accommodated.
“I think everybody said they were going to be in The Beatles and we actually did it. There were a lot of things that go into it, like a little bit of luck, but it’s opportunity meets preparation and we had a chance to have a shot at it. We were very good at it, even if we were very young. Say, by the time we played Perth in 1981, we’d done 500 gigs before then. When people heard us in England where we’d gotten an ‘overnight’ break, we’d been playing for a year-and-a-half in New York – five nights a week, four sets a night, every week for almost two years. We were good at it.”
Slim Jim wasn’t thinking that far ahead at the time, but he is this far ahead now. He looks back and acknowledges that luck may have played a part, but it’s hard work that made it last.
“We couldn’t think that far ahead,” he says. “I don’t know… maybe it’d the old teenager in me but I never trusted people who planned too far in advance (laughs). We certainly never did, we just couldn’t believe that we were playing a Gene Vincent song and it was having an effect on people. I still kind of feel that way. You’re older and of course you have more responsibility but, especially then, we didn’t have anything to worry about. The only concern you had was the gig that night. We embraced that; we were very into being in the moment. And a 100 years later you get what you asked for (laughs).”
It never came without paying dues however, even when it seemed that The Stray Cats were an overnight sensation. You get the feeling that despite the years of gigging all around the world, young James McDonnell, who started playing drums in a trio from Massapequa, Long Island, is still thrilled to bits.
“Yeah, 35 years later I’m the same guy who did Countdown. We’re the same guys who played in bars on Long Island. We invented our characters and became those guys. It could never be on the same scale, but I feel like Ringo (laughs).
“Elvis and The Rolling Stones, The Clash or The Beatles, when the public became aware of them, they had a shot and they seized it. Nobody knew The Beatles played the bars in Hamburg for two years. Most people who are good, you’ll find that. You don’t really get lucky on that level. You’ve gotta be good.
“I loved it; I didn’t think I was paying my dues then… maybe I am now (laughs).”