“There’s nothing else like this; it’s different than anything you’ve heard before,” says Brian Setzer. “I’m not stopping until everybody gets a chance to hear us and I get to see their jaws hit the floor.”
In 1992, before the swing phenomenon swept over dance floors and movie screens, before cigar bars and Swingers, Setzer created the Brian Setzer Orchestra, a musical adventure blending rock â€˜n’ roll, jump blues, rockabilly and swing. For the first time in music history, an electric guitar fronted a Big Band. Just as he had with the Stray Cats, Setzer not only helped resurrect a genre but moved it to the present, made it “cool” again.
“If you just copy what they did in 1947, it’s not going to be bad, but it’s just doing it the same,” says Setzer, undoubtedly the most tattooed Big Band leader ever. “To make the music viable, you have to make it new and you have to make it your own. That’s why the Stray Cats burst out of the Eighties. Other rockabilly bands were stuck in 1956. They could â€˜Hey, daddy-O,’ but not for long.”
The Dirty Boogie (Interscope Records), the group’s third album, is raucous and sweaty, rich and smooth. Produced by Peter Collins (Jewel, Sneaker Pimps, Alice Cooper, Indigo Girls, Nanci Griffith, Save Ferris), and recorded in Los Angeles in March 1998, among its dozen songs is the rippin’ “This Cat’s On A Hot Tin Roof,” the self-defining title track and a duet featuring Setzer and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani (covering the Elvis/Ann-Margret duet “You’re The Boss”).
With The Dirty Boogie, The Brian Setzer Orchestra reasserts itself as the only truly big Big Band to emerge from the rock â€˜n’ roll generation. Swing bands that have surfaced since have a smaller line-up than Setzer’s traditional 17-man complement. “I’ve got a BIG band,” he says. “You have to have five saxes, four trombones and four trumpets in the horn section. If there’s one guy late to rehearsal, I can hear it. ‘Where’s the second alto?’ It all has to be there to make that incredible sound.”
The Dirty Boogie brings a modern vibe to the charm of Big Band music. “I think the swing thing has substance because it’s good stuff to begin with; it’s based in American roots music. But we don’t get a lot of people at shows dressing up in Forties clothes. There’s much more of a mixture, which is like what happened with the Stray Cats. Not everyone wore a leather jacket and had a pompadour.”
For Setzer, The Dirty Boogie is a step up on the learning curve. “A guitar isn’t able to outpower 16 other instruments. I’m finally figuring out how to put a whole band behind a guitar, where to put the band and where not.” The album also marks the addition of a slap bass: “We used it in Stray Cats and I don’t know why I forgot about it, because it brings a live rhythm to the tracks.” With Bernie Dresel using a 1940s-era drum set with calfskin heads and Setzer a vintage Gretsch guitar, he says the tweaking added up to a ‘Wow!'”
The Brian Setzer Orchestra began without exclamation. In Los Angeles in late summer 1992, a group of horn players were holding an impromptu jam at his next-door neighbor’s house when one of them saw Setzer and yelled, “Hey Brian, go get your guitar and come over!” He joined in with one of his Gretschs and a small practice amp. “They thought I wouldn’t be able to keep up. They had charts from Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, some pretty hard stuff they were trying to get me with. But after a while it was, ‘Gee, this guy’s all right. He can play.'”
After a few sessions, Setzer decided to work up some charts and put a Big Band together, hoping to do a few shows in Southern California. In December, The Brian Setzer Orchestra debuted at a West Coast club. By the end of the third song, the audience was on its feet. After its second gig, at a Sunset Strip rock club, The Brian Setzer Orchestra was the hottest ticket in town. The critically-acclaimed The Brian Setzer Orchestra (1994), produced by Setzer, was followed by a 50-city North American tour that included an extraordinary performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival the following summer.
“When we started it was like any new band, whether there’s three people or 17. It has to turn into a band, come into its own. This was even harder than usual because we had no reference. If you want to do a punk band, you start with the Sex Pistols. But these were basically jazz musicians and I can’t explain a rock gig to them. But we got on the road and by the time we hit Cleveland they got it and by the time we hit Montreal we were a band. They’re doing this for the love of it, crossing the line into rock â€˜n’ roll and diggin’ it.”
The band’s second album, Guitar Slinger (1996), produced by the legendary Phil Ramone, was its first on Interscope. Unlike its debut, Guitar Slinger sported more originals than covers, as does The Dirty Boogie. A sold-out six-week national summer tour followed, with stops in Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco. The tour finished in Los Angeles with a sold-out show at the 7,000-seat Greek Theatre, which was more an event than a concert, with custom cars lining the entranceway, cigar and martini lounges, and the venue staff dressed in Hawaiian attire.
Setzer is not new to Big Band music. Born in Greenwich Village and raised in Massapequa, Long Island, his first instrument was not the guitar but the euphonium. Beginning at age eight, he played the tuba-like instrument for 10 years, winning numerous awards. His first guitar teacher, in fact, was also a sax player. The influence of horns on his music has been strong ever since.
As a teenager, he’d cut class and take the train into the city to hang around jazz clubs, sneaking into the Village Vanguard and Village Gate. Once, when he saw the Mel Lewis Orchestra, he remembers thinking, “What a great idea if you could get a guitar player to lead a Big Band,” however, history had conspired against that notion. The acoustic guitar was not traditionally a lead instrument in Big Band music and the electric guitar had only begun to make its mark in the Fifties, just as Big Bands were being overwhelmed by rock â€˜n’ roll.
At the dawn of the Eighties, his rockin’ Stray Cats left America for London. Within months, the trio became a sensation throughout the U.K., Europe and Japan. Still, two early albums, The Stray Cats and Gonna Ball, found their way to the U.S. only as imports. Then came the breakthrough: Built For Speed (1982) included three Top 10 hits (“Stray Cat Strut,” “Rumble In Brighton” and “Rock This Town”), reached #2 on the pop chart and was certified platinum. But the Big Band idea still percolated in Setzer’s head. On the tour bus, he’d listen to Gene Krupa and Bobby Darin, practice jazz chords, and imagine how his songs would sound arranged for a Big Band.
The gold Rant N’ Rave With The Stray Cats (1983) followed, as did Rock Therapy (1986), Blast Off! (1989), Rock This Town: Best Of The Stray Cats (1989) and Choo Choo Hot Fish (1992). Mixed in were Setzer solo efforts Knife Feels Like Justice (1986) and Live Nude Guitars (1988). He was also featured on albums from Robert Plant, Bob Dylan, Paul Rodgers and Ricki Lee Jones. Then came this crazy idea to do a new Big Band.
“I didn’t know how many records we might sell or gigs we might do, but I knew this was musically valid.” It wasn’t easy from a business standpoint; the cost of touring with such a large band is enormous, and, at the start, there was no radio airplay or music video exposure. The Brian Setzer Orchestra had to be built on word of mouth. “But once people saw us, they’d talk about us. If people hear us on the radio, they get it. We went from 33 people at a club to selling out L.A.’s Greek Theatre.”
All it took was creating a sound that had never been heard before. As Setzer puts it, “The music won.”
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