Brian Setzer: A Rockin' Rebel

Setzer CBS

From rock to swing to classical, there's no telling what type of music Brian Setzer will be playing next. He's a rockin' rebel. And Susan Spencer of 48 Hours has the proof:


It's the holiday season, and for Brian Setzer, rockin' around the christmas tree is an annual event.

His touring extravaganza is an eclectic mix, one bow to tradition in a career spent going against the grain.

Figuring that out requires a long detour down memory lane, so put yourself back in the late 1970s, and shift into reverse …

"I saw a picture of this guy named Eddie Cochran," Seltzer said, "and he had this guitar. I said, 'Where can I find one of those?' I wanted the whole thing. I wanted the hair. I wanted the jacket. I wanted the pants I just thought, 'That guy is cool.'"

And so at a time when punk was everything, he and two school pals from Long Island formed a '50s rockabilly band, Stray Cats.

Setzer showed Spencer where the Cats started, in what used to be a bar. "It was called Arthur's," he said. "Now it's called Ugly Yellow Town Homes."

"Things change, you know?" Spencer said.

"I don't want them to change," said Setzer.

Back in 1980, Stray Cats needed a change, and a hit. That meant leaving home. They found their big break in London.

But when they came home a year later, with several hits under their belts, they were broke, ripped off by unscrupulous managers.

"We went to the Swiss bank, which is where they had our money," Setzer said. "We wanted to take out money to buy presents for Christmas. And we didn't have any."

Enter MTV, the music network was just getting started, and the band's 50's sound and rebel looks were a perfect fit.

The Cats' first U>S. album, "Built for Speed," raced up the charts. Over the years, more hits followed, but this is a hard business and by the early '90's the Stray Cats were pretty much over.

"I mean, we were selling 32 tickets at the Roxy in California," Setzer said. "We were over."

For Setzer, necessity is always the mother of re-invention. His idea this time:

"I can sit down, I can read music, I can write music. I'm going to write 18 pieces for a big band, and have a guitar lead the band.

"Rock and roll and swing never quite mixed. Rock and roll came in and just blew everything out of the water. Big bands were dead."

"So you start off by going back to a sound that was popular 20 years before your time, you move on then to a sound that was popular 50 years before your time," Spencer said. "What's in your makeup that makes you essentially go against the grain?"

"I think it's my mom. I think I have to do whatever is not popular. I started a big band when grunge was popular. I mean, that didn't make much sense."

Turns out, it made plenty of sense.

In the '90s, Setzer revitalized swing just as he had rockabilly a decade earlier, and this time people took notice. He now has three Grammies to his name.

But back in his old neighborhood in Massapequa, Long Island, he's still just "Brian."

He's always had a heart for hot rods and vintage cars, a rock star unafraid of getting grease on his hands … or in his hair.

"I like a good pompadour," he said.

When not touring, the 48-year-old Setzer lives in his adopted hometown of Minneapolis, with wife Julie, who is a background vocalist in his big band.

He's loved in Japan as "Elvis" - "They like the whole style, they like dressing up. They love the actual music, the whole package," Setzer said - But his newest venture is about as far from Elvis as you can get: a Grammy-nominated classical CD entitled "Wolfgang's Big Night Out."

"This is real classic rock!" he said.

Setzer is asked about a quote of Mozart's on his CD: "I pay no attention to anybody's praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings."

"How can you? If you listen to everybody's opinions, I mean, I always say I'd be digging a ditch on the side of the road now if I had listened to what everybody told me what to do. You know, you have to follow your heart, you have to."

"That quote could very well have been said by you?"

"Yes. Although Mozart said it 300 years earlier!"

What's next for Brian Setzer? Check the rearview mirror. For now, he's on the road ringing in the season in his own unique style, which of course he could change tomorrow.
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