Guitar-slinging swinger 


Brian Setzer is nothing if not a sharp manipulator of commercially potent trends in pop music. Way back in the '80s, the singer and guitarist from Long Island, N.Y., revived rockabilly with the Stray Cats; the good-time trio who scored with such chart hits as "Stray Cat Strut," "Rock This Town" and "(She's) Sexy and 17."

This decade, he's ignited a neo-swing revolution. His 17-piece Brian Setzer Orchestra, organized in Los Angeles in 1992, gained acclaim for its eponymous 1994 debut album, gathering even more fans with 1996's "Guitar Slinger" disc. The notion for the new act grew from a narrowly missed opportunity to jam with trumpeter Doc Severinsen.

"They wanted us to do "Rock This Town" on the old Tonight Show," Setzer told Rolling Stone. "We didn't get on, but it came close enough that they asked us if we wanted to use Doc's big band. And a light bulb went off. That was one of the first times I ever got the idea."

The idea seriously took flight with last year's "The Dirty Boogie" album, a high-energy recording that benefited from a little bit of synchronicity: His version of Louis Prima's "Jump, Jive an' Wail" was released about the same time as the popular Gap television advertisement featuring the same tune.

"When we first saw it, we were like, 'Oh, no., it's gonna blow our song now, because the Gap got it,'" he said. "But I think the commercial actually paved the way. Like, there wasn't any scene in Des Moines, Iowa, but there is now. So it really helped us a lot."

Setzer, a road hog back in Central Florida just six months after sharing a double bill at the Ice Palace in Tampa with Bob Dylan, has even managed to garner grudging respect from jazz fans. Name another pop star who has graced the cover of Down Beat, as Setzer did in February. So is the guitarist's stuff the real thing?

"I think anything that gets across to the masses, that's real -- because swing music is real -- is a step forward," he told Down Beat. "I think the mistake a lot of the bands are making is that they're playing it too close to the cuff. In other words, there's an overall lack of imagination, in that they're playing it exactly how it was 60 years ago. The bands have to put their own stamp on it a little more. I think whenever you do something like this, you've gotta do something new with it. I took my guitar-playing in front of a big band. I don't think there's ever been a guitar player leading a big band. That in itself makes it unique."

One bonus of the swing movement: The term "band nerd" may have outlived its usefulness. "I never thought it would get to this level, where trombone players are cool. Kids come up -- my son's 11 -- 'Guess what, Mr. Setzer? I play trombone in my school band, and I'm going to start a swing band!' It's probably been 50 years since that kid has been cool, you know? They're at the top of the pops now."


More by Philip Booth

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