Born on April 10, 1959, in Massapequa, NY. Addresses: Record company--Interscope Records, 2220 Colorado Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90404,.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brian Setzer, along with his band the Stray Cats, clawed their way up the charts in both America and Britain with their rollicking rockabilly revival. Top ten hits and memorable music videos were prevalent in the early years of Music Television (MTV). The group disbanded in the mid-1980s and by the end of the 1990s, Setzer was again at the forefront of another revival. This time it was a rejuvenated form of swing which he and his orchestra brought to popularity.

Setzer was born on April 10, 1959, in Massapequa, New York. When he was young, his family moved to Long Island, New York. His introduction to music came at an early age as he took up studying the euphonium, a tuba-like instrument. Setzer would play this for the next decade or so. He also learned to play guitar. When he was a teenager, Setzer often traveled to New York City to visit some of the local jazz clubs. These jazz-filled jaunts began to lay the groundwork for some of his critically and commercially acclaimed latter day works. Inspired yet railing against punk, Setzer formed a rockabilly trio with his brother and a friend in 1979. They named themselves the Tom Cats. They also had a rock alter ego called the Bloodless Pharaohs. Setzer left the Tom Cats in 1980 and connected with some school friends, drummer Jim McDonnell, also known as Slim Jim Phantom, and bassist Leon Drucker, also known as Lee Rocker. They called themselves the Stray Cats.

Realizing that America was not ripe for a rockabilly revival, the Stray Cats packed up their bags, sold their possessions, and moved to England because they thought that the musical climate would be more responsive to them there. They were correct. While in London, they met Dave Edmonds who offered to produce their debut album. The Stray Cats signed to Arista in England and recorded their self-titled debut in five days. The Stray Cats was released in early 1981, and it yielded two top ten British singles.

After the wildly successful chart run of their debut album, the Stray Cats embarked on a tour of America with the Rolling Stones. Their second album was released later in 1981. Although it was in the same mold as their debut album, Gonna Ball was widely dismissed by the rock press in Britain.

Undaunted by this set back, the Stray Cats signed with EMI America after their world tour. Early 1982 saw the release of Built for Speed, the first Stray Cats album released in America. It was a compilation of tracks from their first two British releases. Built for Speed raced up the American album charts and landed in the top five. The singles "Stray Cat Strut" and "Rock This Town" made the top ten.

Rant and Rave with the Stray Cats followed in 1983. The first single, "(She's) Sexy & 17," went top five in America. But by the end of 1984, Setzer decided to disband the Stray Cats. Occasional reunions brought the band back together from time to time. In 1986, the Stray Cats released Rock Therapy. Blast Off followed in 1989. The band reformed again in 1994 to release Choo Choo Hot Fish, and Original Cool two years later.

Setzer decided to try his luck at a solo career as a roots based rock guitarist. He released The Knife Feels Like Justice on the independent label, Razor and Tie, in 1986. Two years later EMI America released Live Nude Guitars. Setzer maintained a relatively low-key musical profile for the next few years until 1992 when he was invited to jam with some horn players in an impromptu jazz session at a neighbor's house. The resulting product was intriguing. It was a big band sound with an electric guitar in the lead.

The group called themselves the Brian Setzer Orchestra. In 1994, they released their self-titled debut album on Hollywood Records. It was full of jazzy swing numbers that struck a responsive chord with audiences, as was witnessed by the sold out tour that followed the album's release. This was definitely an idea whose time had come. What lured fans was the modern twist on an old favorite. The group updated swing while retaining the aspects of the genre that make swing unique.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra signed on with Interscope and released their second album, Guitar Slinger, in 1996. Guitar Slinger experimented with jump blues and Texas swing blues. By this time, both audiences and the music industry were starting to take notice, as numerous swing and swing-inspired bands began to populate the musical landscape.

All of this paled in comparison to what occurred in 1998 when The Dirty Boogie was released. The third Brian Setzer Orchestra album was a swinging smash hit with its covers of the Santo and Johnny instrumental classic "Sleepwalk" and the Louis Prima cover of "Jump, Jive, An' Wail." The latter of these was ever present on radio play lists that year.

The hard work finally paid off when the Brian Setzer Orchestra won two Grammy Awards in 1998. The first was for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for "Sleepwalk." "Jump, Jive, An' Wail" won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by Duo or Group with Vocal. In February of 1999, Setzer was awarded the Orville H. Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to guitar playing.

Refusing to rest on their laurels, the Brian Setzer Orchestra released Vavoom in 2000. Commenting on his successful style to iMusic Contemporary Music Showcase online, Setzer said, "I didn't go into this looking at it like a novelty. I didn't know how many records we might sell or gigs we might do. But I knew this was musically valid. It's been a huge undertaking but it's worth it. How many people can say they did something that had never been done before?"

by Mary Alice Adams

Brian Setzer's Career

Formed the Stray Cats, 1979; later moved to England and signed with Arista; released Stray Cats, 1981; released Gonna Ball, 1981; signed with EMI America and released Built for Speed, 1982; released Rant and Rave with the Stray Cats, 1983; disbanded the Stray Cats, 1984; went solo and released The Knife Feels Like Justice, on Razor and Tie, 1986; released Live Nude Guitars, on EMI America, 1988; formed the Brian Setzer Orchestra and released Brian Setzer Orchestra, on Hollywood Records, 1994; signed to Interscope and released Guitar Slinger, 1996; released The Dirty Boogie, 1998; released Vavoom, 2000.

Brian Setzer's Awards

American platinum sales certification, Built for Speed, c. 1982; Grammy Award, Best Pop Performance by Duo or Group with Vocal for "Jump, Jive An' Wail," 1998; Grammy Award, Best Pop Instrumental Performance for "Sleepwalk," 1998; Orville H. Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award, 1999.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 14 years ago

My husband and I went to see Brian Setzer at the State Theater in New Brunswick NJ Wed Dec 2nd 2009. What an awesome and outstanding concert Brian Setzer put on. The full 2 hours we could not get enough of Brian. At the end, the audience was up and dancing in the aisles. Brian got plenty of standing ovations, which he highly deserved. I would reccomend everybosy to go see Brian Setzers shows, and I hope next year to go see hia show again. I give this a 5 star rating.