When Philly doo-woppers Danny & the Juniors sang “Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay” back in 1958, it’s clearly a message that Brian Setzer took to heart. While the Long Island native has understandably been linked as a late 1970s/early 1980s rockabilly revivalist alongside Robert Gordon and the late Danny Gatton due to Setzer’s work in the Stray Cats, more recently swing has been his thing. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Brian Setzer Orchestra (BSO), an outfit that picked up the big band baton a quarter century ago. It’s a musical path the guitar-playing singer-songwriter wanted to go down dating back to his early days in The Stray Cats.
“It was something that I always wanted to try. I first heard that sound when I used to watch Johnny Carson and I saw Doc Severinsen’s big band on television every night and I just imagined putting myself in front of that big band with my guitar. Believe it or not, the Stray Cats had ‘Rock This Town’ out and it was a hit around the time of the end of The Tonight Show and they asked us to go on and that was my dream,” he recalled. “I didn’t even know anything about having to write charts. I just wanted to put The Stray Cats in front of that big band just to see what it would sound like. It didn’t happen, for whatever reason. But that idea just kind of stayed there and it really got under my skin.”
Since releasing its 1994 self-titled album, the BSO has followed up with eight albums and along the way, added a Yuletide component to their musical approach. Not only has it yielded recordings like 2002’s Boogie Woogie Christmas and 2005’s Dig That Crazy Christmas, but Setzer and his crew have toured around the holidays to the point that it’s become an annual rite of passage, not unlike what Darlene Love has been doing for years. When asked how the BSO got its Christmas affiliation, Setzer admitted there was a Terminator tie-in.
“What happened was the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Jingle All the Way came out. Brian Levant was the director and I had already been doing things with the big band and they called me and asked if I could write a rocking arrangement of ‘Jingle Bells.’ Everybody knows it, so it should be easy to do but it’s not, because everybody knows it and you have to take that structure and make it your own and make it rock,” he explained. “It started with that and then KROQ, which is one of the biggest radio stations in Los Angeles, got hold of that and they just played it and played it and people called in. That got the ball rolling and then I wrote a song for Lou Rawls for that movie [‘So They Say It’s Christmas’] and I arranged that. Then I arranged ‘Sleigh Ride’ for Darlene Love with the big band and that really kicked it off. Then they just wouldn’t let me stop. The demand from people just grew every year. Really, what it does is kick off the holidays for people. It’s become a tradition that helps people get in the mood for [this time of the year] and that’s what it’s become.”
As for what fans can expect, particularly those coming out to see a hometown boy done well at Westbury? Setzer promises a mix of old, new, borrowed and blue.
“Westbury is fun because it’s so old, spins around and has an old funkiness. I can’t get a lot of the stuff that I use like backdrops, because it’s such a little stage. But that’s the fun part of it too. Westbury rocks, because of the energy of that crowd. It’s my hometown and I probably know half the people,” he said. “This year what I’m going to do is a little tribute to some musicians who have passed away. I didn’t want to go too deep into it, but just after this year, I wanted to do two or three songs for people. I’m going to do that. I start out with the big band and then in the middle of the set, I break it down into a little fun rockabilly segment and it changes every night. It’s just a four-piece rockabilly lineup and I just kind of do what I want. That’s what’s fun for me—I do whatever I want and I change it up all the time. It’s got a little bit of everything. It’s got some new arrangements for some Christmas songs and some new rock and roll songs that I like to do.”
While Setzer is most readily identified with Massapequa, he actually spent the first seven years of his life growing up in Farmingdale. It was at a forgotten pizzeria on Main Street that he first heard The Beatles on a jukebox while running errands with his mom. Hearing George Harrison’s guitar and later being exposed to music a stone’s throw away in Manhattan would be how Setzer contracted rock and roll fever.
“Long Island was the best place to grow up. My memories of growing up were of having a great childhood. I did all the stuff that everybody else did—I played Little League baseball and I played guitar in a few little bands. I think the major difference of me being on Long Island was that I had Manhattan, which was just an hour away. So besides all the fun stuff of fishing and going out on the [Great South] Bay and regular kid’s stuff, I had that magical Manhattan, where I could go hear music and do stuff like that,” he said. “I’d hear jazz one night and then I’d go to CBGB’s to hear some punk rock. It was everything that you wanted, 24 hours a day. I think that’s the difference between growing up on Long Island versus growing up in a small town in the Midwest. You don’t have that magical city. It’s still America, but you have that big city that’s close.”
The Brian Setzer Orchestra will be appearing on Nov. 22 at NYCB Theatre @ Westbury, 960 Brush Hollow Rd., Westbury. To find out more information, visit www.livenation.com or call 877-598-8497.