Growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, James McDonnell loved classic, 1950s-era rockabilly music. He learned to play drums listening to records by Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and Ricky Nelson, then, under the name Slim Jim Phantom, teamed up with fellow aficionados Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker to form one of the most distinctive bands of the 1980s, the Stray Cats.
As the Cats prepare to reunite for a summer-long tour and album marking their 40th anniversary, Phantom is performing a special solo show on Sunday night at Discovery in Ventura. Speaking from his home, which he shares with his wife, Jennie Vee, who plays bass with Eagles of Death Metal, he recounted four decades of adventures in music and out.
“It was always tough getting attention because we were playing music out of the time we were living in, so when we learned rockabilly still was popular in England ,we just packed up and went there in 1980 looking for adventure,” recalls Phantom. “We came back in ’82, and MTV broke us big when we brought it back to the States. If the Stray Cats hadn’t come back to the States at exactly that time, it never would have lasted.”
Indeed, the Cats managed to establish a unique presence on the music-video channel with their leather jackets, tattoos and pompadours, playing catchy, hard-driving rock songs like “Rock This Town” in the era of New Wave. Their distinctive sound and image has kept them in good stead through the four decades since, with Setzer in particular maintaining stardom through leading the Brian Setzer Orchestra.
Phantom notes that it’s always been easy for the band to get back together every few years since their initial run of stardom ended in the early 1990s. The trio always remained on good terms and looked at their various ventures as spreading their individual wings. It was the Cats’ appearance at last year’s Viva Las Vegas rockabilly fest that kickstarted the idea of making a huge push to mark their anniversary.
“Viva Las Vegas brought together the greatest bands in rockabilly history, and we drew the biggest crowd ever for a rockabilly show,” says Phantom. “We were just looking for other rockabilly guys to hang out with, but that show was so successful it organically led to making an album and the tour now.”
“We’ve had the album done since October so it’s been tough sitting on it, but it’s out May 24,” he continues. “The Stray Cats then do 20 shows across Europe and 10 in the States, leading us through the whole summer and, if it goes well, we’re gonna stick with it awhile.”
The fact that two-thirds of their tour will take place in Europe is an indication of how much stronger the rockabilly scene has remained there. Phantom believes that’s because “it’s a post-World War II thing, since all the post-British Invasion guys like Beck, Clapton and Led Zeppelin all loved this music.”
Phantom loves mountain climbing, and has made trips to Mount Everest and Mount Kilimanjaro with groups of fans led by singer Mike Peters of The Alarm. Peters is a cancer survivor who established a foundation to supply cancer treatment equipment and improved hospitals in the areas they travel to climb, and Phantom has been a regular contributor.
He and Vee also keep busy with their specialty clothing label, Phantom Vee. The pair customize denim jackets out of Phantom’s own vintage Levi’s and Wrangler jackets with hand-sewn patches they find from classic bands on eBay and in secondhand stores visited during their travels. Jackets sell for $1,095 each.
“We launched a few months ago, and I had an original Levi’s jacket from all the places Stray Cats would visit,” explains Phantom. “I’d come home and just add patches to my Levi’s jacket as I came home from tours. My wife started wearing it, her friends liked it and then I made her one with other patches.”
“We kept making them and a year later we had 20 jackets, and that was a lot of man hours,” he adds. “We wound up with 20 of them, gave to a few friends like [Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal drummer] Josh Homme. We sold some and it’s what we like to do, so we find patches from eBay, garage sales, thrift stores and buddies from the FBI plus rock and roll types.”
Even as the Stray Cats reunite for world domination this summer, Phantom acknowledges that the battle to keep rockabilly alive rests with a new generation of performers.
“The trick is to write Chuck Berry songs that are new but in a familiar way,” says Phantom. “It’s harder than it appears. We’ll always be here, but we’ve done our work and now it’s up to some young guys out there to take good music and make it accessible again to a wide audience.”
Slim Jim Phantom performs at 5 p.m. on Sunday, May 19, at Discovery, 1888 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura. For tickets and more information, call 805-856-2695 or visit www.discoveryventura.com.