Slim Jim Phantom is the longtime drummer of the iconic American rockabilly band the Stray Cats whose new career-spanning live album Rocked This Town: From LA To London was released September 11 on Surfdog Records. Recently I spoke by phone with this great American rocker about how he became a drummer, the significance of Elvis Presley, and the enduring power of rockabilly music and his band. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity is below.
Americana Highways: Looking back now, can you point to a specific time in your younger days when you knew you wanted to be a drummer?
Slim Jim Phantom: Growing up as part of a close-knit Irish family in New York, I had three older cousins who I spent a lot of time around and from whom I would always borrow records from. I was always listening to records from the Rolling Stones, Elvis, and others and growing in the Sixties and the Seventies, of course, I also remember watching all of the classic rockers like the Beatles, the Stones, and The Who on television like everybody else.
I also remember watching Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, The Midnight Special, Saturday Night Live, and just about any other show that had music on it just so I could see bands perform. It didn’t really matter to me what kind of music it was because I liked all kinds of music back then and I still do.
Eventually I got the idea that I could make music myself and after unsuccessfully trying my hand at the piano and the guitar, I picked up the drumsticks and started believing that I could learn how to play the drums. I knew I wanted to be in there somewhere and the drums just seemed to be the instrument that I had a natural affinity for. I started playing along with some of the songs on the records that I was listening to and eventually got serious about it and took some lessons at the local record store.
It was also about that time that my musical tastes started to evolve and I started listening to a lot of my mother and father’s records. I’m talking about artists like Benny Goodman, records with Gene Krupa on them, Hank Williams, and even Burt Bacharach. I would try to play along with anything I listened to. I mean back then you would play stuff just to play it. You weren’t trying to be cool or anything. Everyone had a phonograph back then and everyone had a stack of records that you could go through and listen to.
AH: I can definitely relate to a lot of what you are talking about. I grew up with an older brother who had practically every Elvis record along with a lot of records from bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Grateful Dead. I feel like I grew up listening to all kinds of music in large part because of him and his record collection.
SJP: Yeah, I loved all of those records as well. I think a big turning point for me was when I really got into reading liner notes and I would start noticing that a lot of the songs of the Beatles and Stones or whoever were originally done by artists with names like “C. Perkins” or “B. Holly” I kept doing research and through that I discovered rockabilly music.
Eventually, as my research continued and I found out about Elvis Presley’s Sun Records studio sessions, my whole world stopped. Listening to Elvis at Sun, I knew exactly what to do. I cut my hair, got rid of my flare jeans, my baggy pants, my Adidas, and my tennis shirts and got a hold of some cool black and white shoes, and some Fifties bowling shirts. It was that moment of finding Elvis Presley and those Sun sessions and others like Gene Vincent was when I felt that rock and roll really changed my life.
AH: I’m so glad that you brought that up because I saw that in your book A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel you list in your “Five Rules of Rock and Roll”, rule number five as “Continue to listen to and be awed by Elvis Presley’s Sun Sessions record.” I personally feel that sometimes it gets lost just how revolutionary his sound was on that record, especially in the context of his day.
SJP: Yeah, for me it was always his ability to combine R&B with the so-called hillbilly music of his day. He wasn’t necessarily the first artist to do that but he was the first one to do it on that scale. He was also the complete package, a guy that combined the fashion of the two because there weren’t a lot of guys who were on the Grand Ole Opry dressing like that, combining the two things the way he did. You know rock and roll as an art form in the 20th century was pretty much about combining your musical influences and making your own music out of that combination and Elvis was and is the paradigm for that.
When I first saw him on television and stuff, I didn’t really know that about him. Of course, I knew who Elvis Presley was because it was like knowing who the president was,or knowing who the astronauts were, it was that kind of thing, so even though I knew him as a real person, I didn’t know his origins. When I did find that out, as I said earlier, it really changed my life.
As a drummer I had gotten into some heavy jazz stuff and some heavier rock stuff, because a couple of my cousins were into bands like King Crimson and Yes and I really didn’t think I could play that kind of music that well. But when I heard rockabilly music like Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps, or Buddy Holly and The Crickets I told myself as a drummer that I could do this because it swings like the jazz that I love but it hits harder because it’s rockin’. Listening to drummers like DJ Fontana, Charlie Connor, Earl Palmer, and Jerry Allison combined with Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts and some of the other heavier guys like John Bonham or even Phil Collins’ early records, I thought to myself if I could combine all of these I could do this rockabilly stuff and put a new spin on it. I felt like I could do it if I just played like I knew how to play. Brian and Lee, my two bandmates in the Stray Cats were in the same exact musical spot, like I was, with their musical influences. They were also into the fashion and rebellious attitude of rockabilly just like I was too. So there we were – three guys wearing pink pants and black and white shoes with a shared love for all things rockabilly.
AH: I have been a fan of the Stray Cats from the beginning. I bought Built For Speed, your first American release, when it first became available and then of course its follow up Rant N’ Rave and because I was a punk rocker at the time, I took a little flak about it from my fellow punk rockers, but I didn’t care. I guess what I didn’t realize at the time was how much you guys had hung out with some of the original New York City punk rockers and how even after you went to London you were hanging out with bands like The Clash.
SJP: It was all very important to us because we heard and knew the history of the Teddy Boys, the Mods, the Skins, Ska, and the Rude Boys. We were from Long Island where it was a bit of a drag going to a 7-11 dressed the way we dressed in our rockabilly clothes. Brian and I shared this little flat and we just lived a life where we imagined what Memphis must have been like in the Fifties. We had this big old car and we had plenty of gigs, but there wasn’t really a rockabilly scene and even though we had a following of kids that would go everywhere we went, it was more like the kids from the movie Dazed and Confused than it was an actual scene. We were the only ones that looked the way we did so there was always a constant hassle because of it. And about the same time, we were constantly reading the British music mags and noticed all the cool stuff going on in England and just decided to go over there to London.
When we did arrive over there it was very important to us that we were hip to the whole music scene. We became friends with anyone with a haircut unlike the squares, whether it be punk or a skinhead, a ted or a rude boy because we didn’t really care about any of that. We just thought everybody that was trying to be different was cool and it translated to the music. We knew everyone liked Eddie Cochrane, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and all the other artists like them. And our attitude was that we liked everything. We thought The Specials were cool. We thought The Clash was cool. We became the band that everyone could agree on liking after that.
AH: That is a great way of putting it about rock’s originals. I’ve had discussions with people before saying that you can’t say that you don’t like guys like you mentioned -Cochrane, Vincent, and Little Richard, et. al, and say that you like rock and roll. For me, it’s like saying you don’t like your grandparents or your other ancestors because it’s where rock and roll comes from.
SJP: You can’t get to The Clash or get to the Sex Pistols or get to The Damned without Chuck Berry and those guys would tell you that. Whether you want to get a Gene Vincent tattoo on your body is a whole nother story but you can’t deny the power and influence of that music. Nothing was started in a vacuum. Those punk rockers, in the beginning, would say that they didn’t like The Beatles and you could say “Ok, fair enough”. But who were the Beatles like? Well, Little Richard and Little Richard was on some of the original Viva La Rock punk rock T-shirts. None of it starts in a vacuum, it has to begin there. And any musician with half a brain knows that. There’s no argument that can be made that it doesn’t come from those early rockers.
AH: How fortunate do you feel to be able to say that you got to meet and befriend a lot of your musical idols?
SJP: It’s still like a great thing to me. I still look at some of the pictures I have in the house and who I see myself with and I am still just completely amazed. I obviously didn’t get a chance to meet Elvis, Johnny Burnette, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, or Eddie Cochrane, but I did become very good pals with George Harrison and that was through Carl Perkins who I was very friendly with. Certainly meeting all of the musicians and performers like Jerry Lee Lewis, Duane Eddy, Lonnie Mack, and Wanda Jackson, who is a gal pal of mine, is still just fantastic to me. Even bands and musicians from my time frame – The Clash, the Pistols, The Damned, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Squeeze, and anyone from that original gang of people from my era who were my peers…it’s still thrilling to me to say I knew them or still know them. I met Chuck Berry once or twice, I met Little Richard once and we got a nice photograph. Those guys came and wanted to meet us and that was quite an exciting thing. I mean the Stones came to our show. I couldn’t just walk backstage to a Rolling Stones show but they did during one of ours and they dug it and you know Keith Richards said to us “You know we just sold your music back to you” and that’s what we feel like we did. I am still thrilled by it all. I have a picture with myself and Bob Dylan, and sometimes when I look at it, I think Holy Mackerel – he doesn’t just show up at anybody’s show – but he did to one of ours.
AH: I have read about a lot of those meetings you just referenced and as a fan, I have always been so happy for you guys that you did get to meet and play with so many of the greats. I think the love for the early days of rock and roll has always shined through in your music and that is what has always attracted people to you, including the artists we just mentioned. I think it’s been there all throughout the years and through all of your work. It is there on your last studio album Forty and it’s there on your new live album Rocked This Town : From LA To London. And on top of it, I don’t think that anyone can deny how you guys have turned into such formidable rockers yourselves.
SJP: I think all three of us have gotten a little bit older and a little mellower without losing the ability to rock. I mean I feel like we don’t have to play at 100 miles an hour anymore. Playing at that speed is a good thing when you’re in your twenties but not so much as you get older. I think maybe when you’re in your thirties you try to prove that you weren’t just a flash in the pan. You have to hit a certain age and experience to get as far as we have gotten, you can’t just blow yourself up musically or personally speaking. I think you have to go through and get through a lot of things, a lot of life experiences to get to where we are at right now. It’s all part of it.That’s why the Rolling Stones are still doing it and that’s why we are still doing it.
To find out more about Slim Jim Phantom, his weekly podcast, and his Patreon page you can visit his website here.
To find out more about the Stray Cats and their latest album Rocked This Town: From LA To London you can visit the band’s website here .