Slim Jim Phantom, the charismatic stand-up drummer, is a star in his own right. It’s not overstating it to say he’s the godfather of modern rockabilly, having made his name as the drummer for US exports Stray Cats, the band that pretty much single-handedly saved rockabilly from obscurity at the onset of the ’80s.
Since then, while still performing with Stray Cats intermittently, he’s had some extraordinary side projects, including The Head Cat alongside MotЪrhead’s Lemmy and Kat Men with Imelda May’s guitarist Darrel Higham.
Along the way he’s also managed to play with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Keith Richards, among others; it’s all a veritable who’s who of rock’n’roll royalty. Slim Jim’s not a name-dropper, though. He’s a modest, hard-working dude who’s had a fascinating life and a long-standing love affair with rockabilly.
“We [with Stray Cats’ Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker] were playing together since school and we were looking for something different,” Phantom remembers. “The first time I became aware of it was when I heard Elvis’ ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ on a jukebox in a club we were playing at. It had a profound effect on me. Rockabilly rocks and swings at the same time – it has a sound and a style built into it. There was also room for us to put our own interpretation on it.”
Phantom was only 18 when Stray Cats formed and by the time he was 21 they were on tour supporting The Rolling Stones. You might think this would be daunting, but really it was the product of a hard slog.
“It was a great experience,” he smiles. “We were really excited, but we were also really ready. By the time we started and played with the Stones, we had already done 500 shows. We went to England in June 1980. We initially were knocking on doors and homeless for a bit, but by the time 1981 came around we had been playing five nights a week, four sets a night. We were very good at it. So while we were excited and honoured, we were definitely prepared. It certainly wasn’t luck – it was a combination of opportunity and preparation.
“It’s now 30 years later,” he continues, “and as a drummer in this very special thing, I can still make a living. It’s unusual for a drummer not to be anonymous. Also, we touched a raw nerve at a young age and it turns out that it’s not been a flash in the pan. If you told me back then how my life would turn out and who I would get to play with, I would have sold my soul and signed on the dotted line right there and then, even if the deal was that it would last for only five years.”
As an expert proponent of the rockabilly genre, it’s only apt that Phantom has a podcast devoted to it called The Big Beat, which goes out live. “I cover a lot of crazy people,” he laughs. “I talk about rockabilly and the ABCs of it, but I also get into some obscure stuff.”
At the end of the day, it’s clear that Slim Jim Phantom’s only concern is to make other people love rockabilly just as much as he still does.