Slim Jim Phantom
He’s banged the skins for rock ‘n’ roll supergroup, Dead Men Walking.
He’s drummed for the rockabilly star-studded 13 Cats.
He’s played with the Head Cat, Col. Parker, his own Phantom Trio, and…did I mention a little band from Long Island, New York called the Stray Cats? He’s Slim Jim Phantom, rockabilly’s man of a thousand faces.
Since picking up his first pair of drumsticks at the age of ten, Slim Jim Phantom has become widely recognized as rockabilly’s premiere drummer. With a distinctive standup drumming style inspired by the genre’s musicians of yesteryear, Phantom’s skin skills are in high demand.
by Denise Daliege-Pierce
Who taught you to play the drums?
Slim Jim Phantom I pretty much learned from—took lessons from—Mousie Alexander, an old time jazzy guy. Benny Goodman’s drummer, I think. At least, that’s what he said. I’d like to believe him.
How did your love of rockabilly—both the music and the lifestyle—develop?
Slim Jim Phantom I had always liked rhythm and blues music. There were no Hootenannies, no Viva Las Vegas’s kind of thing—none of that existed. I think that we [Stray Cats] first discovered it with the Beatles and Carl Perkins kind of records. Nothing like that was available at the time, really. We rediscovered Elvis, really. We knew the fat Elvis; that was it. From there, we met English kind of guys: teddy boy types. It was just really trial and error.
Was it difficult to switch from drumming in a sitting position to drumming while standing?
Slim Jim Phantom I don’t remember it being difficult. It was the cool thing that no one else was really doing. It was a different concept. I kind of kept pushing it all forward. It was pretty easy.
Who, would you say, have been your biggest musical influences?
Slim Jim Phantom Really, any of the original rock ‘n’ rollers. Elvis, of course; Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins…Little Richard was a big influence—any one of those original rock ‘n’ rollers. The Beatles; Led Zeppelin…anything that was true to rock ‘n’ roll. Ricky Nelson; the Johnny Burnette Trio—we played a lot of songs off of those records.
The Johnny Burnette Trio was just incredible. I recently read a book titled Rockabilly Legends, in which the author claims—I’m not sure if you’ve heard this story—that the term “rockabilly” was started by the Burnette brothers’ song “Rockabilly Boogie”, which they wrote for their sons, Rocky and Billy.
Slim Jim Phantom I don’t know. I’d heard that “rockabilly” was first used by some record executives or [Sun Records founder] Sam Phillips. It’s all stories, and you never know which ones are true. I just did a gig with Rocky Burnette. I had about twenty minutes’ notice!
What brand of drums do you play?
Slim Jim Phantom Gretsch.
Why do you prefer the Gretsch brand?
Slim Jim Phantom Well, they kind of endorsed me. I think a lot of it has to do with Gretsch having a certain history with rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll. Fred and Diane Gretsch met me as a teen. It’s American…it’s just a great product.
I know that you are frequently asked about your least favorite Stray Cats album, but which is your favorite?
Slim Jim Phantom Almost every guy’s first record is their favorite. Look at the Beatles; the Rolling Stones. It’s your greatest accomplishment. The fact that the gigs and the hard work have finally paid off…you did this. The first record that anyone makes is always their favorite. You didn’t really make demos then. The fact that we had a pretty unique story—we moved from New York to London. We had everything against us: no money, no place to live; no one was recording this music. We were All-American, like the Yankees. Now, new fans of rockabilly are rediscovering our music. Our music is like the “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Rockabilly Boogie” of today. “Rock This Town” and “Runaway Boys” are like that.
How was Phantom, Rocker & Slick formed?
Slim Jim Phantom Wow, Phantom, Rocker & Slick. Right after Stray Cats, we all had to take time off. I think that Earl Slick had just done John Lennon’s record when he was killed. I think that I met Julian Lennon, and he said, ‘You should all get together.’ Brian was doing a solo thing. We had a deal with EMI and we had just gone off a record with Stray Cats, and didn’t want to do that, but everything I play winds up sounding like me. We were young and trendy. The first record was really good. Phantom, Rocker & Slick sounds a little more rock ‘n’ roll; a little more metal. I think we made the Top 20 with that first record.
What caused the group to split up?
Slim Jim Phantom Well, Brian called and wanted to do the band again. The Stray Cats are first priority.
I own a copy of the Carl Perkins television special from the mid-1980s in which you, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and numerous other musicians performed with the rockabilly legend. What was that experience like for you?
Slim Jim Phantom I’ve been very lucky to get these historic kind of events. David Edmunds—he produced three or four of the really good Stray Cats records—was the musical director for the show. He called the Stray Cats, but we’d split up. He hired Lee and me for the rhythm section. The cool thing was we rehearsed about a week before the show. Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, George Harrison—all the older guys kind of kept to their selves. We were the young guys. I went up to George and broke the ice. We became pretty friendly after that. The show went so well; such a positive kind of experience.
George was reclusive—was out of music for about six years. For a good three years, we became friendly. He gave me some things, like some old boots from the Beatles. You could sense a certain enlightenment about him, or elevation. I spent the day with him before he died—he was just an amazing character.
How did you obtain your role in the Charlie Parker biopic Bird?
Slim Jim Phantom I got it pretty much by accident. I can mention that I worked with an Oscar-winning actor and director at the same time. How many people can say that? Forest Whitaker is, probably, the best actor around. Clint Eastwood’s an award-winning director.
It—somehow—had to do with the agency I was with needed a drummer who looked like they were playing the drums, but not, and who could talk, at the same time. And my wife at the time was an actress. So, I did it—five, six, eight lines—for a month. I didn’t really want to do it, but my son was being born, and SAG [Screen Actors Guild] insurance kicked in and covered it. I was nervous about my lines, I repeated them a billion times. So, I get down to the set; there’s an old little trailer. Someone took me inside and introduced me to Forest. We were hanging out and talking. Forest and I became good friends for a few years after that.
Did you ever consider pursuing acting on a larger scale?
Slim Jim Phantom No, it seems too hard, going to auditions; the rejection of it.
How did you become a member of Dead Men Walking?
Slim Jim Phantom Dead Men Walking is just another chancy, cool thing. On the first Stray Cats tour of England in 1980, we got to the first gig. Mike Peters of the Alarm, his band was the opening act. Mike and I became pretty good friends. After a few weeks, we found out they’d just brought their instruments and started playing. They made believe they were the opening act, but they weren’t. But, by then, they were so entrenched in the tour…
How often, in rock ‘n’ roll, do you meet someone and stay friendly with them for 25 years, putting together a thing of a group with three or four hit songs each that everyone knows? It was Mike, [Spear of Destiny’s] Kirk Brandon, [the Damned’s] Captain Sensible and me. We did it mainly acoustic. Mike called me one day at home and said, ‘I’ve got this concept.’ I said, ‘I’m doing it.’ I can’t say no to Mike. We made a record this year.
I’ve heard that you sang lead vocal on “Runaway Boys” during a recent DMW tour. How did that feel?
Slim Jim Phantom Oh, it was good. I can warble my way through it, I sing most of the Stray Cats songs, I can warble my way through most of the songs, except “Stray Cat Strut”. Brian and Lee can sing. You have to be a singer to sing “Stray Cat Strut”. Mike Peters has a great voice and sings it on the tour. I know what Ringo felt like when he sang with the Beatles. I think that the audience appreciates me singing those songs.
For those who may not know, you have recently become involved with the Love Hope Strength Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing treatment and support for cancer patients. How did your affiliation with the group come about?
Slim Jim Phantom That’s Mike Peters. Like I said, I can’t say no to Mike. Mike Peters is a cancer survivor. Twice. The first time, he had it nine years. Nine years. It came back when we were on tour. We only cancelled one show, because he had to have tests done. After six months of lockdown—chemo and remission—we walked the steps of the Empire State Building. We recorded the performance on the deck. It was another one of those great historic events. We’re gonna do the Eiffel Tower [in the future].
How did you meet fellow Head Cat members Lemmy Kilmister and Danny B. Harvey? How did the three of you come together to form the group?
Slim Jim Phantom Lemmy is another guy I’ve known—27 years. He was one of the first guys at a Stray Cats gig at a pub in London. There were, like, ten people there—Keith Richards was there; Chrissie Hynde was in the audience. Lemmy’s a very hip guy, very knowledgeable; a big Buddy Holly fan. We became friends back then and stayed friends.
He moved to L.A. on the street next to me. We played one track on a tribute album to Elvis. Me, Lemmy, Danny B. and Johnny Ramone—who we also lost to cancer—got two or three songs we wanted to play and came back every day for two weeks, until we had a record. I’ve known Danny B. since [his days with] the Rockats.
Danny B. Harvey is just tremendous. He can, pretty much, do anything musically.
Slim Jim Phantom Danny is as good as everybody: as good a guitar player; as good a producer.
Our readers may be unaware that you own a West Hollywood, California nightclub called the Cat Club. How do you juggle your numerous music projects—Stray Cats, Dead Men Walking, the Head Cat, Slim Jim’s Phantom Trio, 13 Cats—with your Cat Club duties and family life?
Slim Jim Phantom Me, my little trick is I have a very big calendar with big squares that I hang on the wall. I have bad handwriting. I use a Sharpie. Like music—when the Cats call, that kinda trumps everything. E-mail’s great. E-mail’s perfect, ‘cause the time doesn’t matter. If I have a question for Captain Sensible, I can send an e-mail anytime. Everyone has it, except Lemmy. Sometimes, things overlap. Guys in rock ‘n’ roll are more together than you think.
On a different note, are there any contemporary rockabilly musicians that you enjoy listening to?
Slim Jim Phantom Guys who I became very friendly with is Living End. [Guitarist/vocalist] Chris Cheney’s become a very good friend of mine, and they wanted to meet me. My son played a record for me, and I loved it. I think that Big Sandy’s very good. Hot Rod Lincoln’s very good. Sue Moreno; Tiger Army. Reverend Horton Heat is very good. He’s become a friend.
Danny B. has a group called Lonesome Spurs with Lynda Kay—she’s a star. She’s the real deal. Lonesome Spurs is like a country version of White Stripes, which is my favorite band. I just did a couple gigs and needed a bass player, so I used Rory Justice. He’s very good. Eddie Angel’s great. He has a band, the Neanderthals. I think the Neanderthals are the most entertaining band around. We’re gonna try to plan a little tour with the Neanderthals and the Head Cat.
I know that Brian Setzer has developed ear problems as a result of years of playing electric guitar. Have you had any wrist pain after drumming for so many years?
Slim Jim Phantom No, I’ve been pretty fortunate, somehow.
What is your favorite Stray Cats-related memory?
Slim Jim Phantom It’s my whole life, really. So many things that have happened came from that. Probably hearing the first record for the first time; hearing “Runaway Boys” on the radio for the first time. The odds were stacked against us for making it. No one was playing this music. There was no template for it.
Jim, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Do you have any final thoughts that you would like to share with our readers?
Slim Jim Phantom I do a lot of work with ONE.org. They don’t want any money, just an e-mail address. Go check it out; sign up. It takes two seconds. Just two seconds, and you’ll be doing something nice for me.
or more information on Slim Jim Phantom, the Love Hope Strength Foundation, ONE.org, or to purchase some of Slim Jim’s music, check out the following websites: