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Ten Things You May Not Know About Slim Jim Phantom

Ten Things You May Not Know About Slim Jim Phantom

Photo by Gretchen Lanham.

Slim Jim Phantom is Rockabilly Royalty. Born not too far from the Gretsch factory in Brooklyn and raised in Massapequa, New York, Phantom grew up immersed in music, especially his parents’ jazz records which featured many legendary Gretsch drummers. “I was a jazz maniac growing up,” says Phantom. “To me, Max Roach and Art Blakey and ‘Philly’ Joe Jones were my favorites. I was drawn to their sheer power. Even within a jazz setting, I found Gretsch drums to be a little bit louder.”

Starting drum lessons at the age of 10, Phantom learned from one of the best: Mousey Alexander, the legendary jazz drummer who played with Dinah Washington and Benny Goodman. In his late teens, Phantom discovered rockabilly and along with his childhood buddy and bassist, Lee Rocker, joined up with guitarist Brian Setzer in 1979 to form the power rockabilly trio, Stray Cats. Two years later, the Stray Cats led a rockabilly revival, blending the raw energy of ‘50s rockabilly with modern punk musical elements, with the breakout hits “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town.”

The energetic, flamboyant Phantom is famous for putting his drums out front onstage and playing standing up, with just a bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, and crash cymbal. After dreaming all of his life of becoming a Gretsch artist (growing up, Phantom cut out Gretsch drum ads from Modern Drummer and pictures from Gretsch catalogs and put them on his bedroom walls), Phantom became a Gretsch endorsed artist in 1983, the 100th anniversary of the Gretsch Company, and was featured on the “Someday, you’ll own Gretsch” poster series that year.

The cover of Slim Jim’s acclaimed autobiography he released in 2015.

When not performing with Stray Cats, Phantom has kept busy playing with Jerry Lee Lewis and a slew of bands including The Swing Cats; Phantom, Rocker & Slick (with former David Bowie guitarist, Earl Slick); Col. Parker (with former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke); The Head Cat (with Danny B. Harvey and the late Lemmy Kilmister); and Kat Men, a duo with Gretsch endorsed guitarist, Darrel Higham. Phantom also performs with his wife, Jennie Vee, the bassist for Eagles of Death Metal, and in 2016 wrote the critically-acclaimed autobiography, A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel.

When not making music, rescuing dogs and cats, working on his “History of Rockabilly” documentary, and watching Jeopardy, Phantom can be heard on two SiriusXM shows. He hosts “Rockabilly Rave Up” and “Slim Jim’s Phantasy,” a weekly show dedicated to his other passion: baseball and fantasy sports. We caught up with Slim Jim by phone at his California home to talk about his interesting life and long music career. Here are “Ten Things You May Not Know About Slim Jim Phantom.” Enjoy!

1. The highest compliment he ever received came from a Gretsch drum legend.

I met Tony Williams in real life at a NAMM Show. We were at the Gretsch Drums booth and there were a lot of famous drummers there. And Tony, who didn’t know me, came up to me in front of everyone and said, ‘This is the guy. You’re the only one who put the drums in the FRONT of the stage. All of us, no matter how good we are, we’re second line.’ And he said this in front of all the drummers there, my contemporaries, and I was very, very flattered.

2. Bob Dylan gave him the best piece of advice he’s ever heard.

We were doing a tribute show at the Universal Amphitheatre for Roy Orbison after Roy passed, and there were a lot of people on the show.  And I was a little bit grumpy because things were running late and we were told to wait and the sound check was late, and then Bob arrived. I had met Bob before through Duane Eddy and George Harrison, and I just happened to be the first person he saw when he came in. And he said, ‘What’s going on with you, kid?’ And I said, ‘Oh, well, the sound check’s late and they got me waiting in the lobby and there’s nowhere to go and I’m waiting for this and waiting for that.’ And he looked me square in the eyes and said, ‘Kid, don’t take anything in the music business personally.’ And that was the best advice I’d ever heard, and I never did it again.

3. He’s superstitious about two things: socks and Elvis.

Yeah, I’ve always worn two different color socks. But I’m superstitious in that I always wear the darker color on the left foot. I have no idea why; that’s just what I do. And if I’m in the car and at the end of my journey and there’s an Elvis song playing, I’ll sit in the car until the song is over. I don’t know if something bad will happen, I don’t know if something good will happen, it’s just a superstition. I cannot turn an Elvis song off while it’s on.

4. His favorite drummers? Any cat who can do two things: rock and swing!

I’m naturally more of a rock guy, but I could swing. That’s what I’m interested in; things that could rock and could swing. Ringo could rock and swing. Charlie Watts rocks and swings. It’s hard to describe, but there’s a certain thing that certain cats do, and I found that a lot of those cats I was into, who could rock and swing, played Gretsch drums.

Flying high onstage and ready to pounce on those Gretsch drums!

5. If he could’ve been the drummer with any band, it would’ve been the early 70s Rolling Stones.

I just loved The Rolling Stones from 1972, ’73, and ’74; they just hit that stride as a band. They played the things that I love. I love the blues, I love to swing, I love the melodies from that era. It just all lined up. And I understood the music. There are certain bands that I love, but I don’t know if I could handle it, if you know what I mean. The Stones? I know I could handle it.

6. He has one junk food weakness (and no, it’s not a Slim Jim).

Well, I’ve been vegan for a very long time, but I tell ya, Wavy Lay’s Potato Chips are my favorite thing in the world. They’re the best. Been eating them ever since I was a kid. I just love ‘em.

7. The Stray Cats based their lives and career on an album cover.

When we found and discovered rockabilly in the late 70s, there wasn’t that much to go by. Not every record store had all those old records. The Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps album was, like, our gospel, our guide. And on the cover, Dickie Harrell was standing up playing the drums, and that gave me the idea of ‘what if you did that all the time?’ And ‘what if you moved the drums to the front of the stage?’ So, we tried it and it worked and we just kept doing it.

An early group photo of Stray Cats. L-R: Brian Setzer, Slim Jim Phantom, Lee Rocker.

8. Jim’s cool wheels have to pass the driveway test.

I like cars. I have a 1961 Corvette that’s in perfect condition, like it came right off the showroom. It only has 75,000 miles on it and I’m the second owner. It’s my Sunday driver but my daily driver is a Mopar, a 2019 Hemi Challenger RT which is just a monster. I love it. All I’ve ever had were Corvettes, but I live on a very steep driveway in LA, and I couldn’t get a new ‘Vette up the driveway. It kept bottoming out. So, the Hemi Challenger, believe it or not, was a bit of practicality. It had a trunk. It had a back seat. And it made it up my driveway!

9. His most embarrassing moment happened on a stage in London.

It’s pretty hard to embarrass me, but my most embarrassing moment onstage was falling off the stage at the Brixton Academy in London and breaking my arm. The gig was over, we were saying goodnight to the audience, my boot caught a slat board on the stage a little wrong, I leaned out a little too far and I fell off the stage. I pulverized my wrist and that put an end to the tour. So, that was the most embarrassing and most tragic thing that ever happened onstage because the tour came to a screeching halt.

10. His most memorable moment was playing in front of 600,000 at the ’83 US Festival.

Oh, buddy, that was my favorite gig ever with the Stray Cats. That was our moment. It was the perfect time when the band was hitting perfectly on the charts, on the radio, and on MTV. And we had the perfect spot onstage. We started with the sun out and as we were playing, the sun went down, and the lights came on. We had 600,000 people singing ‘Rock This Town.’ Man, how can you top that?

600,000 people singing “Rock This Town” at the 1983 US Festival. This is Slim Jim Phantom’s all-time favorite gig. (Sorry the last few seconds are cut off.)