Yuletide’s cool side

Let’s just admit it, shall we? Every rockabilly chick in the world adores him. Every well-inked gearhead and guitar geek envies him on some level. And yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it a million times, during the last 25 years he’s been personally responsible for resurrecting both rockabilly and big band swing and making them cool again, blah, blah, blah.

But here’s something you might not expect: Brian Setzer may just unwittingly bring another genre into the limelight. Would you believe … the spiritual?

Like Elvis, the Man in Black and countless others before him, Brian Setzer has been recording hymns and spirituals, and performing them in concert; he even released a few on last year’s Boogie Woogie Christmas. His first self-penned hymn, “St. Jude,” appears on the latest Setzer offering, Nitro Burnin’ Funny Daddy.

“You know something? I don’t go to church, but I pray every night. I believe in prayer. When people began talking about ‘St. Jude,’ they were like, ‘No … really! You pray?’ Absolutely! I don’t care what your religion is, you should pray, but I’m so surprised to hear that most people don’t. Prayer is all about meditation, and I think it would help if everybody did — if not just for the sake of taking the time for the peace and quiet. Just say a prayer about things that are important to you.”

Setzer’s natural vocal range lends itself perfectly to the inherent beauty of a spiritual. “I used to sing in church choir, because I loved the whole feel. It was like a big band with voices. Back in my Lutheran church we sang Bach and old hymnals. It was fantastic!”

Don’t think for a minute you’ve heard the last of devils in black Cadillacs, hot rod girls or admonitions to drink whiskey and shut up! Brian’s sense of humor is still intact. In fact, there’s this little joke he’s been playing. Setzer has dabbled in doo-wop throughout his career and recently formed the Brianaires, who sang backup on the last two recordings with his trio. But here’s the secret: The Brianaires are all Brian.

“You know I thought about giving them all credit just for a hoot. I was going to have a Byron Spencer, a Bernie Seltzer … [laughs]. Almost all doo-wop bands are five-piece. You had the leader, the high tenor, second tenor, baritone and bass … exactly like a saxophone section. So there’s 5 Brianaires.”

All jest aside, our tattooed hep-cat was ecstatic to record “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” a sassy duet with ’60s sex kitten Ann-Margret, for the Christmas CD. “You know, sexy is sexy, so when I thought about singing again with somebody cool [Gwen Stefani appeared on 1998’s You’re The Boss], I thought, ‘I’m gonna call Ann-Margret!’ Maybe she’ll hang up, maybe she won’t want to do it. But she was like ‘Oh, I love your big band! I’ll do it!’ She was great! She had a little dog she carried around in a basket and she was just so cool.”

This brings up the little matter of the killer duet that got away: Setzer had hoped that the legendary Keely Smith would work with him on Jump, Jive an’ Wail, which rocketed him into the stratosphere on the strength of
its Grammy Award. “Well … you know, she
didn’t know who I was. I could’ve been some goofball, so I don’t really blame her, but it was pretty funny the way she spoke on the phone. When I asked her to sing with me, she said, ‘Absolutely not!’ She lives out where I do, but I was recording in LA, so I said, ‘Oh! Well, I mean I wouldn’t expect you to drive, I’ll send you a limo.’ ‘I wouldn’t think of it!’ I’m telling you exactly what she said! So I thought, ‘Oh … um … OK.’ Then once the song became a hit, she started calling me, asking me to do things with her, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, sweetheart. …’ [Laughs.] I don’t hold it against her or anything. But it was pretty funny!”

Brian Setzer and his rockin’ big band have got the chops to make their Christmas Extravaganza the hip alternative to Christmas kitsch. Get your lead sleds and T-buckets out of storage, grab your pit crew and rev up your holidays right.


See the Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas Extravaganza at the State Theatre (2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit; call 313-961-5450) Sunday, Dec. 7, at 6 p.m.

Amy Yokin is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]