Beginning in January 1980, Setzer fronted the popular rockabilly band, Stray Cats. After performing from New York to Philadelphia, Setzer, Lee Rocker (born Leon Drucker) and Slim Jim Phantom (born James McDonnell) decided in June 1980 to go to London where they believed people would better appreciate their sound and style. To make the money for the plane, Brian, Lee and Slim Jim went to the Sam Ash Music on 48th Street to sell their instruments and gear to the store and rather than negotiating, sold all of it for just enough for three plane tickets. Upon arrival, they decided to call themselves Stray Cats, a name suggested by Rocker. The Stray Cats drew the attention of producer Dave Edmunds and released a series of successful singles in the UK.
The Stray Cats caught America’s attention with the 1982 album Built for Speed, which included the two Top Ten hits, “Rock This Town” (Number Nine) and “Stray Cat Strut” (Number Three), as well as with the follow-up 1983 album Rant ‘N Rave with the Stray Cats, which included the two successful singles “(She’s) Sexy + 17” (Number Five), and “I Won’t Stand In Your Way” (Number 35).
The Stray Cats broke up in 1984, but would reunite briefly to record albums and mount tours several times through the early 1990s.
In 1986, Setzer released his first solo album, The Knife Feels Like Justice, which marked a move away from rockabilly and towards a more mainstream rock sound. The album found minor success, peaking at Number 45 on the U.S. album charts. Also in the mid-80s, Setzer was the lead guitarist for the touring version of Robert Plant’s ensemble band, The Honeydrippers. In 1987, Setzer played the part of Eddie Cochran in the biographical film on the life of Ritchie Valens, La Bamba.
Setzer led a comeback for swing and jump blues music in the mid-1990s when he formed The Brian Setzer Orchestra, an ambitious 17-piece ensemble project, which released four studio albums, a Christmas disc and several live releases between 1994 and 2002. The group’s biggest success (and Setzer’s outside the Stray Cats) came in 1998 with the release of The Dirty Boogie which cracked the top ten on the U.S. album charts and featured a hit single, a cover of Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive an’ Wail”.
Brian Setzer plays with his orchestra on June 29, 2006 in the East Room of the White House, during the entertainment following the official dinner in honor of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to the United States.
Setzer continued to release solo-billed albums sporadically, including a solo live disc Rockin’ By Myself in 1998 and Nitro Burnin’ Funny Daddy in 2003. In 2001 he released an album titled Ignition with his new trio billed as the ‘68 Comeback Special. A tribute album titled Rockabilly Riot Vol. 1: A Tribute to Sun Records was released on July 26, 2005, in the United States.
On September 25 2007, the Brian Setzer Orchestra released Wolfgang’s Big Night Out which features Setzer’s take on classical pieces, such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Flight of the Bumblebee, and Fleur Elise. Wolfgang earned Setzer his eighth Grammy nomination, this time for Best Classical Crossover album of the year.
Setzer spoofed himself in a 2002 episode of popular animated series “The Simpsons”. He voiced himself as a “tutor” at a fictional Rock ‘n Roll Fantasy Camp attended by Homer Simpson, and delivered the amusing line (after his animated version participated in chasing Homer in a motorized devil’s head): “I hope you won’t judge the entire Brian Setzer orchestra based on my actions.”
On October 13, 2009, the Brian Setzer Orchestra released a new album entitled Songs From Lonely Avenue. For the first time in Setzer’s career, he is the sole writer on every song. Frank Comstock, the 87-year-old big band arranger who Setzer collaborated with on Wolfgang’s Big Night Out, orchestrated most of the horn parts for the new album.
Setzer was awarded the Orville H. Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1999 Gibson Awards. As of 1999, the previous recipients of this award were B. B. King, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and John Fogerty.
Since 2000, Setzer has earned three Grammy Awards: Best Pop Performance Duo/Group for “Jump Jive An’ Wail”, and two Best Pop Instrumental Performance awards for “Sleepwalk” and “Caravan”. In December 2006 he received his seventh Grammy nomination for his version of “My Favorite Things,” again in the Best Pop Instrumental Performance category.
Setzer recently moved from Southern California to Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife Julie (nee Reiten, former singer with the Dustbunnies), whom he originally met when she auditioned (and was hired) as a back-up singer for the Brian Setzer Orchestra in 2000. They were married in Palm Springs, California, in the summer of 2005. Setzer was previously married twice: to Christine Schmidt, from 1994-2002, with whom he has two daughters, and DeAnna Morgan from 1984-1992 with whom he has a son, Cody.