LEVI DEXTER: Modern Day Rockabilly Phenomenon. A British-born teddy boy, Levi became the founding frontman for the late 1970s band Levi and the Rockats, when he was discovered by clever music visionary Leee Childers. Though he has changed bands throughout the years, he always stayed true to the musical influences of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll. Living the good life in Portland with wife Bernie Dexter, we reached out to Levi and asked him about his upbringing as a British ted, coming to America, leaving The Rockats and his musical evolution. All photos courtesy of Levi Dexter.
PONYBOY: Levi, please tell us about your early years in the UK?
LEVI DEXTER: I was raised in Chelsea in London by my mother. My father was a drummer from Venezuela who left us when I was 5 years old. I really had no interest in the music of the 1960s when I was a boy. I always gravitated toward music of the ’40s and ’50s that was still being played on the radio. By 1972 I was very into ’50s rock ‘n’ roll. Malcolm Mclaren had opened a teddy boy shop on Kings Road in Chelsea called LET IT ROCK. And it was just around the corner from my home, so I spent a lot of time there. This was years before he managed the Sex Pistols and the punk rock movement. When I was 15 we moved to Southend-On-Sea in Essex on the southeast coast of England. There was a huge teddy boy movement there. That’s where my rock ‘n’ roll roots really began.
PONYBOY: That must have been such an exhilarating experience being a ted back in 1970s England. Tell us a bit about that.
LEVI DEXTER: Yes, by 1974 I had found The Pier Bar in Southend. We called it the Long Bar. It was strictly for teddy boys and teddy girls. You couldn’t get in if you were a square as there was a strict code. You had to wear the right clothes, have greasy hair, listen to nothing after 1959 and show respect for all other teddy boys and defend them when there were fights with outsiders. I used to see Crazy Cavan ‘n’ the Rhythm Rockers and also Flying Saucers play there quite often. Then one day I was singing along as the band played and Cavan asked if I’d like to come up and sing a song with the band. This was the start of it all for me. Pretty soon every time Crazy Cavan ‘n’ the Rhythm Rockers and Flying Saucers played I would be asked to jam. I owe so much to Cavan Grogan and Sandy Ford for giving me the opportunity to learn to have faith in myself at such an early age.
PONYBOY: The feud between the teds and the punks must have been very chaotic looking back now?
LEVI DEXTER: Basically, the teddy boy style had always struck fear into people on the street, with a reputation of violence and a commitment of defending ’50s rock ‘n’ roll music and lifestyle. Once the punks were on the street the increased shock value made teddy boys seem less scary. Added to this, some punks were disrespecting our places and fighting teds when we were in small numbers. This escalated pretty fast. Malcolm Mclaren had closed LET IT ROCK and had opened his shop called SEX at the same location selling bondage gear and punk rock fashion. The punks there mocked the teddy boys and the final straw was when a photo of Elvis Presley that was on the wall had a dagger drawn in his back. The punks also had a show at the Queens Hotel in Essex, another bastion of the teddy boy scene, and burned the confederate flag that hung on the wall. They took it as racist, but to us it represented rockabilly music as the rock ‘n’ roll of the south. It stood for rockabilly rebel. Dozens of teddy boys would gather at Sloan Square (at one end of the King’s Road in Chelsea) and then march together down to Malcolm’s store and fight with any punks that cared to show up. The newspapers had a field day exaggerating the trouble that was going on and printing extreme headlines and stories. For a while if you were a teddy boy, rockabilly or punk you had to watch yourself on the street or move around in numbers. It was exhilarating but it was also quite stupid and became a drag.
In 1977 I jammed with Shakin’ Stevens band the Sunsets at a show in London. There were teds and punks there and the atmosphere was tense. I did my couple of songs and everyone came together to the front of the stage, both teds and punks enjoying the good energy. It was at this show that I met Leee Black Childers. He had been involved in the music scene for many years and was a famous photographer. He had worked with Mott the Hoople (“All The Way To Memphis” is dedicated to him on their LP). He also had done the image for the “after the apocalypse” inside centerfold on David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” album. At the time I met him he was managing the Heartbreakers (ex-New York Dolls), featuring Johnny Thunders. He approached me and asked me if I’d ever thought of fronting my own band. I told him it wasn’t possible as none of my friends could play music. He told me it could be done. Within weeks, myself, Smutty Smith on double bass, Dibbs Preston on guitar (known as Eddie Dibbles back then), Mick Barry also on guitar and English Don on drums became Levi and the Rockats. We practiced as much as we could but knew we could never play the teddy boy scene as they were so strict about bands sounding exactly like the 1950s recordings. Leee made plans for us to play at punk rock shows which was a very daring concept in 1977.
PONYBOY: And how did you actually start performing?
LEVI DEXTER: Leee had booked us to play the end-of-term Christmas party at the Royal College Of London on November 10th, 1977. We had made friends with many of the punks and had been accepted by them and even borrowed amps from Marco of Siouxsie and the Banshees. We went on stage and struggled through our show, and came off feeling very defeated. It was not the show we had always imagined. As we came off stage Johnny Thunders told us to go back out for an encore even if it wasn’t called for. We went back on stage and Johnny did a 3 song Chuck Berry medley with us and everyone there went wild! We came off stage saying, “We’re awesome! We rocked it!” Of course, it was Johnny who was awesome and rocked it! Our third show was at the Music Machine in London on December 26th, 1977 with Siouxsie and the Banshees, Adam and the Ants and many other punk bands. We had to go on last and it was our first really good show. It was a real party and everyone really accepted us and enjoyed the show.
PONYBOY: Leee Childers discovered you and was the visionary for Levi and the Rockats. He brought the band over to the USA and knew all the “right” people, like Andy Warhol and all those fabulous types in the back room at Max’s Kansas City. It seems like you owe him a lot. Are you still in touch with him?
LEVI DEXTER: Yes, Lee was the reason for all of our success! He is a man with vision and faith. He is fearless and never gives in. He’s the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll spirit. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for him. I learned so much from him and I will always be extremely grateful. He worked with Andy Warhol in the stage play “Pork” in New York and was very “in” with the Warhol crowd. He got us into Andy’s INTERVIEW magazine and also the Andy Warhol cable TV show where Debbie Harry from Blondie interviewed us. He also got us on the first ted/punk tour with Wayne County and the Electric Chairs in 1977. This would mark the end of the ted/punk wars. Lee brought us over to the U.S. in July 1978. Our first show was November 10th, 1978 (our 1st year anniversary) at Max’s Kansas City in New York City opening for the Cramps. We were selling out clubs in New York like Max’s and C.B.G.B’s, and then clubs in Los Angeles like the Whiskey-A-Gogo, the Starwood and the Troubadour. We performed live nationally on the Merv Griffin T.V. show and also played live on the Wolfman Jack Midnight Special. One of the other acts on the show was the Jackson’s without Michael. Leee and his long-time friend Tom Ayres got us on the Louisiana Hayride (the first rockabilly band to play there since Elvis in the ’50s). I could go on endlessly listing the great things Lee did for me. We chat now and then on FaceBook and email. Sometimes he will send me photos of Levi and the Rockats. He is still active and creative and still working in rock ‘n’ roll and art.
PONYBOY: Shortly after living in the US you departed from the Rockats to stay loyal to your manager Lee, which was very honorable of you. It seemed at that moment that Levi & the Rockats may have perhaps been on the brink of “pop” stardom. Looking back, are you fine with your decision to leave the Rockats? And are you still in touch with Smutty, Dibbs and the others?
LEVI DEXTER: It was a hard time. We had gone as far as we could but still had been unable to get a recording contract. Most record labels didn’t see rockabilly music as a form of music to be respected. Many times I was told, “If only you didn’t play THAT kind of music…haven’t you heard of Duran Duran?…Couldn’t you sound more like them?”. My answer was, “Would you say this to B.B. King or George Jones?” I have always been a devoted defender of real rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly music and demanded that it be given the same respect as so many of the other original American music styles like country-western, blues, jazz, etc. All had been handled respectfully. And I would demand the same respect. For my stubbornness, I would be rejected for not “playing the game”.
Eventually the guys in the band looked for who to blame for not getting a record deal and going further. They wanted to have a new manager. I wouldn’t sell Leee out. Leee and I insisted on being West Coast-based in Los Angeles. The Rockats wanted to be based in New York. Of course, once we broke up in December 1979, they moved to New York, signed to R.C.A. records and recorded the very poppy “Make That Move”. They were willing to compromise to get ahead, and the record went nowhere. They did well, but not as well as Levi and the Rockats. Whenever there’s a Rockats reunion they only go back to 1980, therefore, excluding me. We have only ever done one reunion show and that was at the Green Bay Rockin’ Fest III in 2007. One show together in 35 years! Smutty and I are like brothers and will always be close. The others I just say “hi” to once in a while on FaceBook.
PONYBOY: After leaving the Rockats, you went on to form Levi Dexter and the Ripchords, Levi Dexter and Magic, and Levi Dexter and the Gretsch Brothers. It’s all an amazing evolution and was probably fun to reincarnate yourself in different bands and musical projects. Looking back, what period or album would you say has been your favorite part of your musical career so far?
LEVI DEXTER: The time spent with Levi and the Rockats was the most exciting of all. I was young and wanted to turn the world on to rockabilly music. It was my first time in the U.S. and we were breaking ground and reaching new nights every month. It was the biggest thrill ride ever. There was no Stray Cats yet. There was nothing in the way except the stubborn suits at the record companies. We turned the world on to rockabilly music and the scene has gotten bigger every year since then. I’m very proud of what we did for rockabilly music.
I am most proud of my new album Levi Dexter – Roots Man that I have produced myself and has just been released on my own Dextone Records label. It is distributed by Rhythm Bomb Records in Europe . I recorded it at Moletrax West / Danalog recording studios in California and mixed it at Roseleaf Recording in Portland with mixing engineer Jimi Bott (drummer for the Fabulous Thunderbirds). I’ve had total control over this album and consider it to be a great rockabilly album.
PONYBOY: Being inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame is such an amazing achievement as an artist. Congratulations. The high must have been incredible.
LEVI DEXTER: It really means so much to me! I am in there with all my peers and friends. For years to come new young people discovering rockabilly music will see my name and check me out. I’m far from done, but after so many years devoted to rockabilly music, it feels really good to be honored in this way. I will always consider it a special achievement in my career.
PONYBOY: You’re now in Portland, Oregon with your wife Bernie Dexter, the legendary pin-up model and clothing designer whom you shoot constantly. We love the images that you take of her. Tell us what daily life is like with your glamourous wife.
LEVI DEXTER: Bernie and I live a very normal life in Oregon. We work together every day and live in a lovely English manor house, spending every moment together. I am so proud of her! She’s such a hard-working woman who always has a positive attitude, and friendly and good-spirited to everyone she meets. She works tirelessly on her clothing company and photo shoots. I’m always happy to shoot the photos as it’s some of the most fun we have, it’s always a party. When we’re not working we just spend time together and enjoy every moment we have. We’re still both madly in love with each other and are never tired of each other’s company.
PONYBOY: We read that your favorite thing to do is perform at rockabilly weekenders/festivals. We love weekenders as well. Tell us your favorite festivals in the past. And also, do you have any performances scheduled at any upcoming festivals?
LEVI DEXTER: My favorite festivals that I’ve played at are the Green Bay Rockin’ Fest in the U.S., the Hemsby Rock ‘n’ Roll Weekender, the Americana Festival, the Ace Cafe in England, the Good Rockin’ Tonight festival in France, the Valencia Hall Party, and the Screamin’ Festival in Spain. Strangely, I’ve never been asked to play the Viva Las Vegas weekender?
I’ll be playing the Good Rockin’ Tonight festival in France in March, as well as playing in Milan and Italy in April. Bernie will be at the Atomic Festival in England in April. And May 31st – June 1st, I’ll be playing at the Kustom Kulture Festival in Washington State. I’ll also be attending the Rockabilly Rave with Bernie in England in June. Bernie has a fashion show there. And I’ll be touring Japan with the Gretsch Brothers (one of my favorite bands to play with) for most of September.
The Levi Dexter -Roots Man album will be out this year on CD and vinyl. Later in the year, the Levi Dexter & the Gretsch Brothers album will also be out on CD and vinyl. It’s out now on CD in Japan. It’s going to be a busy year!
PONYBOY: Lastly, we know you’ve been asked this before, but please refresh our memory. Tell us your favorite musicians, past and present.
LEVI DEXTER: There are so, so many great rockabilly artists. My advice is to dig as deep as you can and give a listen to everything! My favorites from the ’50s (in no particular order):
Gene Vincent & his Blue Caps
Bill Haley and his Comets
The Collins Kids
Johnny Kidd & the Pirates
My favorites from the present:
The Blue Cats
Crazy Cavan & the Rhythm Rockers
Cherry Casino & the Gamblers
Marc & the Wild Ones
Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys
PONYBOY: Do you have any last comments or thoughts?
LEVI DEXTER: I’d just like to thank everyone who has supported my music and rockabilly music in general. It’s been underground for over half a century now and is bigger and the scene is stronger than it has ever been. It’s strange that many music styles have come and gone over the years, but rockabilly music has always been there and has always been an alternative to other styles of music. I love seeing the new young generation coming up and getting into the scene. It makes me feel good to know new people are discovering rockabilly music and living the rockabilly lifestyle. For me, singing rockabilly music is like dancing. It’s a celebration and I do it because I can. Apart from Bernie, it’s the most important thing in my life! I truly feel that the best days are yet to come and it will only get bigger and stronger as time passes. Thank you, everyone, for taking the time to read this and thank you Ponyboy for including me! Levi Dexter