STORY WRITTEN BY DAVID WANNOP
For 21st Century Media
During the nineties, Chris Isaak was on his own path. He wasn’t part of new R&B, nor grunge. You couldn’t imagine him in deep conversation with Lilith Fair organizers. His brand of adult album alternative had appeal that cut through radio formats and easy description. A big fan of surfing and a onetime boxer in Japan, Isaak has had a career designed for the long term. Mega-hit songs are not his calling, but his tunes are ubiquitous in film, television and other musical spaces. He’s been known to fly off to Iraq and Afghanistan to entertain American troops. Usually, he has a bundle of original songs to share, but recently, he delved into his first love — the catalog of Sun Records, which was the first stop for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many other artists that shaped blues, rock and country until the present day.
The original Sun was located at 706 Union Ave. Memphis Tenn. And today is at 3106 Belmont Blvd. Nashville, Tenn. The early roster also included Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and a vast selection of blues artists. James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon, Little Milton, Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf were Sun Records discoveries. Sam Philips was convinced he could sell black cultural music to a broader audience. It was people such as Chris Isaak’s family that he reached through record and radio.
Isaak spoke recently through email.
Isaak ruminated on his childhood listening to Sun Records. “When I was a kid I listened to my folks’ records, vinyl and some old shellac and all kept in a box and played on a really funky little record player. It was all great music, and even though I didn’t really notice it then, I later learned all the music. All these artists came out of one little room in Memphis called Sun Studio and run by Sam Phillips. It was Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash…and for my whole life this music kept reappearing and just …stuck with me. I remember being a kid and my mom shopping at the Salvation Army (in our town it was called Value Village) and basically it was where you shopped if you were broke. And I used to kill time while my mom shopped by looking through records. I found an Elvis record on a yellow Sun label 45, it was like hearing somebody from heaven singing…just as perfect as I could imagine. I played it and played it. Then when I grew up and was boxing in Japan I happened on an album of Elvis’s Sun recordings. I knew I wanted to sing, I didn’t know where it would lead or have any big plan…I just wanted to make music like that. And after I had made a bunch of my own records, and kind of did my own thing, I thought it was time to sing the songs that I always sang at my house or backstage.”
Isaak described how his musical circle rolled along. “I was really started on the musical journey by Sam Phillips and his records from Sun, so this was kind of the circle being unbroken. I read an interview with Sam Phillips in Oxford American Magazine and at the end they asked him who he listened to in modern music and he said my name and man it just made me sit down and wipe my eyes. This was my hero, and for him to kind of give me his blessing meant so much. And even though my dad’s passed away I’m glad to be singing those songs he loved and taught me to love. I really don’t think this music will go away, it’s about as American as music gets. Two chords and the truth.”
Isaak is not impersonating, nor competing with the originals. He wrote, “I don’t know if anyone is going to top the originals of these songs, some are well known, some obscure. I really just wanted it to be pretty, and to have the fun live feel I always dug on Sun records. So we cut live, all in the room with no tricks. I thought it would be fun, and it was a ball. We just went for it. If you listen to the record you are hearing us singing and going for it … nobody wanted to stop recording at the end of the night, but we had to get out during the day so the studio could run its tours! I ran into fans from Australia, they were coming in and we were going to rest. We had a ball. Matt and the folks at Sun were just really laid back…”
Isaak selected the songs based on a very simple formula. “I just picked the songs I wanted to sing. That’s really the only thing I thought of. I picked some that folks know, and a bunch that nobody knows, but I think we picked all gems.”
New songs were also included on “Beyond The Sun.” Elvis Presley’s original guitarist Scotty Moore loved the music and Roland James and Cowboy Jack Clement were involved with the recording process, making it a very authentic Sun experience. When he is not recording you may find Isaak drawing cartoons or lamenting the passing of the golden age of album art work. He also enjoys Hawaiian and Mexican music.
Film scores are another musical situation for Isaak. He said, “I love that people get to hear my music, and it’s fun when it shows up in movies in ways I might not have imagined … David Lynch has used some of my romantic music in some pretty crazy scenes. I was kind of surprised when in the middle of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’; Nicole Kidman did a sort of strip tease to my song ‘Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing.’ I’m a big supporter of the arts.”
IF YOU GO
Chris Isaak performs at 8 p.m. on Sept. 12 at the Keswick Theatre, 291 N Keswick Ave, Glenside. For information, check www.keswicktheatre.com or call (215) 572-7650.