Thursday, October 20, 2011

Chris Isaak goes way back on 'Beyond the Sun'

By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
October 18, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO – Bill's Place is Chris Isaak's kind of place. Great burgers, sinful fries and saucy waitresses.

There's something decidedly retro about the joint. Ditto the guy digging into his lunch out on the patio, given his, well, let's just say it, Elvis voice and looks.

"The '50s was a pretty wonderful time for people, it was hopeful," says Isaak, 55. "But I didn't record this new album out of nostalgia."

Isaak's new disc, Beyond the Sun, out Oct. 18, was recorded with his longtime band at Memphis' fabled Sun Studio, and includes both rock staples (from "Great Balls of Fire" to "Ring of Fire") and uptempo originals such as the album's first single, "Live It Up".

But in tackling this material, Isaak wasn't interested in lionizing an era ("The '50s had polio and racism, too," he says bluntly) but rather paying tribute to his modest childhood in scrappy Stockton, Calif.

A memorable serenade

Chris Isaak knew early on that something about Elvis Presley rocked his world. And it didn’t hurt that he could look and sound like The King with ease. “Elvis was my nickname when I was a boxer as a kid,” says Isaak, who in his 20s boxed as a light heavyweight for a university in Japan. “I was like, ‘OK, well, maybe.’ But I knew I didn’t want to be an impersonator.” Once he’d made a name for himself, Isaak felt more comfortable tackling Presley’s canon on stage. Which led to what he considers one of the most fantastically embarrassing moments of his life. I was playing the Greek Theatre (in Los Angeles) a few years back, and I walked into the crowd to sing a song,” he says. “I started in on "Love Me Tender" and looked around in the dark for someone to sing it to, kind of like a lounge singer would. So I turned to this woman and starting singing. And then I saw who it was. Priscilla Presley. “I just went, ‘Uh ... uh ...’ I forgot the words. I said, ‘Man, I didn’t mean to do that.’ And she gave me this smiling look like, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard this song before.’” "My mom and dad played this music all the time when I was growing up, so to me songs by Jerry Lee (Lewis) and Fats Domino are the classics, they're the best songs ever," says the man who sprung into the cultural mainstream in the early '90s with "Wicked Game".

"I write my own songs, and I only see their flaws," he says. "But 'It's Now or Never'? There's nothing ever wrong with that."

Isaak says that for years he shied away from covering his heroes for fear of being pigeonholed as a retro crooner. That was a wise move, says Alan Light, Rolling Stone contributing writer.

"He was smart to not do an album like this early in his career, but now he can," says Light. "The tricky thing is, how do you win in a head-to-head battle with those (legends)? You can't really advance a song like "I Walk the Line". But Isaak can easily pass the sincerity test, which makes his versions of these songs work."

Besides, adds Light, anything that "brings a spotlight to a place like Sun Studio is a good thing. (Studios such as) Stax and Hitsville are gone. But Sun remains."

The idea for Beyond the Sun came years ago, after Isaak read an interview with Sam Phillips, Sun Studio's monarch who crowned the careers of Elvis, Johnny Cash and Lewis, among others. In the article, Phillips cited Isaak as a personal favorite.

"Reading that brought tears to my eyes, because it was what Sam did that made me a musician," says Isaak, who was planning to meet Phillips when the legend died at 80 in July 2003. "I loved that he knew that I loved all that stuff."

Preparations for the album began at his home studio here. The woodshedding sessions went late into the night, fueled by pots of spaghetti cooked up by Isaak, who is Italian on his mother's side. ("And let's face it," he says with a laugh, "whatever your mother is, is what you are.")

Once prepared, the band made for Memphis. Setting up nightly just as the studio's public tours wound down, Isaak and his gang pounded through a few dozen classics, doing just one or two takes each, breaking only to get milkshakes from the diner next door.

"It was the most fun I've ever had," he says of the sessions. "We knew our stuff cold."

Sun Studio is a comically small place, considering its global impact; it's as if The Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Who had all recorded in the same small London building. So does it have an aura?

"I'm not a very spiritual guy when it comes to music," says Isaak. "I remember hearing Carlos Santana say that angels helped him write his songs. And I thought, 'Really, angels?'

"Well, Carlos was right. Now I get it. It's not like those guys were talking to me in that room, but you feel like you want to do your very best out of respect for them," he says. "It's like, Babe Ruth hit it out of the park. You know you're not going to be as good as Elvis or Jerry Lee, but I just wanted to go in there and hit a good one."

New album carries tunes Isaak heard growing up in Stockton

By Tony Sauro
Stockton Record Staff Writer
October 20, 2011 12:01 AM

Chris Isaak's dad "doesn't say much, you know."

This time he said it all about his son's new album.

Isaak's mom, Dorothy, played an advance copy of Chris' "Beyond the Sun" for her 83-year-old husband, Joe, a few weeks ago. His five-star response?

" 'That's the way I would have sung it,' " Chris said. He's proudly keeping the faith.

Isaak sings the songs on "Beyond the Sun," which was released Tuesday, very much the way he heard them being sung while growing up in Stockton.

On his parents' scratchy, "suitcase"-like record player. Or dad's tinny truck radio.

Living out a fantasy, Isaak recorded his 15th album at historic Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn.

That's where immortals who inspired the boyhood Isaak - Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley - forged country-western and rhythm-and-blues into rock 'n' roll. With the defiant guidance of rebellious Sam Phillips.

"These were all the records my dad knew growing up," Isaak, 55, said of the 14-song CD that's also available in a two-CD, 25-track version and as a vinyl LP. "I tried to make a blend. A bouquet of flowers. They're songs I sing all the time. Some of them, people will know right away. Some will be pretty new-sounding.

Isaak and his band (Silvertone) captured that old sound, too. Which is just what he wanted. They played live and stayed true to the sonic template and studio set-up Phillips used to transform his modest Memphis Recording Service into a rock 'n' roll temple: The home of Sun Records.

"It's awesome," said Isaak, who "cut" 40 songs for the album. "I guarantee you'll like it, though it'll probably sell 10 copies. Everything links together. Every artist is connected to Sam Phillips. It was probably the most fun of anything I've ever done. We just loved getting to play in that room."

During his 26-year career, the Stagg High School and University of the Pacific graduate's music has echoed with affectionate evocations of rock 'n' roll's roots.

Isaak includes an autobiographical essay in the liner notes that connects his Stockton roots to his musical passions and the fabled Sun story.

"I still remember, on Harding Way, the second-hand shop where I bought a 45 (-rpm vinyl record) of 'I'll Never Let You Go,' " he recently said of a song from Presley's debut album in 1956, the year Isaak was born.

"That was the start. 'Oh, my god, this is great.' "

Isaak's motivation intensified when he discovered a copy of Presley's "Sun Sessions" recording (1954) while studying in Tokyo: "It changed my life. I went from having a flat-top (haircut) on the boxing team to saying I'd still be a heavyweight only as long as I could have hair like Elvis (a duck-tail pompadour)."

Not surprisingly, nine of the 25 tunes on "Beyond the Sun" are associated with Presley. It's also no surprise that Phillips once praised Isaak by saying, "He's very talented ... his music is so honest. It's incredible."

Isaak, who produced the album, growls and glides on the fast-and-hard ones. He really soars on "Can't Help Falling in Love" (1961) and "It's Now or Never" (1960), a re-write of " 'O Sole Mio."

Isaak's take on "My Happiness" is suitably sweet. Presley recorded it at Phillips' studio, ostensibly for his mom Gladys, in 1953. Phillips' office manager later insisted he check out the young novice's voice. History was made. (Connie Francis' "My Happiness" became a top-10 single in 1958.)

Isaak and his band's joy and freewheeling, one-take spontaneity are evident everywhere. Parts of the album - Isaak's first for Vanguard Records after 14 at Warner/Reprise - were recorded in San Francisco, where Isaak lives, and Los Angeles. Respecting another old-school axiom, the double-CD clocks in at a concise 64 minutes.

Isaak really digs into Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" (1964). There are devoted takes on Johnny Cash: His signature "Ring of Fire" (1964) and the low rumble of "I Walk the Line" (1956). Isaak frolics through Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" (1957) and greases Perkins' "Dixie Fried" (1956) just right.

Demonstrating his skill at writing them "that way," too, Isaak includes two original tunes: "Live It Up," a rockabilly romp, and "Lovely Loretta," a sprightly, yet sad, shuffle ("This whole world turned against me/You're the only friend I found").

Isaak also discovered the pleasure of working with Sun legends Jack "Cowboy" Clement and Roland James.

"We played 'til our fingers looked like baseball mitts," Isaak said. "I don't think there's a band that can touch us on this stuff."

It's "dedicated to my folks Joe & Dorothy." The double-CD concludes with a close-the-circle version of "That Lucky Old Sun" (1949). In Isaak's case, it's "that lucky old son," too.

Busy, busy, busy. ...

Isaak also harmonizes with Glenn Campbell on "Ghost on the Canvas," the 75-year-old singer-songwriter's impressive new recording.

Campbell, a "really, really nice guy," chit-chatted and performed on "The Chris Isaak Hour" TV show.

Isaak's version of "Crying Waiting Hoping" is one of the more-faithful interpretations on "Listen to Me: Buddy Holly," a 16-track tribute to the late rock 'n' roll pioneer who would've turned 75 on Sept. 7.

As a Turner Classic Movies host on Oct. 11, Isaak led into a version of Robert Penn Warren's novel by saying: "Shot in my hometown of Stockton, California, from 1949, 'All the King's Men.' "

To paraphrase the title of an Elvis tune on "Beyond the Sun": Isaak never forgets to remember.

Contact Tony Sauro at (209) 546-8267 or Visit his blog at


Chris Isaak loves classics, but not old 55 -

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