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Chris Isaak at the Cascade Theatre

07/22/2015 03:43PM ● Published by Phil Reser

Record Time

August 2015
By Phil Reser

In the early '80s, San Francisco-based singer, guitarist and songwriter Chris Isaak formed a rockabilly-influenced band which caught the attention of record producer Erik Jacobsen, who helped him score a record contract with Warner Brothers Records.

His best-known song became “Wicked Game.” Since then, Isaak has released 11 collected works, his most recent, “Beyond the Sun,” a tribute to those who recorded in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll at Memphis’ historic Sun Studio.

The idea for the project came after Isaak read an interview with Sun Studio founder Sam Phillips, who first recorded musical acts like Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, BB King, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Phillips opened Sun in 1950 with the goal of capturing the pure, raw energy of the Memphis Beale Street music scene. In the interview, Phillips, who passed away in 2003, cited Isaak’s music as a personal favorite.

“Reading that brought tears to my eyes, because what Sam produced in that small recording studio influenced me to become the musician I’ve become today,” Isaak says. “Having made a lot of records of my own, I finally decided to make a cover album of early rock tunes that I had been singing and playing at practices, sound checks and in my house all these years.”

With his retro look, people in the early days of his music career had accused Isaak of being a 1950s throwback. “There was a misconception about me when I started off because I had my hair greased up and I have some vague resemblance to the hillbilly gene pool that Elvis came from. People would say, ‘You want to be Elvis,’ and I would say, ‘No’. (My records) were about my life, not about nostalgia. It was finally the right time. I had put out enough work that I could finally not be defined by doing a tribute record.”

He admits, though, that he has always been a man out of time. Growing up near San Francisco in a family that had little money, he bought his records and clothes from charity shops.

“I played these scratchy records on this scratchy old record player. I was getting all the stuff that people were throwing away so I was always 20 years behind. My generation was listening to the Beatles or the Stones and I’d be listening to Hank Williams or Ernest Stubbs,” he says. “I was listening to all this stuff, hard country and soul music, but I didn’t put any of it together. It was only when I heard the Sun stuff that I had this ‘wow’ moment that everyone in America must have had back in the ‘50s.”

So he called Sun Studio. “The people were like, ‘Oh, yeah, we like your music. You want to come record? OK, well, we do tours during the day, but we could probably knock the last tour off if you could start at like 4 or 5.’ I go, ‘Perfect. We’re musicians, we stay up late.’ And they said, ‘Well, if you get hungry, we’ll give you the keys to the diner next door.’”

Isaak calls himself a pragmatic man, but “even I at some point had to recognize there was some magic in there,” he says. “You were in the same space where Howlin’ Wolf and BB King and Elvis had been. Or where Carl Perkins sat at the piano, scared he was going to get sent back to the chicken farm. That room has got more of the history of rock ‘n’ roll in it than any other place on earth. I mean, for God’s sake, you’re sitting in the chair, or you’re standing there singing, and you go, ‘Howlin’ Wolf stood right here. Elvis Presley was here. BB King played his guitar right there. Bill Black was playing bass there.’ And all of a sudden you’re standing there.”

Chris Isaak at the Cascade Theatre
August 19 | 7:30 pm

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