Sun Studio throwback Chris Isaak puts history into his music

The Philadelphia InquirerNovember 15, 2012 

Chris Isaak, who is to perform Saturday at Singletary Center for the Arts, reveled in recording his album Beyond the Sun at Sun Studio.

SCOTT NEWTON

  • IF YOU GO

    Chris Isaak

    Opening act: Coralee and the Townies

    When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17

    Where: UK Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

    Tickets: $37-$55. Call (859) 257-4929 or go to Singletarycenter.com.

Chris Isaak figures it was normal to feel some trepidation going to record for the first time at the storied Sun Studio in Memphis.

"I'm standing at the front door with my drummer," Isaak says over the phone from a New York hotel. "I said, 'You know, Elvis Presley put his hand on this doorknob and he was scared. And Johnny Cash put his hand on this and he was scared.' So I didn't feel so bad being scared walking in."

Of course, if any current artist would be a natural fit for Sun, it's Isaak, 56, whose retro-infused style carries echoes of Presley and Roy Orbison, among the many greats who recorded at Sun in the '50s and who have long been the objects of his obsession.

He sounds right at home in the tiny studio, as is obvious on Beyond the Sun, an album in which Isaak and his band tackle rockers and ballads by Presley, Orbison, Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and lesser-known Sun artists. (Some of the selections come from the artists' post-Sun careers, hence the album title.)

"You can't help but feel the history in that room," the San Francisco resident says. "To stand on a spot where Elvis Presley stood exactly, where Jerry Lee Lewis stood over there on the piano ..."

Just as in the heyday of Sun, Isaak and the band cut live in the studio, something he had never done before. It makes a difference. You've never heard the singer and his group rock as hard and sound quite as unhinged as they do on the Jimmy Wages obscurity Miss Pearl.

"I told the guys, 'I'm not holding back,'" Isaak says. "My guitar player, after we got done, he says, 'Man, in all the years playing with you, I've never heard you sing like that.' I go, 'Well, I can never just blow it out because I'm always playing tomorrow night, so I always save a little bit.' But when I was doing that in the studio, it was like, 'I'm going for broke,' and I had a ball."

That said, Isaak is in fact doing Miss Pearl at his shows — "because it amuses and confuses people."

Isaak, who performs Saturday at Singletary Center for the Arts, previewed several of the vintage tunes from Beyond the Sun — including I Forgot to Remember to Forget, Dixie Fried and It's Now or Never — at his first concert at Singletary, in December 2010.

A performance by Isaak recorded last February at the Moody Theater in Austin, Texas, will be released Tuesday on DVD as Chris Isaak Live! Beyond the Sun. The DVD mixes the Memphis roots-rock songs from the 2011 album Beyond the Sun with Isaak's own hits, including Wicked Game, Somebody's Crying and Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing.

Isaak also will perform Thursday in New York as part of the 86th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, which will air at 9 a.m. on NBC.

Beyond the Sun also contains a couple of Isaak originals, including the terrific rocker Live It Up, which sounds like a lost Sun classic. Isaak said Presley's original guitarist, Scotty Moore, even asked him which Sun artist had originally cut it.

The singer and guitarist has long had a second career in movies and TV, and he says he has a new TV project in the works. But those kinds of things will always take a back seat to music.

"It doesn't compare to what I get to do every night," he said, "playing on the stage."

Contributing writer Walter Tunis contributed to this report.

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