Chris Isaak entered this world to the tune of “Blue Suede Shoes,” which his mother was singing as he was born. And since that summer day in 1956, the music that grew out of Sun Studio has remained a cornerstone of Isaak’s life.
This year, Isaak waxed his own versions of those early rock ‘n’ roll records right at the source — the one and only Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn. The California-based crooner, best known for his sensual 1989 pop hit “Wicked Game,” released Beyond the Sun in October. The labor of love pays tribute to musical heroes like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and, of course, Elvis Presley.
Isaak gathered his band in Memphis for about a week for the recording sessions, which took place after the studio tours concluded for the day. His guests and spiritual advisors included Cowboy Jack Clement, the first hired engineer-producer at Sun, and Roland James, the longtime guitarist for Jerry Lee Lewis. Working quickly, the combo captured the immediacy and energy of that musical era.
Calling from California, Isaak chatted with CMT.com about setting up the band in Sun, giving due credit to producer Sam Phillips and playing the new album for his parents for the first time.
CMT: Sun Studio is such a small room. How long did it take to figure out where to stand?
Isaak: It’s funny because we walked into the room, and my bass player said, “Where do I put the bass?” I looked down at the linoleum floor, and there’s a hole where all the bass players have stuck their peg of their stand-up bass from the time of [bassist] Bill Black and [guitarist] Scotty Moore and Elvis on. I said, “Well, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us. Stick it right there.”
When I took the tour of the studio, I was amazed by how incredibly well-preserved it is. It’s not like a replica of Sun Studio. It is Sun Studio.
Yeah, I love the studio. It’s a great-sounding room. It’s the right size. It’s probably not the right size if you wanted to cut Abbey Road, but if you wanted to cut those kind of early rock ‘n’ roll records, where it’s just a couple of guys grooving and swinging, man, it’s the best-sounding room ever.
Why do you think those early Johnny Cash records from Sun have stood the test of time?
I think there’s a simplicity to those songs that made them bigger than country music or rockabilly or anything else. They’re so simple that people can relate to them — whether they’re in a punk band, whether they’re a 70-year-old guy listening to country or whether they’re a pop fan. They just cut through. That is Johnny Cash’s genius.
And I also give huge credit to Sam Phillips because most other producers would have had that band walk in and say, “Let’s hear your band.” [Isaak impersonates the Tennessee Two's simple boom-chicka beat.] Most producers would have said, “That’s it?! We’ve got to get real players. Let’s hire some guy to do all kinds of picking around you.” And that would have ruined it!
When you were young, did you gravitate toward songs like “How’s the World Treating You” and all these sad, adult, melancholy ballads?
I flat-out dug ‘em. I love the ballads, and I’d play those in bars. When I first started off, I was playing in places like a biker bar. Everybody else would get up and do these rave-up jams. … I got up and played really pretty, slow songs, and I remember seeing the whole bar stop. It looked like a damn movie. And they’d look at me like, “What is he playing?!” And they loved it. I thought, “Yeah, because all of these bikers have had horrible lives and tough backgrounds.” When they hear these sad, tear-jerking songs, that’s them.
When somebody does that, it’s just impressive to watch the whole dance floor go from sweating and jumping to everybody leaning their heads on each other’s shoulder. It’s romantic. When we play now, I’ll throw in “It’s Now or Never” or “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and it’s amazing to watch every guy in the audience put a hand around a shoulder and people move in closer.
I’ve always considered Jerry Lee Lewis as one of those guys who can rock it and then stop you in your tracks with a ballad.
Jerry Lee, I don’t think he does a bad version of anything. If Jerry Lee came out with an album called Jerry Lee Sings the Beatles, I’d buy it because I know it would be better. If he did “Wicked Game,” he’d do it better than I do it. There’s no doubt. He’s one of those guys who has his own take on it, and he’s totally unafraid to do what he wants to do. He’s one of those rare birds who is a great singer and a great instrumentalist. If you just stay out of his way, it’s going to be great.
When did you first get to see him play?
I saw him play in San Francisco years ago. I laughed so hard, I thought I was going to die because all these punks came, and they were all dressed in their leather and trying to be like, “Well, we’re rough, but we’re going to see Jerry Lee.” They stood in the front like, “We’re going to stare at him.” They’re making their wisecracks and stuff. He walked out and before he even did anything, he walked over and stared at them.
I was in the front because I wanted to see him play. And all these punks looked back at him, first like, “Yeah, we’re staring right back!” And then they looked at him some more, and it was like a little dog looking at a big dog. They realized, “Oh, Jesus, this guy is the real deal.” He’s not just a leather jacket. He’ll come off that stage and cut you up from head to toe if he wants to. He looked like he meant business. And all these guys backed up! He was 60 at the time, but he still could’ve took ‘em!
Who was the first person you played this album for when it was done?
The first people I played it for were my dad and my mom because they’re the ones who had the records that I based all this stuff on. My dad’s record collection when I was a kid — that’s where I first heard most of these songs. My dad has lost his legs and he’s bedridden, and my mom takes care of him. You know, they’re getting up there, but my dad’s still got every bit of his bark. And he sat up in the bed and said, “That’s the way I would have sung it if I’d made a record like this.”