Legendary producer Sam Phillips -who introduced Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison to the world - was asked in one of his last interviews if there were any modern recording artists he enjoyed.
Phillips replied, "I love to listen to Chris Isaak. His music is damned honest, it's incredible."
"There were tears in my eyes when I read it," says Chris Isaak about that quote. "That was a bigger deal to me than any kind of gold record. He's the guy who opened the door for me."
Maui Arts & Cultural Center photo
Over the years Isaak has thrilled fans with a hip, retro-rock sound rooted in reverb-drenched rockabilly. Blessed with movie-star good looks and an extraordinary velvet voice, Isaak has enraptured audiences with brooding songs about love, longing and loss.
And now he has finally paid tribute to the early Sun Records recordings that shaped his sound with "Beyond The Sun," featuring iconic and less familiar songs associated with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Released as a single and deluxe double album, the project is such a natural for this gifted artist, one wonders why it took him so long to craft such a wonderful homage.
* Chris Isaak and his band play the MACC's Castle Theater at 7:30 tonight. John Cruz will open. Tickets are $45, $55, $65, and $85, plus applicable fees, available at the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
"I wanted to make sure that people knew I had my own music and style, and not have them write me off as a guy who does an imitation," he explains. "I knew I had all these influences, but I figured I better write my own music for a while and have 'Wicked Game,' and 'Baby Did a Bad Thing' and 'Blue Hotel.' "
In the album liner notes, Isaak notes: "I have always wanted to make this record I have tried to mix in the heartbreakers with the rockers and even a few that I wrote myself."
Rather than just duplicating some landmark tunes, Isaak delivers interpretations that are both faithful to the originals and distinctly his own. Among the many classic gems, we hear Presley's "It's Now or Never" and "Can't Help Falling in Love," Cash's "Walk the Line," Carl Perkins' "Dixie Fried" and Jerry Lee's "Great Balls of Fire."
"These were the songs I sing all the time at home, the ones I love," he reports. "As soon as I'm done with a tour, I go home and it's, 'Now I can sing.' I sit in the stairwell where it sounds good and play an acoustic guitar and I'm either writing something new or playing something old by Elvis or Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis."
So did he have any hesitation recording some of these iconic songs?
"Completely," he says, laughing. "'I Walked the Line.'
"We were fooling around rehearsing one day and I started singing, 'I keep a close watch on this heart of mine,' and the guys go, 'We should do that,' and I'm, 'You're crazy. Johnny Cash did it, that's it.' And then I thought maybe we could do something with it, do it a little different with a harmony. It's not better, it's just different. His is the version. All of the originals are the versions. I didn't do this with any mastermind idea, I just love these songs.
"The purpose of the record is I'm imagining that some place in Des Moines, a kid hears it and says, 'I like this kind of music,' and his uncle says, 'Did you hear the real version?' That's ideal for me. This maybe opens the door for some people to the kind of music I hope people don't forget."
To do justice to the songs, instead of recording this classic collection in a typical studio, Isaak journeyed with his band to the still-functioning Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., taping live with the musicians in one room, tapping into the spirit of this hallowed ground.
"It is a shrine," he says. "People ask did I see angels in there? No, the ghost of Elvis didn't come to me. I feel the presence of all these artists the strongest through their music. I think they would like that people have not forgotten their music.
"We were in the studio listening to their records, and it was like a message in a bottle from 50 years ago. Here we were a bunch of wild musicians in that room and we could see the map on the wall drawn by these other wild musicians 50 years ago. You do feel you want to do it as good as you can because you owe them that. They went in there when there was no rock 'n' roll. The music at that time was 'Oh My Papa' by Eddie Fisher, and then Elvis came out. It was a complete revolution."
Isaak has been thrilled to meet some of the Sun legends over the years like Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, and in 2007 he performed on a PBS tribute special to Jerry Lee Lewis, playing on two tunes with the killer.
"It was fun when it was over, but before I played I was scared to death," he recalls. "He's a huge idol of mine. I was kind of frightened playing with him. But once I started singing, I looked at him and he kind of smiled like, OK. I thought about it later, of course he would like my singing because I ripped everything of his off."
Besides covering the greats on the new album, Isaak shines the spotlight on some lesser-known artists who recorded for Phillips, such as Jimmy Wages and Warren Smith. Wages recorded for Sun in 1956, but his gritty rockabilly tunes like the included incendiary "Miss Pearl," were only released 25 years later.
"I sent a version of the record to Scotty Moore (Elvis' longtime guitar player) and he wrote back, 'I didn't know they were still making good records.' And he said, 'I don't know that song 'Miss Pearl.' It slipped through the cracks. When we cut that song I told my band, 'I'm going to sing it twice, tops.' It starts like a roller coaster and just goes with no stops, and everyone was jumping up and down to the rhythm. Afterwards my guitar player said, 'I didn't know you could sing like that.'"
Since he burst on the national scene in 1991 with the haunting song "Wicked Game," bolstered by the Herb Ritts-directed video of the artist and a Danish model on a foggy beach, Isaak's popularity has never dimmed.
Aside from his successful music career, Isaak has also made a number of movie appearances, in "The Silence of the Lambs," "Little Buddha" and "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me." He also starred in his own Showtime series, "The Chris Isaak Show," hosted "The Chris Isaak Hour" talk show and he often hosts movie screenings on the TCM cable channel.
And a number of filmmakers have used his songs in their films, including David Lynch for "Blue Velvet" and "Wild at Heart" and Stanley Kubrick in his last film, "Eyes Wide Shut."
"I was backstage on the 'Tonight Show' about to go on, and I'm told there's a phone call from a director," he says. "I had about 20 seconds to get onstage, and I said (to Kubrick), 'Whatever the question, yes, I'll do it.' It's been a big deal to have my music in films by these directors."
Besides his love for roots rock, Isaak also really enjoys Hawaiian music. He recorded "Sweet Leilani" on his "Baja Sessions" album and featured a version of "Mele Kalikimaka" on a Christmas disc.
"I love Hawaiian music," he says. "The Hawaiian music section at my house is about 3 feet long. I like the old style from the '30s to the mid-'50s. I love singing falsetto. I want to make a Hawaiian album some day."
A frequent visitor to the islands, he tends to retreat to Molokai.
"It's probably my favorite place to go," he reports. "The first time there I asked for a map to the hotel. The lady laughs, 'A map? It's right over there. I can draw you a line.' The last time on Molokai I wrote a bunch of songs for one of my albums. I had stopped at the store and bought a bunch of food, then went in the water. I had made a reservation, but by the time I got to the hotel, it was about 11 at night. All the lights were off. I called the reservation number and a guy said, 'The hotel went out of business.' I said, 'Couldn't someone just come out and open a room?' I said, 'If there's electricity and a bed, I'll pay.' Being Molokai, he probably called his uncle about the crazy haole. But they let me in. It was like a Twilight Zone. At a beach hotel with no other guests, empty hallways and no lights. I loved it. I could play my guitar all night."
Returning to Maui to play the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater tonight, Isaak will feature a few songs from the new album and include some new stage theatrics, along with his famous mirror suite grand finale.
"It weighs about 35 pounds," he notes. "People think I'm nuts to wear it, but they get a kick out of it. When we go out onstage, we love to put on a big show. I have a piano that billows smoke and fire comes out of the top. And I have a 25-foot-tall pinup girl behind me when I play 'Pretty Woman.' If you're looking for high-brow entertainment, keep looking, because I want people to have fun. It's a tough journey through a tough world and I want people to come to my show and not think about anything for two hours."
Both Willie K and Amy Hanaiali'i celebrate the holiday season with concerts this weekend at the MACC.
The "Willie Wonderland" show in Castle Theater on Saturday evening will draw from Willie's popular Hoku award-winning Christmas albums, "Willie Kalikimaka" and the more jazzy, recent "Willie Wonderland."
The lineup includes the duo Lima Wela, and singer Ginai will join Willie for a few songs.
Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12, $28, and $37, plus applicable fees, available as above.
The "Holiday Pops!" concert with Amy Hanaiali'i on Sunday in Castle Theater features the orchestra performing such holiday chestnuts as "Sleigh Ride" and "Winter Wonderland," while Amy will include songs from her Christmas CD, including "Little Drummer Boy" and "Ave Maria." And she will also sing versions of some of her best known songs, including "Napua" and "I Remember You."
"We have looked forward to having Amy perform with us for quite some time," says Pops conductor Jim Durham. "It will be an exciting concert."
As a treat for children attending, there will be a "Milk & Cookies" reception following the concert, plus a visit from Santa.
* The concert begins at 3:30 p.m. Tickets, available as above, are $45, $35, and $25 for front half of balcony and $10 for back half of balcony, and half-price for kids 12 and younger in the $45, $35 and $25 seats.
Guitarist Joe Caro, who just released the exceptional album, "Home Alone," will play Charley's at 9:30 p.m. Friday. He will be joined by "David Letterman" show drummer Anton Fig and Maui musicians Mark Johnstone and Lenny Castellanos of the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band, and Island Rumours singer Gretchen Rhodes. Tickets are $5 in advance, $8 at the door.
Finally, Krishna Das will present an evening of sacred chant at 7 p.m. Monday at Makawao Union Church. Tickets are $25 in advance, $35 at the door. Krishna Das will also help Ram Das host the annual "Open Your Heart in Paradise" retreat at the Napili Kai Beach Resort beginning on Wednesday.
"Through practices like chanting, we begin to get in touch with a different place inside," he says.
"There's goodness, a beauty, and a love that lives in our hearts."