Chris Isaak Pays Tribute To Sun Studio's Golden Years
What if you could time-travel back to Memphis' Sun Studios in the 1950s? Behind the console would be none other than producer Sam Phillips. You might hear such classic songs as "My Happiness," "Crazy Arms" or "Walk the Line," originally recorded at Sun Studio by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, respectively. On a new two-disc set, Chris Isaak pays tribute to the legendary music recorded at Sun Studio with Beyond the Sun.
When Isaak stopped by to talk about the album with All Things Considered host Melissa Block, he brought his guitar to sound check. Isaak recorded Beyond the Sun at the legendary Sun Studio and, in this interview, marvels at the talent of Phillips.
"From everything I've seen about him — the things that I keep hearing from different artists — was he encouraged them to be themselves," Isaak says. "Elvis Presley walks into Sun Studio in the '50s, and when he walked in that room, I think if it would have been a lesser man producing, he would've said, 'I could make this guy into a kind of a Southern Dean Martin.' But Sam Phillips was bigger than that. Whoever walked through that door — Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis — he took these guys who were so unique, and instead of saying, 'I'm gonna knock off the edges,' he said, 'Yeah, I love it.' "
It's interesting, then, that Phillips didn't hold on to any of these future stars for very long. They went to major labels like RCA Records.
"I called my album Beyond the Sun because it starts at Sun Studio, and those guys all went on and just kind of took off like rocket ships," Isaak says. "They all did great material, but I think that he really shaped their sound."
Sing Like Elvis, Get 50 Bucks
One of those future stars was, of course, Elvis Presley. Naturally, Isaak says that everybody in his generation wanted to be Elvis.
"I would sing those songs a lot," Isaak says. "I was shy. I did all my guitar playing in the house. And then finally, I was throwing hay and working in Stockton [Calif.] and somehow [someone] had heard me singing in the house and said, 'Hey, I'll hire you for our fraternity party or sorority party.' And I said, 'Well, they gonna pay me?' 'Well, yeah, we'll pay you 50 bucks.' I mean, that's how much I made for throwing hay all day. I was like, 'You bet! Yes!'
"And my brother and I, I remember us both going, we had made little song lists of songs we knew, and we played all the songs, and they were very happy," Isaak says. "And at the end, we walked out and put our guitars in the car, and some girls came out. It was the first time that I went, I connected, 'Hey, if you sing, you're getting paid, girls are talking to you.' Then my older brother — these girls were talking to me, I was trying to be suave, and you're 16, 17 or something — and my brother says, 'That's my younger brother Chris. He ain't never seen no full-grown nekkid woman.' I just remember that line. And the girls, of course, they just took off. I looked at him and said, 'Where do you come up with this stuff?' "
But Isaak didn't want Beyond the Sun to be an album of musical impressions.
"You know, I knew those versions really by heart. I said, 'I don't want to do an Elvis impression. I don't want to do a Carl Perkins impression on these things, so let's just learn the songs really well and then let's forget 'em.' And that's what we did. We rehearsed it a lot. I don't know what people think making a record is like, but basically, I got a bunch of spaghetti and spaghetti sauce, and the whole band was staying at my house and we had a ball. It's a bunch of grown men acting like we're 15-year-olds, but it's like, we're all at this house, and we're playing music night and day. And we did all that work — by the time we got to the studio, we knew the songs, and then we just had fun."
A Natural Sound
With the kind of talent that came out of Sun Studio, you might picture a grand building on 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. Its actual humble appearances are deceiving.
"The ceiling looks like if you ever passed out and were looking up at the ceiling, it was like a stairwell ... not that I have," Isaak says. "It's not a flat ceiling, so [the bounce] of the sound is very unique. The walls are all covered in those old 1-foot-by-1-foot acoustical tile, [and it] looks like someone took a pencil and jabbed a million holes in it. It's the same tile that's been there forever. That would deaden the sound, you'd think, and yet the floor is a concrete floor with hard linoleum, so you get this slap sound. And that studio — everybody who's ever gone in and played sets up, starts playing guitar, and then they stop, and then they go, 'Wow. It sounds good. They don't have to do anything in here.' It's just the room sounds good, you know?"
For Beyond the Sun, Isaak picked songs that he'd been singing his whole life.
"I think the same way I always imagine people will play the record at their house. I imagine them doing stuff with music like the way I do," Isaak says. "I put music on and I drive around town. I put music on [when] I'm washing my car. And I put on music if you have someone and you're trying to make love, you put that on the background and you go, 'Maybe this will be romantic. If Frank Sinatra is singing, maybe everything will go good.'
"Some of those songs, people know right off the bat," he adds. "Other songs, they may not know the title. They'll know it when they hear the song. And then some of the songs like 'Miss Pearl,' I don't think people have heard before. And a few songs I wrote. I wanted it kind of all mixed up, so you put on the song and go, 'Yeah, I like this. I know some of this stuff, but it won't feel like I'm eating at a '50s diner.' "