Isaak pays tribute to idols on new CD

Singer covers songs by such Sun Records icons as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash

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Chris Isaak has known for a long time that he wanted to do a CD of his versions of songs by the early rock 'n' roll artists that inspired his own music.

Not only did Isaak want to pay tribute to his musical heroes, he wanted to correct the issues he had with albums by other artists who had covered the same early rock era.

"I always thought that most people who played it didn't do it the way I wanted it done," Isaak said in a mid-July phone interview. "They either rocked it up too much, didn't have the right kind of voice for it or something. They just didn't have the right feel that I wanted, so I was really happy to get to do this."

Fans are getting to judge Isaak's vision for a '50s covers album themselves now that his latest CD, "Beyond The Sun," is out. But one thing that can't be debated is that he did things that bring a real authenticity to the album.

For one thing, Isaak and his longtime band made the CD at Sun Studio in Memphis -- the very facility where the artists he covered recorded the classic songs that played a huge role in shaping rock 'n' roll.

The studio was ground zero for owner/producer Sam Phillips and the artists he discovered -- including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash -- who recorded for Sun Records. And Isaak said the studio more than lived up to his expectations.

"The only thing that could have been better about Sun is if I would have had Sam Phillips or maybe if Jerry Lee Lewis would have dropped by for a moment," Isaak said. "But the studio is an amazing sounding room. I recommend it to anybody who's making a record. It doesn't have to be a rockabilly record. It's just a great sounding room for guys to make a rock record."

Beyond choosing an ideal studio for "Beyond The Sun," Isaak also approached the recording much the same way albums were made in the 1950s, setting up as a band and recording the songs live in the studio. And as with those early records, the idea was more about getting the right feeling in the take than a note-perfect performance.

"If you listen to those old rock 'n' roll records, there are little mistakes, but the overall thing is you can hear everybody playing together in a room," he said. "You can hear it. That's where the fun is."

And Isaak and his musicians — bassist Rowland Salley, drummer Kenney Dale Johnson, guitarist Hershel Yatovitz, pianist Scott Plunkett and percussionist Rafael Padilla — definitely had fun at Sun Studio. In all, some 40 songs got recorded. Fourteen of the songs went on the standard edition of "Beyond The Sun," while the deluxe edition added another 11 songs from the Sun sessions.

The standard CD leans notably toward Presley songs, with seven tunes by The King, including such hits as "Can't Help Falling Love" and "Now Or Never," as well as lesser-known tunes like "I Forgot To Remember To Forget" and "She's Not You." Other artists represented include Cash ("Ring Of Fire" and "I Walk The Line"), Lewis ("Great Balls Of Fire"), Roy Orbison ("So Long I'm Gone") and Perkins ("Dixie Fried"). Isaak has a ready explanation for the Elvis-centric nature of the CD.

"If you think of the songs that are known to have come out of Sun, Elvis got the bulk of them," he said. "So when you cover those songs, his are the ones that people are going to know."

What's also clear in listening to "Beyond The Sun" (or, for that matter, the recently released DVD "Chris Isaak Live! Beyond The Sun," which serves as a companion to the studio album), is Isaak's knowledge and understanding of early rock 'n' roll in general and the Sun Records canon in particular. His versions of the songs stay fairly faithful to the originals, but Isaak doesn't try to imitate the original singers. For instance, he doesn't try to do a baritone Johnny Cash on "Ring Of Fire," and even though Isaak's voice is often compared to Presley and Orbison, one gets the sense on Presley's "Trying To Get To You" or Orbison's "So Long I'm Gone" that Isaak is singing in his natural voice, just as he would on one of his original songs.

Isaak first heard the music of his early rock heroes while growing up in Stockton, Calif. When Isaak started his recording career with the 1985 release "Silvertone," the influences of artists like Presley and Orbison were readily apparent is his sound -- although Isaak's music has branched out considerably over the course of his 11 studio albums.

Songs from "Beyond The Sun," Isaak said, have fit seamlessly into his live show,

"I say I'm going to play something off of my new record and it's Johnny Cash's 'Ring Of Fire,' Elvis Presley's 'Let Me Down Easy' or 'I Forgot To Remember To Forget' or 'Great Balls Of Fire' by Jerry Lee Lewis. It's like a bunch of songs people know and they have a lot of fun hearing them," Isaak said. "And we put on a good show with them. So those songs fit into a set really easy."