PHILADELPHIA — 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 recalls 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 modern-day artist would be a natural fit for Sun, it’s the 56-year-old Isaak, whose retro-infused style carries echoes of both Elvis and Roy Orbison, among the many greats who recorded at Sun in the ‘50s and who have long obsessed him.
And he does sound right at home in the tiny studio, as you can hear on “Beyond the Sun,” an album in which Isaak and his band tackle rockers and ballads by Elvis, 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 Franciscan 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 remembers. “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.”
“Beyond the Sun” also contains a couple of Isaak originals, including the terrific rocker “Live It Up,” which sounds like a lost Sun classic. According to Isaak, original Elvis 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 backseat to music.
“It doesn’t compare to what I get to do every night — playing on the stage.”