Exclusive Stream: Chris Isaak's Barn-Burner 'Miss Pearl'

Latter-day rockabilly salutes heroes with new album 'Beyond the Sun'

September 1, 2011 3:00 PM ET
chris isaak beyond the sun
Chris Isaak 'Beyond the Sun'
Courtesy Vanguard Records

Click to listen to Chris Isaak's 'Miss Pearl'

Before he became a throwback rock star, Chris Isaak fought as an amateur boxer while attending college in Japan. Homesick, he wandered into a record shop and found a reprint of Elvis Presley's "Sun Sessions." He stared at the pompadoured image on the cover and decided then and there he was going to grow out his flattop.

When his trainer said no, Isaak cut a deal with him: What if he cut his hair when he lost a fight? He never lost again.

Three decades later, Isaak has released 10 studio albums, focusing on original music with an eye toward rock 'n' roll's formative days. His next album, Beyond the Sun, coming in October, might be long overdue: it's a tribute to the music Sam Phillips nurtured at the little Memphis recording studio called Sun, where Elvis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash all got their start, and where Isaak got his inspiration.   

Video: Chris Isaak Covers Buddy Holly's 'Crying Waiting Hoping'

Beyond the Sun features Isaak and his band tackling Elvis ("It's Now or Never," "I Forgot to Remember to Forget"), Cash ("Ring of Fire," "I Walk the Line") and Jerry Lee Lewis ("Great Balls of Fire"), among other greats. They also scour the inventory; Isaak's cover of a Jimmy Wages rarity, "Miss Pearl," is a two-minute barn-burner.

The sessions were recorded, naturally, at Sun, which still operates as a working recording studio while doubling as a national landmark. They cut the tracks live, with the band members in the room together.

When Isaak first visited the place while on tour years ago, he was struck by its electric energy as he reached for the door handle. The only thing he can compare that power to, he says, is seeing Niagara Falls for the first time.    

"When Elvis walked in, there was no rock 'n' roll industry," says Isaak, whose most notable songs include "Wicked Game" and "Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing." "It was primitive. He was living in poverty, and he thinks, 'I'm gonna start a brand new industry.' It's incredible."

So how does a committed fanatic make sure he's not just slavishly imitating his heroes? "I'm a good mimic," says Isaak. "I could have done impressions, but that wasn't my goal. No one's gonna sound like Elvis or Orbison or those guys. I just tried to catch the feel of it, and make it my own a little bit.

 "We didn't want to just do bar-band versions of the songs," he continues. "We had to know we were either going to do it right, or do it different by choice. We had to know everything, then forget it and have fun."

He mostly steered clear of the Sun catalog earlier in his career, he says, because he was trying to write his own hits. "In my head, if I started by doing Elvis, Johnny Cash, Perkins-esque stuff, people were not gonna take me serious. They'd say, 'Oh, that's the limit of what he does.'"

And questions about his rockabilly looks used to bother the singer, who just wanted to talk about his music. Now that he's so well established, he'll gladly cop to his infatuation with Elvis and the rest of the Sun roster. 

"I guess we do have some white-trash-blood resemblance," says Isaak.  

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

More Song Stories entries »