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.
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.