James Wilsey and the Secret History of Chris Isaak's 'Wicked Game' - Rolling Stone
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Jimmy Wilsey’s Guitar Helped Make Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ a Smash. But Wilsey Was Never the Same After

In this excerpt from his new biography of Wilsey, author Michael Goldberg charts the way “Wicked Game” became an iconic hit — and how it both transformed and wrecked the lead guitarist behind it

jimmy calvin wilseyjimmy calvin wilsey

Jimmy Calvin Wilsey, 1977

Amy Starks

As Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” recently demonstrated, sometimes it takes a while for a song to catch on and become a hit. Lizzo’s track exploded two years after release, and something similar happened over 30 years ago with Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” When Isaak’s Heart Shaped World was initially rolled out in 1989, it didn’t make much of an impact. Then, with an assist from director David Lynch, “Wicked Game” caught on and got released as a single in late 1990. Finally, in 1991, the song broke into the Top 10.

That was all good news for Isaak, who finally became the star everyone had predicted years before. But it was a mixed blessing for Isaak’s lead guitarist, James Calvin Wilsey, who came up with the swoony guitar lick that ran throughout the Isaak-written song. After a tenure in the San Francisco punk band the Avengers, Wilsey and Isaak formed a rockabilly band, Silvertone, in 1980; by 1985 Isaak was the frontman and Silvertone became the name for his backup group, which included Wilsey. But not long after “Wicked Game,” Wilsey’s life and career began derailing. By 1993, he was grappling with drug addiction and was out of Silvertone. He formed a band of his own in 1998 and a decade later made a solo album, but his career was never the same. About 10 years ago, he developed hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver, and on Christmas Eve day in December 2018, he died of organ failure at age 61.

Wilsey’s story is laid out in Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey (Hozac Books) by former Rolling Stone senior writer Michael Goldberg. (A portion of its sales will go toward Wilsey’s teenage son, Waylon James Wilsey.) In this excerpt, Goldberg details how “Wicked Game” became a belated hit and how it impacted Wilsey in ways both good and bad.

This Hypnotic Instrumental

During the sessions for Chris Isaak’s third album, Heart Shaped World, guitarist Jimmy Wilsey, as usual, played a major role; in addition to his involvement in the other songs on the album, he was key to the recording of the song that would make Isaak an international star, “Wicked Game.” He wrote and played the haunting guitar intro and lead electric guitar parts that run through the song using one of his 1962 Stratocaster reissues and his 1964 pre-CBS Fender Deluxe amp. Jimmy also used his guitar to trigger a MIDI’d string sound, engineer Mark Needham told Mix magazine. “One of the things I do a lot of times when I’m thinking of guitar parts for a new song, after learning the chords, is learn the notes of the melody,” Jimmy told me in 1991. “And a lot of times how the notes of the melody fit into the chords, sometimes there’s a lot of stuff to twist around and play with there…”

Rock critic Joel Selvin had once celebrated “the Wilsey Sound” in a review of Isaak/Silvertone published in the San Francisco Chronicle, noting that “the vision may be Isaak’s; the sound is Wilsey’s.” The “Wilsey Sound” was more than the “Wicked Game” intro, and it wasn’t that song’s popularity that made Jimmy important. It wasn’t his technical skills on the guitar, though he was a skilled, practiced player. Erik Jacobsen, who produced the four Chris Isaak albums Jimmy played on and remained friends with the guitarist via phone and the internet until his last years, got close when he spoke about his “magical touch,” and used the word “atmospheric” to describe what Jimmy brought to a song.

But there was more to it. By the Eighties, it could seem difficult, perhaps impossible, to be an original. By then it seemed that previous guitarists had done everything one could do on the guitar. Jimmy proved otherwise. His originality certainly had to do with what he played, but more than that, was a kind of essence rare. His distinctive touch often enveloped the songs in sadness. It was as if his riffs had Wilsey imprints, the musical equivalent of fingerprints; no one sounded like Jimmy.

“He wanted to enhance the vocal, the chord progression,” guitarist/rock critic Lenny Kaye told me. “To give you something memorable to take you through it. ‘Wicked Game’ is probably the most sterling example of this where you are led into Chris Isaak’s vocal through Jimmy opening the door with that beautiful guitar figure. In some ways that would make him a guitarist’s guitarist. It’s not something that would translate into bombast or showiness or displays of virtuosity. He addressed the song and that is actually much harder to do than wang-wang-wang, weedily-weedily. To actually construct an arpeggio or a response to the call of the singer. It’s a beautiful thing.”

“I Know I Can’t Handle This, But Here I Go!”

Isaak said he wrote “Wicked Game” quickly late one night. “There was a girl on the way over,” he said during a February 1991 interview. “It was one of those things where they call, they say, ‘I’m comin’ over.’ You know you shouldn’t, but you let ’em. Hang up the phone and go, ‘Oh, no. Now we’re gonna be in trouble.’

wicked game

“You know you’re not, uh, star-crossed,” he said. “But it’s just like ‘Here I go!’ There’s a line in a Jerry Lee Lewis song [1959’s ‘Big Blon’ Baby’] that goes, ‘Waitin’ on the corner like an old tomcat … who walks by/Me oh my/Jumpin’ Jehosophat Big Blon’ Baby … Big Blon’ Baby, glory be, here I go…’ Kind of an attitude like ‘I know this won’t work, I know I can’t handle this, but here I go! Watch me try!’ Anyway, I wrote ‘Wicked Game’ real quick,” Isaak said. “I hung up the phone and wrote the song. By the time she got there, I had the song pretty much finished. We didn’t do much guitar playin’ after she got there.”

Actually, it took “several years before the definitive version was put together,” Mix magazine’s Maureen Droney reported in 2002. “That song had a long life,” said Needham, who engineered “Wicked Game,” “a real long life. Chris had played it with the band many times, and we’d recorded a bunch of different versions, with different arrangements. But we never thought that the drum track had the metronomic feel that we really wanted. That was something it really needed, especially in the verses, to convey the song.”

Wilsey said, when I spoke to him in 1991, that “Wicked Game” was not completely written while Isaak waited for a girl to show up, but that early on in the song’s genesis it was easy for the guitarist to come up with the intro. “Chris played me that song and I heard it — it was pretty basic, he only had a few lines — and I thought, ‘This is nice, this is right up my alley, I can do something.’ So I didn’t really worry about it. A couple of days later I thought of a riff for the intro and some other parts, and I thought, ‘Good, it’s done.’ It was one of the few times where I felt like that was it. Sure of it. I don’t think Chris liked it at first, he thought it sounded sort of out of tune. So I let it ride for a while. Later on Erik [Jacobsen, Isaak’s manager and producer at the time] heard it and Chris heard it again, and they thought, ‘Oh wow, what’s that?’ It’s like they were hearing it for the first time.”

Jimmy said he eventually made a four-track home demo of the song, which the studio version was based on. “We just considered [‘Wicked Game’] a nice song that fit on the album to get you to the song which is obviously a hit.” He wrote online in 2007, “We never imagined WG [‘Wicked Game’] as a single.”

Jacobsen told me in 1991 that there had never been much excitement at Warner Brothers for Heart Shaped World. Executives from the company had flown up to San Francisco to hear it in the spring of 1989. “Not a favorable word was spoken,” Jacobsen said, describing an awkward playback session. “It was just the most deadly reaction that I have ever seen to anything in my life. As for getting it on the radio, all they said was ‘Tough, very tough, extremely tough.’”

A month or so after the album’s release on June 13, 1989, Warner Brothers gave up on it. “The ship has sailed,” one Warner executive told Jacobsen. “The ship has already sailed.”

“The Quivering Riff”

In the late summer of 1990, David Lynch, more successful than ever with the critically acclaimed Twin Peaks a hit, included an instrumental version of “Wicked Game” — essentially Wilsey’s guitar playing and a sampled rhythm track — in his film Wild at Heart, which reached theaters in August 1990. “He [Lynch] called up and said what music have you got that I can use in this [film],” Isaak told me during our February 1991 interview. “I think he took the best songs for a soundtrack. They were pretty emotional pieces. ‘Wicked Game’ with Jimmy’s guitar.… And he didn’t use the lyrics [the version of ‘Wicked Game’ in Wild at Heart doesn’t include Isaak’s vocal]. Just the track. I liked it. That’s what I probably would have done too. It works better. If all of a sudden a voice comes in, you start listening. ‘What are the words saying, how do they relate to this scene?’ I don’t think you want that, you just want the emotion.”

The music director at Power 99 (WAPW), an Atlanta Top 40 (or CHR: Contemporary Hit Radio) station, saw Wild at Heart three times in the fall of 1990 because of what he called “this hypnotic instrumental.” As Entertainment Weekly’s Joe Rhodes wrote in March of 1991, that music director, a man named Lee Chesnut, “had heard the song’s otherworldly opening guitar line (played by Isaak’s longtime sidekick, James Calvin Wilsey) … and been struck by the quivering riff.” When Chesnut got a copy of the Wild at Heart soundtrack album, what he found instead of the instrumental was a version with “this incredible cool vocal.” In October 1990, more than 16 months after Heart Shaped World was released, about 15 months after a Warner Brothers exec told Jacobsen “the ship has already sailed,” Chesnut added the song to the Power 99 playlist, and it was played frequently for the next two weeks.

David Lynch made a video for “Wicked Game,” which featured scenes from Wild at Heart and black-and-white shots of Isaak and Silvertone performing on a soundstage, but it didn’t get much airplay; it was the Herb Ritts-directed video shot at the end of 1990, featuring Isaak and model Helena Christensen making love on a Hawaiian beach, that would become an MTV hit in 1991.

By late 1990. Jimmy and actress Jennifer Rubin (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, The Doors) were a couple, and she would often travel in the tour bus with him; they had fallen in love. “I loved him! I loved him and we just clicked,” Ruben told me. “I hit it off with Jimmy really easily and I just adored him.” On November 8, 1990, due to the success of the song in Atlanta, Warner Brothers released “Wicked Game” as a single in the U.S. The A-side featured Isaak’s vocal while the B-side was the instrumental version heard in Wild at Heart.

chris isaak jimmy calvin wilsey

Chris Isaak and Jimmy Wilsey perform at the Rathskeller (a.k.a. the Rat) in Boston, 1985.

Sue Brisk

Jacobsen (who in the Sixties produced seven Top 10 hits for the Lovin’ Spoonful, including “Do You Believe In Magic,” “Daydream,” and “Summer in the City”) says despite Chesnut giving “Wicked Game” extensive airtime, the Warner Brothers promotion department “couldn’t get anyone else” to play it.

“I Was Giving Out Payola”

Frustrated that Isaak’s label was letting the opportunity for “Wicked Game” to become the long-hoped-for hit slip away, Jacobsen contacted his friend, Warner Brothers chairman Mo Ostin. “I called Mo, ‘Can we do payola?’” Jacobsen says during a video he posted on his website, allabouterik.com. Ostin told Jacobsen “No.” Warner Brothers would not be doing payola. What the label head did do was give Jacobsen $100,000 to use promoting the single. Armed with a list of key people at radio stations to call and info on the various radio markets, Jacobsen “spent the next two months on the phone calling independent promo guys and radio stations all over the country, and it worked.”

“I was giving out payola,” Jacobsen explained to me in October 2019. He told the radio guys he spoke to that they would “get a bonus” if the record got played. He said he got the playlists sent to him by the indie promotion men and program directors he contacted, and if the record was on the station playlist, he’d mail them a check.

“I just saw a big stack of checks [at his house],” Jacobsen said. “[In one instance] I’m paying this [person] in Louisville $290 for x amount of plays on [the radio station where they worked],” Jacobsen told me in April 2022. “I got a list of program directors and a list of the hottest independent promo guys in all the markets near Atlanta. Like Louisville and Memphis and Pittsburgh. And I started with them. I talked to the local [record] distributors, and they said, ‘You could call this guy, he’s approachable, this guy is terrific.’ I sat on the phone day after day after day. I said [to ‘approachable’ program directors and music directors], ‘Look, I want to make a deal with you.’”

Isaak was probably not aware of what Jacobsen was doing; there was no need for the rising star to know, and Jacobsen does not recall discussing payola with him. “I don’t think he knew, no,” Jacobsen said. “And I don’t think he knows to this day.” Neither Isaak nor his current manager, Sheryl Louis, responded to requests for comment in 2019 and 2020.

Payola — paying to get a record played on the radio — began in the Fifties; a record company promotion man would slip cash to a DJ to get a song on the air. There was a huge scandal in the late Fifties, when it went public that DJs were taking money to play records; DJ Alan Freed, known as the “father of rock & roll” for helping rock music become popular, was fired in 1959 from his WABC radio show in New York and from a TV show he hosted, after he refused “on principle” to sign an affidavit denying any involvement in payola. Freed pleaded guilty to two counts of commercial bribery in 1962, and received a $300 fine and a six-month suspended sentence, according to “The Payola Scandal,” a piece by John Morthland that appears in the 1980 edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.

In 1960, payola became illegal when Congress amended the Federal Communications Act to ban “under-the-table payment and require broadcasters to disclose if airplay for a song had been purchased.” The penalty if convicted of giving or receiving payola is (unless the defendant is also charged and convicted of mail fraud and/or income tax evasion and/or conspiracy) a fine of up to $10,000 and/or having to spend up to a year in prison. Despite the risk, payola continued. As decades passed, and the way radio stations were programmed changed, radio station program directors and music directors became the ones who chose the records played, not the DJs; cash, drugs, and hookers were provided to the program directors and/or music directors at some influential stations. By the late Eighties, a federal grand jury in Los Angeles was investigating the practice, but still it persisted, albeit with some modifications. Independent promotion men (freelancers, not salaried record company employees) — or indies as they are called — would get the money from the labels and deal with radio so that the labels were hands-off and could deny knowledge of how their records were getting on the air.

In the Eighties, according to many industry professionals I spoke to at the time, it was nearly impossible for a solo artist or band that hadn’t previously had a hit to get airplay without the help of independent promotion men. And indies were hired to promote records from proven hitmakers too. Of course, just getting some airplay did not guarantee a hit. From back when radio stations first began playing recorded music, there were “radio hits,” songs that got airplay but no sales. By the time Jacobsen “was calling independent promo guys” for “Wicked Game” airplay, it had become common for the labels to pass promotion money to managers, who would then hire the indies — in theory, this further shielded the labels from prosecution. Once on the air, “Wicked Game” became a legitimate hit, not just a “radio hit”; when it got airplay, listeners couldn’t get enough of the song, requesting stations to keep playing it and purchasing both the single and the Heart Shaped World album.

Jacobsen said he was not worried about getting caught paying for radio airplay. “No,” he said. “I had no f—ing money [at one point he’d mortgaged his house to pay for various music business expenses]. What did I have to lose? What were they going to charge me with? I’m trying to promote my artist.”

Michael Goldberg with Jimmy Wilsey, 1991

Michael Goldberg with Jimmy Wilsey, 1991

Courtesy of Michael Goldberg

On November 30, 1990, “Wicked Game” debuted at Number 94 on the Billboard Hot 100; it was already a hit in England. But Jimmy told me in early December 1990 that no one he spoke to knew of the hit status of “Wicked Game” in the U.K., and he said that took the fun
 out of having a hit.
 “I don’t feel any
 different,” he said, 
“and I have to tell
 people, otherwise 
they don’t know
 about it.”

When later that month I repeated to Isaak what Jimmy had told me, he responded, “In Jimmy’s case, he’s very responsible for that record being a hit. But in a way, because it’s not his picture on the cover, people are even less likely to come up to him and say, ‘I like that record.’ They may come up to me and say, ‘I like that record and I love the guitar,’ when really they should be running up to him and saying that. So for him it’s even more removed.”

With “Wicked Game rising on the charts, MTV started playing the Herb Ritts video. Isaak told me back in early 1987 that he didn’t expect success to make him happy. “Whether you’re successful or not at what you do doesn’t change how you feel,” he said. “You have a way of looking at the world, a certain view. If I sold a million records, I was Number One on the charts for 10 years, I think I’d still be worried and a little bit outside of things, and a little bit alone.”

“He Got to Be Like Brian Jones”

About six months after Jimmy and Rubin met, “Wicked Game” became an international hit. “Jimmy is the happiest man in the world,” Rubin said. “He has got a movie star girlfriend, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] And he has a hit record and he reminds me of that funny movie [Keenen Ivory Wayans’ I’m Gonna Get You Sucka] where the pimp has the goldfish shoes. But that was Jimmy.… That was beautiful, [it was a] dream [come true for Jimmy], and it was a dream for me too. I’m with a rock star.”

But the success exacerbated Jimmy’s disillusionment with how he felt things had gone between him and Isaak for so many years. Although during the first half of the Eighties they had talked of being songwriting partners, they had never arrived at a deal that Jimmy was comfortable with. It hadn’t seemed much of a problem when the records weren’t selling, but now things were different.

Jacobsen had a production deal with Isaak that gave him 20 percent of sound recording royalties for either five albums or eight years, he recalled — when I spoke to him in July 2020, he couldn’t remember which it was. Of the remaining 80 percent, Isaak took 80 percent and Jimmy got 20 percent. All songwriting royalties went to Isaak, and Isaak split the publishing royalties with Jacobsen.

By the time the touring ended and work on the fourth album was underway, despite his romance with Rubin, Jimmy was no longer a happy man. “It was Jimmy’s twang that sent him and Chris over the rainbow,” Rubin said. “[But] it was not a consummated marriage where Chris was going to give him the money, too. So right there, right in that moment, and I’m speaking from intelligence as an artist, right there, that puts Jimmy in a position of ‘Try try harder. No. Try try harder. No. Try harder, try harder. Just keep trying.’ But the boat’s left, and Jimmy is naïve business-wise.… You get the girl and the recognition, and then, behind the scenes, it lasts like eight months. You know. It’s tragic. It happens a lot [in the entertainment business]. But he had everything for a moment. Can’t take that away from him, and it was his. I think everybody knows that he made that geometry in the music.”

When Rubin ended their relationship, Jimmy, who had begun smoking Persian Brown heroin in the mid-Eighties and had used heroin off and on ever since then but had somehow managed not to let it overwhelm him, became a hardcore addict. “Jimmy moved to this storefront,” Isaak’s former co-manager Mark Plummer said. “It was around that time that he started really getting high [on heroin]. There were these delivery services, where they deliver drugs. You’d use a pager — put your number into a pager and within half an hour someone would bang on your door. That’s how you’d buy drugs. I wasn’t working with him anymore, but that sounded really dangerous. That’s when I kinda knew he had problems.”

By early 1992, Jimmy’s addiction to heroin was interfering with his ability to record and tour. “Chris didn’t dismiss the importance of Jimmy and his role ’til he started to fuck up,” Jacobsen told me. “That is when Chris and I looked at each other and had our first discussions about ‘What are we gonna do? Jimmy’s fucked up.’”

Photo by Michael Goldberg

The Avengers perform in 1978.

Michael Goldberg

In May of 1992, according to Jimmy’s LinkedIn page, after “12 years and two months” of working with Isaak, and after playing on “about half” of the fourth album, San Francisco Days, he and Isaak parted ways. “I’m almost positive Chris fired him,” said Pearl Gates, a friend of Jimmy whose band Pearl Harbor and the Explosions had a regional hit with “Drivin’” in 1979, when I interviewed her in February 2021. Another friend of Jimmy told me “Jimmy did not make the decision.”

Isaak ended up using three additional guitarists — Ron Thompson, Jeff Watson, and Danny Gatton — to finish his fourth album, which was released on April 13, 1993. The first single off San Francisco Days, “Can’t Do a Thing (to Stop Me),” was released in the spring of 1993 and was the last Isaak song Jimmy played on, Jacobsen said; it never broke into the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at Number 105.

Isaak’s current manager, Sheryl Louis, did return my call in June of 2019, and she told me that after Jimmy stopped working with Isaak in 1992, Isaak held out hope that he would clean up and rejoin the band; she said that’s why Isaak waited three years before hiring a permanent replacement in 1995. Jacobsen said that Jimmy’s addiction interfered with his playing. “He got into heavy drugs. And then we had some rehearsals where Jimmy couldn’t concentrate. He couldn’t even remember the chords. I don’t know if he was fired or he quit, but it was very, very plain that everything between those two as partners was over. And that was that.”

“I think it’s really very complex, but I do liken it to marriages,” said one of Jimmy’s friends, who didn’t want their name used. “Artistic relationships are not too dissimilar. What it really comes down to is, it’s lack of communication, isn’t it? Not being able to arrive at a point that’s fair.… In an esoteric way, a situation kind of evaporates.”

“He fell apart mentally,” Jacobsen said during an August 2019 conversation. “It could have been that consciously he wanted to keep on going, but subconsciously he hated it. And he just didn’t give a shit anymore. He didn’t put the effort in. It seemed like he wasn’t even able to play guitar anymore a couple times. He couldn’t remember the parts we had figured out. He hadn’t practiced. There was a seeming lack of involvement on his part. Like he could give a shit.”

“[Drugs were why] Jimmy was out of the band in the end,” photographer Michael Zagaris, a longtime friend of both Jimmy and Isaak, told me. “He got to be like Brian Jones.”

Michael Goldberg was a senior writer at Rolling Stone for a decade and founded the first internet rock magazine/website, Addicted to Noise. He also wrote for Esquire, the New Musical Express, Creem, Downbeat and numerous other publications. He has published three novels. Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey, can be ordered from HoZac Books. He will also have a collection of his music journalism, Addicted to Noise: The Music Writings of Michael Goldberg, published by Backbeat Books in November. It can be pre-ordered now.

 

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