The ‘King of Slow’: Remembering Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey

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Three days before Christmas, Chris Isaak’s longtime bass player Rowland Salley headed for LAC+USC Medical Center, where former Isaak guitarist James Calvin Wilsey, the man behind the dreamy sound of Isaak’s multimillion-selling hit, “Wicked Game,” was hospitalized. “I’d driven to the L.A. hospital to see him,” Salley said. “I took my uke, fully expecting to walk into the room, sit down, talk some turkey and catch up. Even play a few songs. Such was not the case.”

Salley found his former bandmate, who had suffered with off-and-on drug addiction for more than three decades, “in a coma and the recovery prognosis was nil.” On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Salley got the bad news: His friend was dead of “overall organ failure,” according to a family member. Wilsey, who played on the first four Isaak albums and released one solo album, was 61.

Isaak was at his mother Dorothy’s house in Stockton when he heard. “There’s a picture in my mom’s living room of me singing, him picking guitar. . .,” Isaak posted on his Facebook page Christmas Day. “We were both just kids wanting to make music. . . . We played at crummy bars and clubs for next to nothing, and were thrilled to do it. We were chasing a dream and I like to think we caught ahold of it. . . . Jimmy had so much heart and a great sound. . . .I used to yell, ‘Sick ’em Cal!’ when he took a guitar solo. I look at his picture now; good-looking, cool, young Jimmy and I miss him and I’m so glad I had those times with him. I’m going to put on an old record and listen to my friend. Rest In Peace James Calvin Wilsey.”

Wilsey was, according to his friends, a smart, generous, tremendously talented man, an early adopter of digital-music software and equipment for recording and live performance who in the early Nineties was a consultant with Apple. For years he shared his knowledge about everything from his music-business expertise to specifics on how he got his sound with members of an online musician forum.

Perhaps the peak of his career as a professional musician, before the drugs took hold, came in 1991, when “Wicked Game” reached Number Two on the Billboard Top 100. The song went Top 10 in nine countries; it appeared on singles and albums that sold more than 5 million copies, and has been streamed nearly 100 million times on Spotify. It was used in major 1990s sitcoms including Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Friends. Artists ranging from R.E.M. and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Lykke Li, Pink and Maroon 5 covered “Wicked Game” in concert.

Wilsey was crucial to the song’s success. San Francisco Chronicle rock critic Joel Selvin wrote about “the Wilsey Sound,” emphasizing that “the vision may be Isaak’s; the sound is Wilsey’s.”

“In terms of the feeling Jimmy was able to put into a song with the wang bar and the tremolo and effects — Jimmy had a really magical touch,” said former Isaak producer and manager Erik Jacobsen. “Atmospheric, that’s the word.”

Influenced by guitarists such as Scotty Moore, Duane Eddy, Billy Strange and James Burton, Wilsey developed an extremely stylized sound; he called it “nitro twang.” He was a master of less-is-more, at times seeming to play as few notes as possible. Wilsey was known to his fans as “the King of Slow,” and the moody, mysterioso opening riff that defines “Wicked Game,” the riff that Wilsey wrote and played, the riff that made the song a hit, consists of two sustained notes.

Wilsey was born in Logansport, Indiana, on July 12th, 1957. His father, Donald, was in the service and the family moved around. Eventually they settled in Florissant, Missouri, 16 miles north of St. Louis. “I grew up around music,” Wilsey said in a 1991 interview. “My sister was always playing the Beatles, the Stones, Herman’s Hermits.”

While in high school, he started fooling with an old Harmony steel-string his parents had, then took some lessons. “I had no real goal — I just liked to play,” he said in 1991. “I was more interested in painting and art.”

“He painted Kandinsky-type paintings with an airbrush,” said Claudia Summers, Wilsey’s high school sweetheart. “We used to go to this spot off the Mississippi. There were corn fields and trees and a stream, and we would dream, Jimmy about being an artist, and I wanted to be a writer. We would dream big.”

Art brought Wilsey, 19 at the time, to San Francisco in August 1976 to attend the Academy of Art College; soon he joined San Francisco’s best punk band, the Avengers. “He was supercute as a teenager,” Avengers singer-songwriter Penelope Houston said. “Adorably cute. Girls loved Jimmy. He always had superyoung girlfriends. He had this one girlfriend who was 15 and her father was a cop. I was like, ‘Jimmy, what are you doing? She’s 15!’ ”

Wilsey influenced members of both the Dead Kennedys and Flipper, two of San Francisco’s most important punk bands. “Jimmy Wilsey of the Avengers was a young musician doing really interesting stuff that was really supportive of the song,” Klaus Flouride, bassist for the Dead Kennedys, said in an interview with the online site MusicRadar. “He would do octaves, a simple but a really good idea, and I took that and ran with it with the Dead Kennedys.”

On January 14th, 1978, the Avengers opened for the Sex Pistols before a 5,000-plus crowd at Winterland in San Francisco. The group broke up in June 1979.

Original Silvertone lineup with Chris Isaak (left) and Wilsey (holding magazine), circa 1981. Photograph by Hugh Brown Hugh Brown

In 1980, Chris Isaak began commuting between Stockton, where he grew up, and San Francisco, and put together a rockabilly trio he called Silvertone. “I met Jimmy and we hit it off right away,” Isaak recalled in his December 25th Facebook post. “He was very quiet, soft-spoken but also deadly funny and quick-witted. Nobody made me laugh like Jimmy. I remember him sitting in with my band playing ‘Be-Bop-a-Lula’ and him tearing it up on guitar. That moved me from lead guitar to rhythm and he was in the band.”

Wilsey’s friends and family talk about Wilsey’s oddball sense of humor. On his Facebook page he was constantly posting strange photos: the Mona Lisa as a crazed monster; Brian Wilson wearing a striped bathrobe, standing in a health-food store; Patty “Tania” Hearst collaged over “The Love Boat”; a Kenny Rogers clock. He had a secret Facebook group called the Esquires where 160 of his friends and associates posted all manner of quirky jokes and bizarre stories. “For the first two years he and I posted a lot of stuff about horrible things in Florida,” said a friend, artist-designer-photographer Hugh Brown.

Dropping the original Silvertone rhythm section, Isaak and Wilsey worked together on songs and demos for several years. The first album, Silvertone, recorded by Isaak, Wilsey and session players, and produced by Jacobsen, sold all of 14,000 copies; a second album, Chris Isaak, didn’t do much better. The third, 1989’s Heart Shaped World, appeared to be a flop too. But then Lee Chesnut, the music director at Power 99, an Atlanta rock station, saw David Lynch’s 1990 film Wild at Heart, and fell in love with the instrumental version of “Wicked Game” included in the film — basically Wilsey’s guitar parts and a sampled rhythm track. In 1990, a year and a half after Heart Shaped World was released, Chesnut added the version with Isaak’s vocal to the Power 99 playlist; four months later “Wicked Game” was in the Billboard Top 10.

But success came too late. Wilsey was fed up working with Isaak, who, according to Jacobsen, made band members sign nondisclosure agreements. There was also a troubled relationship with an actress that took a heavy emotional toll on the guitarist. And the drugs.

“I was very close with Jimmy and it got to the point he really couldn’t stand Chris’ guts,” Jacobsen said. “That’s what it boiled down to. It was somewhere around the time when he got into heavy drugs. And then [in 1993] 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 plain that everything between those two as partners was over. And that was that.”

Wilsey moved to L.A. and “continued to struggle with his drug use,” according to his niece Aubrey Baca. Five years after leaving Isaak, in July 1998, he formed an instrumental band, the Mysteries, but that didn’t last long. He met Winter (Rosebudd) Mullender, a self-described punk who worked at and designed for Trash Lingerie in L.A., a store whose customers have included Dolly Parton, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna; Mullender was Punk Globe’s “Punk of the Month” in the October 2017 issue. Wilsey married Mullender in Las Vegas in August 2003, and their son, Waylon James Wilsey, was born in December. Wilsey loved Waylon, who is now 15, and was proud of him, Baca said. He posted many photos of Waylon on his Facebook page. One photo shows Wilsey and Waylon gazing lovingly at each other. “He had two true loves,” Boca said. “His music and his son, Waylon.”

Wilsey’s only solo album, El Dorado, a rock tour de force of pre-surf instrumentals with titles like “Untamed”and “Insomnia,” was released in early 2008. It was recorded at “Dining Room Studio” in his home in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles, and he produced it, wrote all the songs and played all the instruments. Though loved by his hardcore fans, El Dorado was not a commercial success. Later that year Wilsey and Mullender got a “quick divorce,” according to one of Mullender’s friends, Miguel Jose. In 2012, Wilsey’s final commercial recording, a cover of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” appeared on the Killing Them Softly soundtrack (although he also played guitar on the band Miss Derringer’s cover of “Unchained Melody,” included on 2017’s The Shadow EP).

Wilsey’s health had been declining, and by 2013 he’d developed hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver. In September 2014 he had a liver-replacement operation. According to Baca, “he was given pain medicine to manage his pain. Jimmy was hooked again,” and he “continued with his use of drugs.”

“I don’t think after he got that liver transplant he ever got back on his feet very well,” Jacobsen said.

Wilsey moved back to the Bay Area in the summer of 2016, but that didn’t work out. Returning to Eagle Rock in July 2017, he again shared the house with his ex-wife; that’s when things went seriously wrong. “In 2018 Jimmy ended up losing everything he worked his entire life for (music, family, home, son),” Baca said.

By September, Wilsey and Mullender were being evicted. Sometime after their eviction, Mullender sent a Facebook message to a friend that reads in part: “. . . its been really rough. After we lost the house Jimmy got sick again so I’ve been trying to shuffle him around while literally being homeless. He’s getting the Hep C treatment finally, but his body is rejecting the organ. I have some unbelievable stories, too much to type. . . .”

On the chilly evening of December 2nd, 2018, three of Mullender’s friends went to Eagle Rock “looking for Winter,” who they’d been unable to reach, according to one of them, Danny Darko. The trio visited an encampment for the homeless. They didn’t find Mullender but ran into Wilsey, who was wearing his trademark cowboy hat; the guitarist was homeless at the time, Darko said.

“There’s this overpass under which a lot of homeless people have tents,” Darko said. “We were asking around, talking to a couple of people. They said Jimmy was around, and we looked down the street and there he was. He came walking up: ‘Hey, guys.’ ”

It was a cold evening but Wilsey was wearing a T-shirt. “We hung out with him,” Darko said. “[We asked him] ‘Are you doing OK?’ [He said] ‘Yeah. Hangin’ around here.’ Thom [one of Darko’s friends] gave him a shirt and he almost started crying. He was very emotional.”

On December 19th, Wilsey called 911, and an ambulance brought the guitarist to LAC+USC Medical Center. Baca said that “his organs were in distress and were shutting down. He was put on life support to try to help his liver with dialysis, but nothing was working.”

On Christmas Eve afternoon, at 4:20 p.m., James Calvin Wilsey passed away. “Jimmy just got unlucky with a lot of circumstances that happened,” said Silvertone’s original manager, Mark Plummer. “Jimmy was a rock & roll guy. He took a lot of drugs. A lot of us take tons of drugs and end up OK. With Jimmy something went really wrong. . . . In the end, somehow it all crashed him. It’s so sad.”

Wilsey is survived by two sisters, Joyce Baca and Linda Nilson; his niece, Aubrey Baca; and son Waylon James Wilsey. “It’s a shame he died,” said producer Jacobsen. “A shame he left Silvertone, a shame he couldn’t get along with Chris and a shame he went on drugs.”

Michael Goldberg, a former Rolling Stone senior writer, is the author of three rock & roll novels, including 2016’s “Untitled.”