, b. June
"You ever love someone so much you thought your little heart was gonna break in two? I didn't think so."~~'Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing'
Perhaps one of the most distinctive yet underrated male vocalists in rock today, Chris Isaak has made a long, fruitful career out of putting his own modern spin on a retro rockabilly sound. His songs and classic style make female fans swoon, while his self-effacing sense of humor in interviews wins male audience members as well. Yet, despite a string of critically acclaimed albums and a legion of loyal devotees, his name is still relatively unknown to mainstream music listeners.
Born in California, Isaak started his band, Silvertone, shortly after graduating college. Discovered playing gigs in San Francisco, he was signed to a contract with Reprise, releasing his first album, 'Silvertone', in 1985. His debut failed to chart, but the release of his second album, 'Chris Isaak', in 1987 earned good reviews and charted at number 194.
By the release of his third album, 'Heart Shaped World', in 1989, however, Reprise was less than pleased with how Isaak's moody, guitar-driven sound was faring against the more dance and synthesizer-oriented hits of the time, and considered dropping him. A decision by director David Lynch to use 'Wicked Game', a cut from the album on the soundtrack to his 1990 film 'Wild at Heart' all but saved his contract, however. The twanging guitar and mournful vocals inspired new interest in his career, and, despite its slow start 'Heart Shaped World' eventually peaked as high as number 7 on the Billboard charts, still his most successful release to date. Sales were further bolstered by two different videos for 'Wicked Game,' one accompanied with clips from 'Wild at Heart,' and another far more memorable version beautifully directed by photographer Herb Ritts, in which Isaak cavorts with model Helena Christensen on a tropical island. In 2001 it was named the 13th sexiest video of all time by VH1.
The follow-up to ‘Heart Shaped World,’ titled ‘San Francisco Days,’ was released in 1993. It was also around this time that Isaak, who had previously been cast in a number of small roles in the films of director Jonathan Demme (including an FBI agent in ‘Silence of the Lambs’), began winning more prominent acting roles, not surprising considering his charisma and movie star good looks (his distinctive profile comes from having his nose broken numerous times from both surfing accidents and a brief stint as an amateur boxer). He appeared as Kyle MacLachlan’s predecessor in ‘Fire Walk With Me’, the prequel to ‘Twin Peaks,’ and later won his first starring role as the father of a little boy who might be the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama in ‘Little Buddha.’ 1995 marked the release of ‘Forever Blue,’ the requisite breakup album, which featured the modest hit ‘Somebody’s Crying.’ It also featured the fan favorite ‘Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,’ which was later used to great effect in the teaser trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’1.
Isaak put three more albums out between 1996 and 2002, and in 2001 he was cast as himself in Showtime’s ‘The Chris Isaak Show.’ A slightly fictionalized, ‘Seinfeld’-esque account of his misadventures as a musician, it also prominently featured members of his band (most of whom, including his brother-in-law Kenney Dale Johnson, have been playing with him since before he was picked up for a contract) and offered Isaak a showcase for his unexpectedly quirky sense of humor. The show ran until 2004, which was also the year he released the holiday album ‘Christmas’ and appeared in the unlikely role of Tracey Ullman’s long-suffering husband in John Waters’ ‘A Dirty Shame.’
A tireless performer, Isaak has spent much of the past fifteen years touring. His boundless energy, warm and funny audience banter, and even his flamboyant stagewear (one of which is completely covered in chips of mirrored glass) make him a must-see for fans of live music. Yr. Correspondent has met him twice and is happy to say that he is as gracious and friendly in person as he seems to be in image.
Notable tracks: ‘Dancin’,’ ‘Back on Your Side’
‘Chris Isaak’ (1987
Notable tracks: ‘Blue Hotel,’ ‘Lovers Game’
‘Heart Shaped World’ (1989)
Notable tracks: ‘Heart Shaped World,’ ‘Wicked Game,’ ‘Blue Spanish Sky’
‘San Francisco Days’ (1993)
Notable tracks: ‘San Francisco Days,’ ‘Can’t Do a Thing to Stop Me,’ ‘Waiting,’ ‘I Want Your Love,’ ‘Solitary Man’ (Neil Diamond cover)2
‘Forever Blue’ (1995)
Notable tracks: ‘Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,’ ‘Somebody’s Cryin’,’ ‘Forever Blue’
‘The Baja Sessions’ (1996)
Notable tracks: ‘Only the Lonely’ (Roy Orbison cover), ‘Wrong to Love You’
‘Speak of the Devil’ (1998)
Notable tracks: ‘Please,’ ‘Don’t Get So Down on Yourself,’ ‘Black Flowers’
‘Always Got Tonight’ (2002)
Notable tracks: ‘Let Me Down Easy,’ ‘Courthouse,’ ‘Notice the Ring’
Notable tracks: ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ ‘Blue Christmas’
1. I almost accidentally typed this as ‘Eyes Wide Shit,’ which should you tell you what I thought of that film. Indeed, the aforementioned teaser trailer was the best thing about it.
2. Obviously, this is Yr. Correspondent’s favorite.