Oct 182011

It’s unsettling to think what might have become (or not become) of rock music if not for one man in Memphis and his modest recording studio. The talent that Sam Phillips welcomed into his Memphis Recording Service in the early 1950s was legendary and included B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker and Ike Turner. These early blues and R&B artists gave Phillips and his fledgling label, Sun Records, some minor notoriety that would soon attract rock, country and rockabilly upstarts such as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and of course, Elvis Presley. His willingness to produce raw-sounding records featuring reverb and distortion caused some to say Phillips didn’t know what he was doing, and others to praise his unique genius. Perhaps Phillips’ biggest stroke of genius was seeing the potential in the young Presley boy that just kept hanging around. Pairing Elvis with guitarist Scotty Moore and Bill Black on bass in the summer of 1954 initially led to a lackluster session until, after a break, Elvis began goofing around with Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right.” Instantly Phillips knew he was hearing something special – the white artist with the “negro” sound that he had been seeking.

Chris Isaak grew up in a Stockton, California home featuring a cupboard of his parents’ 1950s rockabilly records. While his friends liked whatever pop music was on the radio, Isaak spent his time and his allowance picking through stacks of old records at yard sales and second-hand stores. He was always especially excited to find a cast-off Sun Records disc, since most folks didn’t throw those away very often. With his friends in T-shirts and bell bottoms, Isaak attended class in his thrift store garb: hot pink shirt with matching socks, black slacks and alligator shoes. Although Isaak and his band would occasionally play Sun Records songs at soundchecks or as encores, he was careful to not cover them on his early albums, so as not to be pigeonholed as a nostalgia artist. Encouraged by a Sam Phillips interview he read in a magazine in 2000 (Phillips said Isaak was one of the few contemporary artists he enjoyed listening to) Isaak decided it would be okay to record a Sun Records tribute.

Beyond The Sun is the culmination of Chris Isaak’s lifetime interest in and passion for the sound Sam Phillips molded. This is Isaak’s self-described labor of love and the collection benefits from his exceptional attention to detail no doubt acquired by listening to these songs thousands of times over the past 50 years. Isaak takes the latitude he offers himself with the title of this tribute by going beyond the strict parameters of simply Sun Records recordings. He adds a couple of his own originals, includes tracks from The King’s RCA catalog and from Roy Orbison’s Monument Recordings. The collection is heavy on Presley with 12 of the 23 covers associated with Elvis. But that number includes a few of the more obscure tracks like “My Happiness,” which Elvis did (sans Moore and Black) on his first visit to the Memphis Recording Service in 1953.

Of course Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis are represented, but Beyond The Sun also finds room for a couple of great choices from mostly forgotten Sun artists. Jimmy Wages was a Tupelo contemporary of Elvis who wrote his own raw and disturbing (for their time) songs. Wages’ Sun sessions were never released by the label but would surface 25 years later and bring him acclaim as a rockabilly savant. Warren Smith’s biggest Sun hit was a Roy Orbison tune “So Long I’m Gone,” but Smith would leave the label in search of a country music career and did manage a few country chart hits for Liberty Records in the early ‘60s. Beyond The Sun should also be praised for including a Howlin’ Wolf cover – although “Everybody’s In The Mood” may be the one song here where Isaak just misses the mark in recreating the gritty feeling of the original. Howlin’ Wolf made his first recordings in Memphis for Phillips before moving on to Chicago and Chess Records. Phillips always said that Elvis was his second best find and Howlin’ Wolf his very best.

As you may expect, it’s Isaak’s vocals that first capture your attention and solidify this diverse tribute. When dealing with Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis it would be easy and maybe tempting to overdo it. Sure, Isaak croons like Presley, hums like Cash, purrs like Orbison and hiccups like the Killer but never once do you get the feeling that he’s trying too hard to replicate such distinctive styles. In fact, it just seems to come incredibly naturally for Isaak. So easy, that these hardly sound like covers; they’re more like digitally remastered versions of the originals – and we mean that as a high compliment. This is probably because Isaak is such a student of the game, and not just when it comes to the vocals. Scotty Moore is every bit as important to Isaak as Elvis was, and he’s as much in awe of Roland Janes as he is with any of the better known Sun icons. Isaak knows Moore’s and Janes’ contributions to the songs and he expects his band, Silvertone, to know them as well. Special vocal guests provide the final flourish with a Michelle Branch duet on “My Happiness” and The Secret Sisters adding subtle depth with backing vocals on other songs. All the pieces are here for an excellent tribute, an abundance of talent, a lifetime of respect and reverence, and a pilgrimage to Mecca (uhm, Memphis) to record Beyond The Sun back at ground zero. Isaak proves that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to produce compelling covers. If you’re a fan of the era we recommend the deluxe two-disc edition as there’s really no reason to have the one disc without the other.

The track list is as follows and is presented with this caveat: much of the Sun material (outside of Carl Perkins) was covers to begin with. The songs Isaak tackles were originally written by Doc Pomus, Chet Atkins and Arthur Crudup among others, and most were recorded (with various degrees of success) by multiple artists prior to being given the Sun Studios treatment. And even then, some of these songs were ultimately performed by multiple Sun artists. Our list below references the “original” most associated with Sun Studio and the version that Isaak had in mind when making the cover.

Chris Isaak – Beyond The Sun (deluxe version) Tracklist:

Disc one:
01. Ring Of Fire (Johnny Cash)
02. Trying To Get You (Elvis Presley)
03. I Forgot To Remember To Forget (Elvis Presley)
04. Great Balls Of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis)
05. Can’t Help Falling In Love (Elvis Presley)
06. Dixie Fried (Carl Perkins)
07. How’s The World Treating You (Elvis Presley)
08. It’s Now Or Never (Elvis Presley)
09. Miss Pearl (Jimmy Wages)
10. Live It Up (Chris Isaak)
11. I Walk The Line (Johnny Cash)
12. So Long I’m Gone (Warren Smith)
13. She’s Not You (Elvis Presley)
14. My Happiness (Elvis Presley)

Disc two:
01. My Baby Left Me (Elvis Presley)
02. Oh, Pretty Woman (Roy Orbison)
03. Doin’ The Best I Can (Elvis Presley)
04. Your True Love (Carl Perkins)
05. Crazy Arms (Jerry Lee Lewis)
06. Lovely Loretta (Chris Isaak)
07. Everybody’s In The Mood (Howlin’ Wolf)
08. I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry (Elvis Presley)
09. Love Me (Elvis Presley)
10. Doncha’ Think It’s Time (Elvis Presley)
11. That Lucky Old Sun (Jerry Lee Lewis)

Buy ‘Beyond The Sun’ at iTunes or Amazon, or support your local brick and mortar record store while you still can.

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