When it came time to choose a career path, Chris Isaak listened to his mother.
I remember we were eating at a Chinese restaurant, Isaak recalled. I had just returned home after a stint boxing in Japan, and she asked me what I was going to do once I got out of college. I told her I had been thinking of going back to Japan and teaching English; I was just trying to think of anything that I could do for a living.
She asked me, Is that what you want to do? I answered her, No, I really want to make music, and she said, Youre going to regret anything else you do in your life.
Isaak has no regrets now.
I was lucky, Isaak said. Because a lot of people that I have talked to, when they were first attempting to become a musician or an actor, their parents would say, Oh no, anything but that! For my family, being a musician was something to be looked up at, not down as if it was below us because we were so broke anyway. In a way it worked out to my advantage, because I cant remember my family ever telling me not to go out and attempt to do what I wanted to do.
That love for music will be on display Tuesday when Isaak brings his holiday tour to the Carolina Theatre in Durham. While for some musicians a holiday tour may be a quick way to make a buck, Isaak understands his fans want more than that. His set list will include his biggest hits and some holiday songs, as well as several songs off his latest release, a collection of Sun Records standards titled Beyond the Sun.
I cut a Christmas album a few years ago (2004s Christmas) where I wrote five original holiday songs and performed a bunch of standards, so I will be performing some old classics as well as some in my own style. That being said, I dont want anyone to come to the show and say, Well, he did White Christmas, but I really came to hear Wicked Game, so I make sure to play my greatest hits as well the songs that people know.
And Isaak has plenty of songs to choose from. Since signing his first record contract in 1984, he has released fifteen albums. With his latest, a love letter to the music of the 50s, Isaak set out to cover artists who had truly touched his life.
I have always been a huge fan of early rock n roll, Isaak said, rattling off a quick list of his favorites: Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash. Sun Studios is the reason I got into the music business, he said.
Mom would buy everything for all of us kids at the secondhand store, and while she was shopping, I would go to the record stand and pick over all of the old albums. One day I found an old Sun Records disc; it was a copy of the Elvis Presley single, Ill Never Let You Go. When I brought it home I just felt like everything else became obsolete; that record just totally blew my mind.
On his current tour, Isaak does what he calls a set within a set, where he brings out a standup bass and an upright piano and then just plays hard.
Its a blast to break into Johnny Cashs Ring of Fire right after Wicked Game he said. We even have a piano that bursts into flames during Great Balls of Fire.
Isaaks showmanship has helped him in various areas of the entertainment business; he is also an actor on the self-titled Showtime program, The Chris Isaak Show, based in part on his own life. He also just finished filming a guest turn on the TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland.
It was so fun to work with Betty White, who is 92 years old, and she can still embarrass you by memorizing her lines faster than anyone else out there, Isaak said. Shes so smart, and funnier than Ill ever be. I dont mean funny for 92, I mean just a natural comedian. So I have started to do some more acting, but I just take the roles as they come along.
Not that Isaak has any inclination to take time off from the road anytime soon. He still loves writing and performing 50s-inspired music and sees that old-fashioned work ethic as the key to success.
There were great musicians then, there are great musicians now, and there will be great musicians in the future. The business may change, but there will always be great songs.