Chris Isaak is a guitarist, singer and songwriter from Stockton, California. The son of a forklift operator, Isaak found early inspiration from the country musicians his father listened to, and the rock and roll records his mother helped him acquire. After graduating from college in 1980, Isaak moved to San Francisco to pursue his musical passion. After a couple years struggling as a solo artist, Isaak met the three musicians who would form the first version of Silvertone. Their first two albums earned the band regional success and limited radio airplay. The third album, Heart Shaped World, included the breakthrough hit and music video “Wicked Game”, still the band’s only top 40 hit. The handsome Isaak, blessed with a deep expressive voice that reminds one of Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley, plays a hybrid of country, rockabilly and surf music with a distinctive west coast feel.
Chris Isaak and Silvertone are still active, touring and performing regularly. The sextet has remained intact for many years.
Chris Isaak (b. 1956), guitar, vocals, songwriter
Kenney Dale Johnson (b. 1955), drums and vocals
Rowland “Roly” Salley (b. 1949), bass and vocals
Hershel Yatovitz (b. 1964), lead guitar and vocals
Scott Plunkett, piano and organ
Rafael Padilla, percussion
Notable Original Member:
James Calvin Wilsey (b. 1957), guitar
When Brian Epstein, the owner of the largest record store in Liverpool, met the Beatles
for the first time, he was unimpressed with their music, but taken by the bright, sharp-tongued young men, especially John Lennon and Paul McCartney. He saw that spark, and took the band under management through their critical first few years. Chris Isaak is similarly smart and irreverent. Here’s a 1996 interview where he and drummer Kenney Dale Johnson casually disarm their host:
James Calvin Wilsey
The original Silvertone quartet consisted of Chris Isaak, Kenney Dale Johnson, Roly Salley and guitarist James Calvin Wilsey. Wilsey’s guitar style continues to be an essential ingredient of the band’s sound, described as follows in Wikipedia:
“It was Wilsey’s 1960s Danelectro, and in particular Wilsey’s use of reverb, delay and gentle tremolo, which gave the distinctive 1950s honky-tonk/1960s surf sound to Isaak classics such as “Wicked Game” (the simple two-note riff that opens which, in his own words, ‘crystallizes Wilsey’s approach’) and “Blue Hotel”.
Wilsey retired from the music profession in 1993, but returned in 2008 with a new album called El Dorado. This video of “You Owe Me Some Kind Of Love” is a good example of Wilsey’s guitar style.
My Experiences Listening To Chris Isaak
In the mid-eighties, Chris Isaak’s music received regular airplay on KFOG (104.5 FM). I didn’t take notice until “Wicked Game”, with its sexy black and white video on MTV. I bought the cassette single, my first Chris Isaak purchase. After that, I bought the next four CDs: San Francisco Days, Forever Blue, Baja Sessions and 1998’s Speak Of The Devil. Music critics tend to prefer the early albums, in particular Heart Shaped World, but I like San Francisco Days and Forever Blue best.
I’ve seen Chris Isaak in concert a number of times, and he never fails to amuse and entertain. The band is always tight and driving, and Isaak is always in good spirits, the consummate front man — personable and funny, a fine singer who writes swinging, well-crafted songs.
Guitarist Hershel Yatovitz joined the band in 1995, with the unenviable task of replacing an iconic sound within the band. Yatovitz has proven to be versatile, staying true to the original solos laid out by Wilsey on the early songs, while augmenting the sound with a variety of sounds and styles, starting with the Baja Sessions album. Recently, I discovered that Hershel is from my hometown, one degree of separation from close, lifelong family friends.
A Mini-Concert of Videos
Let’s watch this band in action. Silvertone is soulful and very understated. The first song is “Somebody’s Cryin'”, with Hershel Yatovitz on 12-string guitar:
Like Neil Diamond, most Chris Isaak’s songs are love songs. Chris Isaak’s falsetto voice is featured in “Let Me Down Easy”, from Speak Of The Devil:
These studio videos on YouTube are the best! Silvertone is everything a great rock and roll band should be. You may need to lower the pixel rate of the video, if your Internet connection is slow. Next up is “Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing”:
Let’s move away from these studio recordings, and move back to an MTV Unplugged video of “Wicked Game”:
Back to the studio for the cover version of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy”, which has the best lyrics ever.
Next, a common encore song, Bo Diddley’s “Diddley Daddy”:
Finally, “Fifi” uploaded this amateur recording from 2008. Thanks for the nice homemade video, Fifi! Check out those mirror pants.
Chris Isaak ranks high in my collection. I like his approach; his appeal may be rooted in proximity. Isaak is from Stockton, 79.9 miles from Palo Alto, on the highways, according to Google Maps. He’s two years older than me, and grew up with the same music influences. It’s no surprise I identify with him.
Often Isaak is compared to Roy Orbison; his voice evokes memories of the great Texas singer. A better comparison is Elvis Presley. What would have happened if Chris Isaak was there instead of Elvis, back in 1954. Would he have been as popular? What road would he have taken along the way. From an early time, Elvis was handled and overworked, and he paid the price. Chris Isaak is now in his mid-fifties, healthy, still easily leading his band. He has written hundreds of songs, and has been a thriving bandleader for two decades. The band looks healthy and happy, every time you see them.
Chris Isaak Songs:
Wicked Game, Chris Isaak ✭✭✭✭
Can’t Do A Thing (To Stop Me), Chris Isaak ✭✭✭✭
Let Me Down Easy, Chris Isaak ✭✭✭
I Wonder, Chris Isaak ✭✭✭
Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing, Chris Isaak ✭✭✭
Somebody’s Crying, Chris Isaak ✭✭✭
I Believe, Chris Isaak ✭✭✭
Move Along (Live), Chris Isaak ✭✭✭
Solitary Man, Chris Isaak ✭✭✭
I’ll Go Crazy (Live), Chris Isaak ✭✭✭
Back On Your Side, Chris Isaak ✭✭
Two Hearts, Chris Isaak ✭✭
Dancin’, Chris Isaak ✭✭
Think Of Tomorrow, Chris Isaak ✭✭
Forever Blue (Alt), Chris Isaak ✭✭
Trying To Get To You, Chris Isaak ✭✭
Graduation Day, Chris Isaak ✭✭
Heart Shaped World, Chris Isaak ✭✭
Except The New Girl, Chris Isaak ✭✭
Flying, Chris Isaak ✭✭
You Owe Me Some Kind Of Love, Chris Isaak ✭✭
Pretty Girls Don’t Cry, Chris Isaak ✭
Only The Lonely, Chris Isaak ✭
The End Of Everything, Chris Isaak ✭
Washington Square, Chris Isaak ✭
Diddley Daddy, Chris Isaak ✭
Want Your Love (Live), Chris Isaak ✭
Western Stars (Live), Chris Isaak ✭
Worked It Out All Wrong (Live), Chris Isaak ✭
San Francisco Days, Chris Isaak ✭
Please, Chris Isaak ✭
Speak Of The Devil, Chris Isaak ✭
Only The Lonely, Roy Orbison ✭✭
Solitary Man, Neil Diamond ✭✭✭✭✭
Solitary Man (Alt), Neil Diamond ✭✭✭✭✭
I’ll Go Crazy, James Brown ✭✭✭
I’ll Go Crazy (Live), James Brown ✭✭✭✭
South Of The Border (Live), The Time Jumpers ✭✭
South Of The Border, Gene Autry ✭✭
Diddley Daddy, Bo Diddley ✭✭
Diddley Daddy, The Rolling Stones ✭✭
Trying To Get To You, Elvis Presley ✭✭✭
Trying To Get To You, The Eagles ✭✭✭
[Note: This is not The Eagles, the well known country rock band.]