Chris Isaak Plays the Rock Music That Charmed America’s Teens Before Synths, Psych, and Pretense

Over the course of his 30-year career, Chris Isaak’s smooth croon and unassuming attitude have made him the poster boy for honest, unaffected rock 'n' roll — the late ‘50s, early ‘60s variety that charmed America’s teenagers prior to synths, psych, and pretense.

With a look and sound that positioned him midway between Roy Orbison’s brooding melancholia and Rick Nelson’s squeaky-clean sincerity, Isaak’s everyman image and ongoing string of hits – “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,” “Wicked Game,” and “Somebody’s Crying," among them — have earned him a reputation as an earnest, engaging entertainer. They've also allowed him to segue into a successful acting career, beginning with cameos in films like “Married to the Mob,” “Wild at Heart,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “A Dirty Shame,” and eventually landing him the title role in his own based-on-real-life Showtime sitcom as well as an interview show on the Biography Channel.

"Dreams come true sometimes.”

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Even so, it’s apparent music still matters most, a passion borne from his earliest influences. “I grew up listening to my parents' record collection,” he says. “Actually, ‘collection’ might make it sound grander than it was. It was really a fruit crate filled with some albums and some old '78s. But it had great singers and great music...Elvis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis. I never dreamed when I was a kid listening to those scratchy, well-worn records that someday I'd meet Carl Perkins, play with Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee, and get to be friends with Roy Orbison. Dreams come true sometimes.”

Isaak soon realized performing was the path he was destined for. Ironically, that revelation occurred while he was completing his college studies overseas, and once the bug bit, it refused to let go.

“I remember I was over in Japan and I was really homesick,” he recalls. “I passed a little record shop and when I went in, they had an album — which I still have! — of Elvis at Sun Studios. I bought it, brought it back to my room, and played it night and day. I started growing out my crew cut and started singing the songs off the record. I would sit in the stairway with my guitar and just have a ball. Everything sounds good in a stairwell... I knew I wanted to sing, I just didn’t know if anybody wanted to listen.”

Isaak still remembers the moment he knew he and his band had something. “I think the tipping point where I thought we might have a chance was when we had a number one hit in France early on, and when we came out of the theater after the show, everybody sort of mobbed us. I had no idea they were waiting for us. I thought they were waiting for the bus or something.”

He was soon propelled to the upper strata of stardom, though he maintains, “I have to think I never take my job for granted. Everybody wants to be a rock 'n' roll singer and travel. I think of every show as an audition."

A concert by Isaak and his band is more like a celebration during which both artist and audience revel in the music. “I'm the right guy for the job I picked,” he says. “I love to play, I love to sing, and I have a ball onstage. We really try to put on a show. I talk to the audience, we get out there off the stage, we get people up to join us, we dress up in suits that look like we stole them out of Liberace's closet...I guess that's what happens when you take a guy from a small town and let him loose.”

Isaak’s latest album, First Comes the Night, came out last October and was a full four years in the making. In many ways, it marks a change in the approach from the 11 that preceded it. For one thing, says Isaak, "I recorded in Nashville for the first time, and I think that really opened the door to a lot of different sounds...from players, to studios, to producers."

In Nashville, Isaak worked with producers Paul Worley and Dave Cobb, two veterans he describes as "very different, very individual characters, and yet they have a lot in common." Their breadth of knowledge on American roots music added depth to the entire process. "They can pick up a guitar and play, or sing the part they are trying to describe, and they know the B-sides to songs you’ve never heard of," says Isaak.

Isaak’s enthusiasm is crystal — he’s doing what he'd dreamed of in that tiny Japanese dorm room all those years ago. And it’s to his credit he’s never had to compromise or change his tack to get what he wanted. “My band and I have never jumped on a trend,” he says. “I think if you do things that you believe in, people can tell, and I think it works best that way. I don’t have any songs that I'm ashamed to play, or a disco album that I'm trying to forget. Do what you love. Life is too short.”

Chris Isaak
8 p.m. Saturday, April 30, at the Au Rene Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $45 to $75 plus fees. Visit
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Lee Zimmerman