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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

What if you could time-travel back to Memphis in the 1950s, to Sun Studio? Behind the console, producer Sam Phillips. The mic light goes on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HAPPINESS")

CHRIS ISAAK: (Singing) Evening shadows make me blue when each weary day is through...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY ARMS")

ISAAK: (Singing) Crazy arms that reach to hold somebody new. But my burning heart kept saying you're not mine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WALK THE LINE")

ISAAK: (Singing) Because you're mine, I walk the line...

BLOCK: Those songs were originally recorded at Sun Studio by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. The versions we just heard were all sung by Chris Isaak. He's paying tribute to the great Sun years, and the singers who got their start their, on his new two CD set, "Beyond the Sun."

When he joined me to talk about it, he brought his guitar and started right in with a song for sound check.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I COULD NEVER BE ASHAMED OF YOU")

ISAAK: (Singing) Everybody says you let me down. I should be ashamed to see you 'round. Makes no difference, darling...

BLOCK: Then all of a sudden, this song took a strange turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I COULD NEVER BE ASHAMED OF YOU")

ISAAK: (Singing) Chris, do not be ashamed of a girl like you. You know, honey, when you got those tattoos and when you went to court, a lot of people just gave up on you. Not me. I'm hung in.

Sounds good to me, is it all right?

BLOCK: I didn't realize you were bringing your guitar in today. What a treat.

ISAAK: Yeah, I take it wherever I go. It's court ordered.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Surgically attached. What was that song we were just hearing?

ISAAK: Something that Hank Williams did and then I think Jerry Lee Lewis did it, and then I twisted it. So...

BLOCK: And what was that about the tattoos?

ISAAK: Oh, that's the part I was making up.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: That's the recitation.

ISAAK: Yeah. You know, I love - if you listen to old Jerry Lee Lewis records, he'll always - about nine times out of 10 have the lyrics different than the original record is. You hear Hank Williams and it's, you know...

(Singing) Your cheating heart will tell on you.

It's that really hillbilly. You know, you hear Jerry Lee Lewis do it and it's...

(Singing) Your cheating heart will tell on you.

He's got such his own style. He makes everything his.

BLOCK: Do you ever try to do it that way just to kind of forget the lyrics?

ISAAK: Of course. Of course, I did. I wanted to be Jerry...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ISAAK: I grew up, I was going I want to be Jerry Lee Lewis. Only I can't play piano and sing that good. But he even does, you know that song...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T HELP IT")

ISAAK: (Singing) Today I passed you on the street and my heart fell at my feet. I can't help it 'cause I'm still in love with you.

Well, that's the heartbroken song, right?

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

ISAAK: Jerry Lee Lewis's version, this tells you a lot.

(Singing) Today you passed me on the street...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ISAAK: (Singing) ...and your heart fell at your feet. You can't help it if you're still in love with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ISAAK: I love that. You're right. You got to love that guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREAT BALLS OF FIRE")

ISAAK: (Singing) You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain. Too much love drives a man insane. You broke my will. What thrill. Goodness gracious, great balls of fire. I laughed at love 'cause I thought it was funny. You came along and moved me, honey. This world is fine. You're all mine. Goodness gracious, great balls of fire. Kiss me, baby...

BLOCK: Chris Isaak recorded all of these songs at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis. And he marvels at the talents of producer Sam Phillips who launched so many great singers.

ISAAK: From everything I've seen about him, the thing that I keep hearing from different artists was he encouraged them to be themselves. Elvis Presley walks into Sun Studio in the '50s. And when he walked in that room, I think if it would have been a lesser man producing, he would have said: Hey, I could make this guy into a kind of a Southern Dean Martin. Instead of having "Heartbreak Hotel," we would have had, you know...

(Singing) Everybody loves somebody sometime.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ISAAK: A little, you know, a little Southern Dean Martin. But Sam Phillips was bigger than that. He always seemed to, you know, whoever walked through that door - Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis - he took these guys who were so unique, and instead of saying, I'm going to knock off the edges, he said, yeah, I love it.

BLOCK: Interesting, too, that Sam Phillips didn't really hang on to these stars for very long. I mean they went to other labels, to RCA, in the case of Elvis.

ISAAK: Yeah, I mean I called my album "Beyond the Sun" because it starts at Sun Studio, and those guys all went on and just kind of took off like rocket ships. And they all did other great material, but I think that he really shaped their sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S NOW OR NEVER")

ISAAK: (Singing) It's now or never, come hold me tight. Kiss me, my darling. Be mine tonight...

BLOCK: I'm picturing you, Chris Isaak, as a kid in front of a mirror and maybe you've got your hair slick back...

ISAAK: Picture bigger ears. Keep picturing the ears bigger.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: OK.

ISAAK: There, that's about right.

BLOCK: All right. OK, got it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: You're standing in front of a mirror, maybe your hair is slick back. And you're practicing Elvis. You're working on some moves.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Did that happen?

ISAAK: Yeah. I think everybody in my generation, we wanted to be Elvis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S NOW OR NEVER")

ISAAK: (Singing) It's now or never, come hold me tight. Kiss me, my darling. Be mine tonight...

So, I would sing those songs a lot. I was shy. I did all my guitar playing at my house. And then finally, I was throwing hay and stuff working in Stockton and somebody offered - somehow they had heard me singing at the house and said: Hey, I'll hire you for our fraternity party or sorority party. And I said: Well, are they going to pay me? And he said: Yeah, we'll pay you 50 bucks.

BLOCK: Wow.

ISAAK: And I went, I mean that's how much I made for throwing hay all day. And I was like, you bet. Yes. And my brother and I, I remember us both going and we had made a little song list of songs we knew. And we played all the songs and they were very happy. And at the end, we walked out and we were putting our guitars in the car, and some girls came out and were talking to us. It was the first that I went - I connected, hey, if you sing, you're getting paid, girls are talking to you...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ISAAK: My older brother - these girls were talking to me, I was trying to be suave and, you know, you're 16, 17 or something. And my brother goes: That's my younger brother, Chris. He ain't never seen no full-grown naked woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ISAAK: I just remember that line. And the girls, of course, they just took off on a run. I looked at him and said, where do you come up with this stuff?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRYIN' TO GET TO YOU")

ISAAK: (Singing) I've been traveling over mountains, even through the valleys, too. I've been traveling night and day, running all the way tryin' to get to you. Ever since I read your letter...

BLOCK: I've been talking to Chris Isaak about his new CD, "Beyond the Sun."

So I'm curious if there were things that Elvis did with his voice that you decided you either couldn't do or you just didn't want to do.

ISAAK: You know, I knew those versions really by heart. And I said, I don't want to do an Elvis impression. I don't want to do a Carl Perkins impression on these things. So, I said let's just learn the songs really well and then let's forget them. And that's what we did. We rehearsed it a lot.

I don't know what people think in making record is like. But basically, I got a bunch of spaghetti and spaghetti sauce, and the whole band was staying at my house and we had a ball. It's a bunch of grown men acting like we're 15-year-olds. But it's like, we're all at this house, and we're playing music night and day. And we did all that work. By the time we got to the studio, we knew the songs and then we just had fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISS PEARL")

ISAAK: (Singing) Miss Pearl, Miss Pearl. Daylight recalls you, hang your head, go home. Daylight recalls you, hang your head, go home.

BLOCK: You know, I've always pictured Sun Studios as a really big, imposing place. Describe it when you went in to record in there, at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. What does it look like?

ISAAK: The ceiling looks like - if you ever passed out and were looking up at the ceiling...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ISAAK: ...it was like a stairwell. Not that I have...

BLOCK: Uh-huh, just in case...

ISAAK: ...but I'm sure that someone has. It looks like a stairwell. It's not a flat ceiling. So, it's got - the bounce of the sound in there is kind of very unique. The walls are all covered in those old, like one foot by one foot acoustical tile, it looks like someone took a pencil and jabbed a million holes in it. It's the same tile that's been there forever. That would deaden the sound, you'd think, and yet the floor is a concrete floor with hard linoleum, so you get this slap sound.

And that studio - everybody who's ever gone in and played, sets up, starts playing guitar and then they stop and they go, wow, it sounds good. They don't have to do anything in here. It's just the room sounds good, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIXIE FRIED")

ISAAK: (Singing) Well, on the outskirts of town, there's a little night spot. Dan dropped in around five o'clock. Took off his coat, said the night is short. He reached in his pocket and he flashed a quart. He hollered, rave on, children. I'm with you. Rave on, cats, he cried. It's almost dawn. The cops are gone. Let's all get Dixie fried. Dan got happy and he started raving, jerked out a razor, but he wasn't shaving. And all those cats knew to jump and hop. He was born and raised in a butcher shop. He hollered, rave on, children. I'm with you. Rave on, cats, he cried. It's almost dawn...

BLOCK: When you think about the songs, overall, that are on this, is there something that ties them together, that besides the Sun sound, that makes them - do you think - still great after all these years?

ISAAK: Well, I picked songs that I've been singing my whole life that stuck with me. I tried to pick stuff that was a variety. And I think the same way I always imagine that people are going to play the record at their house and I imagine them doing stuff with music on, like the way I am. I put music on and I drive around town. I put on music and I'm washing my car. And I put on music if you have somebody and you're trying to make love. You put that on in the background and you go, maybe this will be romantic. You know, if Frank Sinatra is singing, maybe everything will go good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ISAAK: So, you know, some of those songs, people know right off the bat. Other songs, they might not know the title. They'll know it when they hear the song. And in some of the songs, like "Miss Pearl," I don't think people have heard before and a few songs I wrote and I go, I want it kind of all mixed up, so you go - you put on the song and you go, yeah. I like this. I know some of this stuff, but it won't feel like I'm eating at a '50s diner.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Well, Chris Isaak, it's been great talking to you. Thank you so much.

ISAAK: Good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE IT UP")

ISAAK: (Singing) You can live it up, love it up, but I won't ever give you up and if you ever leave me, baby, I won't take it if you go. Oh, no. Oh, no. I'll follow you.

BLOCK: Chris Isaak's new double album is "Beyond the Sun" and you can hear even more of our conversation at NPRmusic.org, including the story about how he had a tailor make a fancy sequined suit for a little dog. Photos, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE IT UP")

ISAAK: (Singing) I'll always feel the same about you when you live it up, love it up, but I won't ever give you up. And if you ever leave me, baby, I won't take it. I won't. Oh, no. If you go, I'll follow you.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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