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'Elvis Lives' Through Chris Isaak And NBC

By Kate O'HareNov 22, 2002
On a recent cold and rainy Saturday evening at the KTLA studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, singer/actor Chris Isaak sits down to talk about the man who, for him, started it all.

Isaak has just finished shooting promos for an NBC special called "Elvis Lives," airing at 10 p.m. ET on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28. The set is reminiscent of the bare, square stage used by Elvis Presley in his 1968 TV special, Elvis: One Night With You," and so is the black-leather suit Isaak is wearing.

But for Isaak, it's not about the look. " I know a lot of stuff about him, because, over the years, I've read enough books, but I'm not really what year he was born, what's his birth date. I'm not a baseball-statistics kind of guy."

" But if you ask me what songs, I know the music pretty well, and particularly that early stuff that Sam Phillips and Scotty Moore played on. That, to me, is a really fascinating time. It was really a band of guys who put the music together, who made rock 'n' roll."

" It was Elvis Presley, the voice, the face; Scotty Moore, the guitar, that sound; [bass player] Bill Black; [drummer] D.J. Fontana; and Sam Phillips producing."

" With any one of those guys out of the picture -- if Scotty Moore hadn't been in the picture -- I don't think it would have come out like that. Elvis could easily have been far more country, but Scotty Moore dragged him to some new place."

" Elvis Lives" celebrates Presley's legacy with commentary and performances by such contemporary stars as Bono, Tom Petty, Sheryl Crow, No Doubt, Dave Matthews, LeAnn Rimes and Britney Spears. Along with stories, reflections and archival footage, the special features selected performances by modern artists of four Presley classics from the recent RCA release " Elvis 30 Number One Hits."

Isaak owns his leather jacket and pants, which represent a moment in TV history where Presley tried to recapture the magic he'd had in his early years as a hip-shaking, lip-twitching cultural firestorm.

It's those early years -- raw and wild and unpredictable -- captured by Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., in the mid-1950s, that are closest to Isaak's heart. " I stood with my drummer in front of Sun Studios," he recalls. " We looked at each other -- and we're the two most sarcastic musicians; everything is a reason for a joke -- and we're like, 'We're on hallowed ground.'"

" I looked at him and said, 'Elvis Presley stood here when he was 18. He walked through this door.' What was special there? Elvis, Sam Phillips and the idea in the heart to do it. No, the microphone isn't magic. The guitar isn't magic. All those things are picked up as the Holy Grail, but there are other microphones and other guitars that sound great. It's just the singer, the songs, the idea."

While Isaak is happy to be host of a special that features new covers of Elvis tunes, he doesn't think the magic has happened again.

" I like Elvis," he says. " There's a little bit of his sound, maybe, in what I do. I've been on different shows where people have done Elvis songs, like this Elvis special. This is not to rag anybody, because I include myself in this, but 20 different people, and we all sang an Elvis song. It's an interesting statement to say about a guy, these are all today's top, biggest stars, and each picked the song they thought they did best, and I don't think any of us did as good as Elvis."

" You just don't improve on what he did."

According to Isaak, it's not about perfection, either. " You put on, 'One Night With You,' you listen to the recording of that -- my band was listening to it -- it's so sloppy. The band was all over the place. And it was so great, because it's so sloppy."

" Today, you would never get that on the radio."

Asked where it all came from, Isaak says, " We were on tour. We were right near where he grew up, Tupelo, Miss. We stopped the bus; we were getting a Foster's Freeze or something like that. I'm talking to my drummer. It's the middle of the night, like three or four in the morning, and I said, 'Kenny, come out here, look around.' It's real hot, summertime, you hear crickets."

" You're looking out at this farmland, and I go, 'We're out in the middle of nowhere, and this is 2001. Imagine how nowhere this was in 1951, when Elvis was growing up.' You're there, you're a kid, and you say, 'I want to dress like this, I want to sing like this.' You just go, 'That kind of talent, put into one person, it doesn't happen very often.'"

Isaak also wants people to know that Presley wasn't a one-man band. " Don't forget the King's men, Bill Black and Scotty Moore. They never made much money out of the deal, but hell, if someone came around and said every musician had to pay 50 bucks to Scotty Moore, I'd gladly give him 50 bucks. We owe him that much for the riffs and the music that he gave."

"Don't forget the King's men; don't forget the King."

(By Kate O'Hare, Zap2it - November 21, 2002)
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