Chris Isaak knew what he didn’t want to do when he was growing up during the 1960s in California. He watched his father and mother work demanding blue-collar jobs and come home exhausted after a demanding day of labor.
“I saw how hard my dad worked at the lumber company driving forklifts, and I was hoping for something easier where lazy shiftless people might excel, Isaak quipped. “Then I found show business.”
Isaak is kidding. Yes, he was passionate about music while growing up in Stockton, Calif. But the vocalist-guitarist and occasional actor certainly put in the time. But it was a labor of love for Isaak, who grew up around a record player.
“I grew up in a house where my folks played tons of music,” Isaak said. “They had a TV, but it never worked and had two channels that rolled, so we just wore out the box of old records we had. I listened to Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley.”
Isaak, 57, not only went on to a career as a successful pop-rock recording artist, he paid tribute to the iconic Cash, Lewis, Orbison and Presley with his latest release, 2011’s “Beyond The Sun.”
“I had so much fun doing the album that I would love to go back to Memphis for a second helping,” Isaak said. “I really got to work with some of my heroes on ‘Beyond The Sun,’ such as guitar legend Roland James and musical factotum Cowboy Jack Clement. Both those men are gone now, but every time I listen to those songs I think of sitting around the studio laughing and telling stories between playing.”
Isaak will deliver some of those classics, his hits and some holiday numbers when he plays Sunday at the Mahaffey.
“I will be singing some Christmas tunes, but I’ll be mixing it up with rock ’n’ roll and classic early rock,” Isaak said. “I like seeing people’s faces as we go from ‘Wicked Game’ to ‘Ring of Fire’ to ‘Blue Christmas.’ I always make a set list of songs before the show, and then I get lost and play what I feel like playing and what the crowd seems to be in the mood for. The nice thing about having the same band for 30 years is that they can follow me in whatever song I start singing. I started making up a song on stage the other night and was surprised because 30 seconds into it the band started singing harmony.”
Isaak is overdue for a new album. “I’m working on it,” Isaak said. “I’ve narrowed down a bunch of song ideas to four work CDs of roughs. Next I’ll bring in the band so they can make me sound almost talented. We practice downstairs in my garage, and as soon as we all end at the same time and the same key, we record.”
Whenever there’s a gap in his schedule, Isaak would like to move in a different direction. “I would like to experiment,” he said. “I want to do something with just voices, harmony and maybe simple backing, like stand-up bass and one acoustic guitar. That would be fun. I sang with Michelle Branch, and she has such a nice voice that I’d love to do some more of that. I love singing. I love working with great musicians. I can think of millions of projects. I don’t go to work. I go to play!”
Isaak, who has been in such films as “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” “Married to the Mob” and “That Thing You Do,” will appear in a future episode of the Nickelodeon sitcom “Hot In Cleveland.”
“The women on that show are not only very funny, hot and talented but they’re nice,” Isaak said. “What pleasant folks. I was sitting on a couch between Valerie Bertinelli and Betty White and just grinning. Like all guys, I had a crush on Valerie, and after working with Betty, I was amazed. She is 92 and going on 20! She has so much energy.”
So does Isaak, who would work around the clock if he could. “I can’t believe what I’m doing,” Isaak said. “I love doing it because I’m living a dream. I get to travel the world with my friends, singing and making music for a living. It’s amazing.”