Remembering James Calvin Wilsey

Farewell to the man who helped define the sound of Chris Isaak

Chris Isaak and James Calvin Wilsey

It stands to reason that it’s up to an individual artist to truly define his or her own musical identity. However in most cases, he or she can’t do that alone. It takes the work of a producer and most especially, the musicians who accompany them to bring that sound to fruition.

No one knew that more than Chris Isaak. He was fortunate enough to employ a trusty gunslinger who added depth and tone to his music and made them stand out almost as prominently as the material itself.

James Calvin Wilsey first came to prominence as bassist for a San Francisco punk band called the Avengers, a group that was well represented by seven records released between 1977 and 2010. However the Avengers’ chief claim to fame was the fact that they opened for the Sex Pistols when Johnny Rotten and company played their final show at San Francisco’s famed Winterland Auditorium. The gig proved to be fortuitous in another way as well. The Pistols’ lead guitarist, Steve Jones, took interest in the Avengers and opted to produce a session for the band, one which resulted in six songs that would later appear on the group’s eponymous debut EP.

Old Avengers show flier

The group also birthed the career of singer Penelope Houston, who would later go on to establish her own successful solo efforts. Unfortunately though, the Avengers’ history was not nearly as neatly organized. The band broke up early on, reformed in 1999 as the scAvengers, and later regrouped in 2004 for a few further recordings.

For his part, Wilsey took advantage of the Avengers’ ongoing hiatus and connected with Isaak for some of the latter’s most influential albums — Silvertone, Chris Isaak, Heart Shaped World, and San Francisco Days — all of which were released between 1985 and 1993. Having switched to guitar, Wilsey’s unique Stratocaster sound, with its striking reverb and vibrato, became an intrinsic element in Isaak’s signature sound, particularly as it defined the song “Wicked Game.” Throughout his stint with Isaak, Wilsey’s debt to such iconic guitarists as Duane Eddy, James Burton and Link Wray became increasingly clear.

 

 

Those influences were especially apparent in the sole solo album Wilsey recorded, released as El Dorado in 2008. He dropped the use of his middle name, but still made an emphatic impression through a series of instrumentals that offered homage to his idols and created his surest statement to date.

Wilsey passed away at age 61 on Christmas Eve, the result of what was thought to be a heart attack. He was a man whose name wasn’t known to most but whose legacy lives on in his unique sound and style.

Isaak himself posted the following requiem on his Facebook page:

“…was in Stockton when I heard the news about Jimmy… There’s a picture in my mom’s living room of me singing, him picking guitar…I met Jimmy in San Francisco … we were both just kids wanting to make music. I met Jimmy and we hit it off right away when I was playing in my band, Silvertone. He was very quiet, soft spoken but also deadly funny and quick witted. Nobody made me laugh like Jimmy. I remember him sitting in with my band playing ‘Be Bop a Lula’ and him tearing it up on guitar. That moved me from lead guitar to rhythm and he was in the band..We played at crummy bars and clubs for next to nothing, and were thrilled to do it. We were chasing a dream and I like to think we caught ahold of it… Jimmy had so much heart and a great sound… He also had a great arm – he could throw a baseball like a pro. I look at his picture now; good looking, cool, young Jimmy..and I miss him and I’m so glad I had those times with him. I used to yell “Sic ‘em Cal!” When he took a guitar solo. I’m going to put on an old record and listen to my friend… Rest In Peace James Calvin Wilsey.”

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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