On this day, in 2018, the King of Slow – James Calvin Wilsey – sadly passed away at the age of 61. He is best remembered for his haunting, reverb-drenched electric guitar tones on Chris Isaak’s top-ten smash, “Wicked Game” from the 1989 album Heart Shaped World.
“Wicked Game” became a hit after being highlighted on the soundtrack of David Lynch’s 1990 black comedy Wild at Heart. Lynch later directed a lesser-known music video for the song featuring moody black and white footage of the band interspersed with cuts from the film.
As a talented guitarist in Isaak's backing band Wilsey contributed extensively to studio recordings in the earlier part of the frontman's career, appearing on his first four albums, specifically: 1985’s Silvertone, the eponymous 1986 LP, Heart Shaped World, and 1993’s San Francisco Days.
While Wilsey’s contributions to Isaak’s recordings have been adored by millions his 2008 solo album – El Dorado – remains under the radar for many. Paying homage to the guitarist’s musical heroes (notably Duane Eddy, Link Wray and Hank Marvin) this dark, brooding masterpiece is a breathtaking example of tasteful guitar tone.
If you like what he did on “Wicked Game” then the chances are you’ll love this…
During the late ‘70s, Wilsey played bass in the pioneering San Francisco punk band the Avengers. Fronted by Penelope Houston (opens in new tab) the band achieved notoriety opening up for the Sex Pistols’ infamous final show at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom on January 14, 1978. Suitably impressed, guitarist Steve Jones went on to produce the Avengers’ eponymous 1979 EP.
In a similar vein as the Sex Pistols, the Avengers’ fast, furious career was initially short-lived. When the original lineup parted ways after two years at the forefront of the American punk rock scene Wilsey moved on to teaching guitar. It was during this time he met Chris Isaak with whom he would remain as an essential part of his backing band for years to come.
Wilsey’s El Dorado album is a solo effort in the truest sense. “This album was the first one where I had to do everything myself,” the guitarist told an interviewer. “I had to write everything. I had to engineer everything (before, we had great engineers.) I had to produce (we had a great producer.) I had to make all the decisions. And I had to mix. So I had to learn a lot stuff. And most of the time I was flying by the seat of my pants.”
Get James Wilsey’s El Dorado here (opens in new tab).
Rod Brakes is a music writer with an expertise in all things guitar-related. Having spent many years at the coalface as a guitar dealer and tech, Rod's more recent work as a journalist covering artists, industry pros and gear includes writing hundreds of articles and features for the likes of Guitarist, Total Guitar, Guitar World, Guitar Player and MusicRadar, as well as contributions for specialist books, blogs and social media. He is also a lifelong musician.
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