Way back, in the October of 2020, I set out to write an article, for our ‘Unsung Heroes of Americana’ series, on the guitarist James Calvin Wilsey. I sincerely wish this book had been around then; it would’ve saved me an awful lot of research time!
What I hadn’t realised at the time I started researching my article, was that Wilsey was a heroin addict and had been involved with substance abuse for much of his life. Once you know that, an awful lot more of his life facts start to fall into place. Michael Goldberg’s book starts where Wilsey’s life ended, with his last few weeks of life, and it’s an incredibly stark piece of writing, detailing the depths that Wilsey had sunk to, sleeping in doorways, scrabbling around for his day-to-day existence and with his health in a dangerously downward spiral. Goldberg starts with the events immediately before Wilsey’s death and then goes back to tell the story of his life, his climb to the top, becoming the co-creator of that great Chris Isaak sound, before the vertiginous drop that would, eventually, claim his life at just sixty-one years of age.
Goldberg’s book really has two subjects. The first is the life and career of James Calvin Wilsey and it’s a very good biography, full of facts and great stories about his younger days and the later days as his career took off and grew, first with San Franciscan punk band, The Avengers and, subsequently, with Chris Isaak and SIlvertone. Sadly, it also contains sad stories of the rift that drove him out of the band Silverton, and of his descent into his darker, later life. Goldberg has really dug into Wilsey’s past and spoken to the friends, the colleagues, the lovers that remember him well and provide those titbits of information that allow you to build a solid picture of the man and his music. The second subject here is substance addiction and the damage it does, and Goldberg has been equally thorough in documenting that impact on Wilsey’s life and how it, subsequently, also affected the friends and associates around him.
What always strikes me, whenever I read about James Wilsey, is what a likeable character he appears to have been. Even in the depths of his addiction, and Wilsey fell very far indeed, no one has a bad word to say about him. He remained polite, witty, erudite; and all of this comes out in the book as well. From the start, Goldberg makes it clear that Wilsey was a friend of his but, while he writes with what is clearly a lot of affection for Wilsey, he’s not blind to his shortcomings or the bad choices he made with his life. What emerges from this book is the complex story of a complicated man. Wilsey was an artist of considerable talent across a range of genres, with fine art his first and, probably, his most enduring love. He was a first-class musician who also had a deep understanding of the recording process and should really take the credit for much of the sound of Chris Isaak and the band Silvertone. Beyond that, and unusual in someone so focused on the arts, he was a talented technician who helped to develop software and IT-based programmes to further the development of audio effects and sonic construction. And he was generous with the programmes he developed, often sharing his discoveries in online forums and always happy to discuss sound techniques with fellow enthusiasts.
Wilsey was, to steal from Churchill, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. As this book makes clear, he had all the talent, charm, and charisma to make it in the music industry. He is at least as much responsible as Chris Isaak himself for delivering that shimmering, retro sound that made the early Silvertone recordings so successful (as Isaak himself freely admitted), all fired by the success of the song ‘Wicked Game’ and that stunning, two note intro – a direct result of what Wilsey called his “nitro twang”. He was also prone to depression, needy, lonely, naïve, and, probably, not best equipped for the one role he wanted above all others, that of a bona fide rock star. When he left Silvertone there should’ve been a queue of artists waiting to snap him up. That there wasn’t says a lot about the industry and its lack of support, at that time, for troubled musicians. This book goes a long way toward explaining why someone who, on the surface, should’ve been so successful in his chosen field, ultimately failed in terms of his own happiness.
As a long-term Wilsey fan, this book was both a hard read and an excellent one. Michael Goldberg has ensured that James Calvin Wilsey will not be easily forgotten though, as the author himself is quick to point out, Wilsey will be remembered, in one way, every time that intro to ‘Wicked Game’ is heard; and it’s heard a lot because it is a very widely played piece of music, having been streamed on Spotify alone over 300 million times! On page 38 of this superb book, there is a whole long list of comments from various friends, family, and colleagues that show how Wilsey was remembered after his death. The one that really leapt out at me came from bassist Jamie Ayres – “I always felt Jimmy was a nice guy. A truly nice guy in a vicious world.”
That, above everything else, is what emerges from this biography.
This book is available from the usual outlets but the author, Michael Goldberg, is donating a generous percentage of his profits to Jimmy Wilsey’s son, Waylon. The publishers are also contributing a percentage of their profits and these will be higher, in both cases, if you buy direct from the publishers at https://hozacrecords.com/product/wicked-game/
[…] we’ll hear from Michael Goldberg about his new book Wicked Game, a biography of guitarist Jimmy […]
Hoping to catch it myself.