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‘Wicked Game’ tells the real-life story of a rock star’s downfall

James Calvin Wilsey might not be a household name.

Yet, millions of music fans know his iconic guitar riff featured in the sultry Chris Isaak classic “Wicked Game.”

Wilsey was an important part of Isaak’s Silvertone band for years, mightily contributing to the Stockton star’s first four studio albums. Before that, he played bass for the Avengers, the highly influential late-70’s San Francisco punk-rock troupe who actually opened for the Sex Pistols at the U.K act’s legendary “final show” at the old Winterland Ballroom in 1978. He also released one remarkable solo album — 2008’s “El Dorado.”

But the Wilsey story would turn tragic, as the longtime Bay Area resident became a heroin addict and went from appearing on “The Tonight Show” to living on the streets. He’d die homeless, suffering from organ failure, on Christmas Eve 2018.

Hozac Books

His tale is movingly told in the new book “Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey” by Oakland author Michael Goldberg, who is the former West Coast music editor for Rolling Stone and the founder of the influential online music site “Addicted to Noise.”

I recently had the chance to interview Goldberg, who is donating 25 percent of his royalties from this book to Wilsey’s teenage son Waylon. Goldberg says the best way to maximize the money going to Waylon (as well as to the author and the indie publisher) is to order the book directly through hozacrecords.com.

Q: The name James Calvin Wilsey might not be familiar with readers. But they have certainly heard his playing. Tell us about his involvement with “Wicked Game.”

A: Jimmy wrote and played the haunting electric guitar intro to “Wicked Game” and all the electric guitar parts in the song. Initially, Isaak didn’t like the intro, according to Jimmy. Jimmy said Isaak had maybe a verse and the chorus and Jimmy came up with the intro and the guitar parts for it.

Warner Bros. didn’t like the “Heart Shaped World” album it was on. They didn’t hear any hits when they listened to the album. No one thought “Wicked Game” was a hit. But as Chris Isaak told me after the song was a hit in England and becoming one in the U.S., “In Jimmy’s case, he’s very responsible for that record (‘Wicked Game’) being a hit.”

Q: What do you think it was about that song that made such an impact? It’s definitely one of those that stops you dead in your tracks.

A: Well, first of all, that guitar intro is one of the greatest intros to a rock or pop song ever recorded. It is beautiful. The tone, the notes, the way he plays it. It’s an incredible sound.

There’s a whole lot of Jimmy’s soul that went into that riff. In a sense, you can hear the sadness and sorrow and pain he experienced during his life in that riff. There is a reason that song is still super popular and it’s not just because of Chris Isaak — though Isaak’s vocal is incredible.

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