You almost have to remind yourself that Wanda Jackson is in her late 50s as she works the crowd with co-star Rosie Flores at L.A.’s House of Blues. The “Queen of Rockabilly” breathes new life into four-decade-old scorchers such as “Let’s Have A Party” and “Mean Mean Man”, no mean feat for songs that could very easily be parked and abandoned on memory lane. She’s dressed in a white fringe top that accentuates even more the seemingly perpetual motion: One arm constantly flails like a conductor’s wand, and at moments of musical epiphany, her knees bend, her lungs expand, and from her deepest innards comes another line delivered with religious fervor.
Along with Flores, country artists from Pam Tillis to Tanya Tucker have cited Jackson as a prominent influence. But as circuitous as the path of influence might be, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that many sexually-charged female rockers, from Tina Turner to Madonna and Alanis Morissette, might owe a bit of their success to Jackson as well. For Jackson, the defining moment was in 1958, when a young and beautiful country singer discovered by Hank Thompson recorded “Let’s Have A Party”, the first big rockabilly hit cut by a woman. The song rocks, the song snarls, and the song sizzles like, well, like only guys with names like Presley, Perkins and Cochran were supposed to sound back then.
Its eventual success, coupled with the silky-fringed, high-heeled glamour and sex appeal Jackson cultivated, helped opened yet another boys’ club door to female performers. Not since Kitty Wells carved out her own feminism with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” earlier in the decade had a female challenged the country music status quo so head-on.
As lore would have it, Jackson had been turned on to rockabilly’s bastardized country assault by a boyfriend, a rising star named Elvis. The King introduced Jackson to the black blues and encouraged her to work it into her own sound. After a few timid efforts, she found her voice with “Party”, a song Presley had recorded in 1957 for the film “Loving You”.
“I was doing my very first album with Capitol Records, they had signed me as a country singer,” Jackson recalls, speaking via telephone from a Holiday Inn in Lebanon, Indiana. “So I had done 11 country songs and I needed one more song. We were desperately trying to think of something that maybe I knew or liked that we could record right quick. And I said, ‘Guys, why don’t we just do this little song I’ve been opening with called “Let’s Have a Party”. I know it’s not real country, but people just love it when I sing it.’ They said, ‘Yeah that’s a good idea,’ and the producer said that sounded fine to him. So it was the last song on side two of my first album for Capitol.”
Rock romantics might sigh at such simple motivation, wishing instead to assume there was a renegade methodology to such madness. Wishful thinking. Reality is, in the case of rockabilly, maybe only Sun Records’ Sam Philips understood its implications. Even Elvis was most likely in pursuit of nothing more than girls and fame. He just happened to combine his love for R&B and country into something that felt right to him, and that happened to alter the face of popular music as we know it. As for the church-going, teeny-bopper Jackson, she turned on to it for the same reasons there are dozens of post-Nirvana corporate grunge and punk-lite bands filling the rock airwaves today: It was the thing to do.
“The early rock music was actually very innocent, fun-loving type music. It was my generation’s music,” she explains. Plus, her mother and musician father encouraged it. “My folks had always supported me; they were a big part of my career, actually. My father traveled with me, and my mother stayed home; she made all my stage clothes and helped me with the fan clubs and things like that. So they certainly didn’t see any problems with it. I was brought up in church and my mother took me every week, so it wasn’t rebellious as far as I was concerned.”
If Jackson did not perceive the recording as one of vintage rock ‘n’ roll defiance, she had to know the limits she was testing when she showed up for her first Grand Ole Opry appearance wearing a dress that left her shoulders exposed. Now we’re talking revolt. But Ernest Tubb called the shots, and he wasn’t about to let some nekkid-shouldered country gal on the hallowed Opry stage. The outcome: an old fringed jacket cover-up and a vow to never perform at the Opry again. Nice try, Wanda.
By the time disciple Rosie Flores asked Jackson to do some recordings last year, Jackson’s career biography was one of resilience, if not massive popularity. After rockabilly waned around 1960, she switched back over to country, reaching the top 10 of the country charts with the broken-hearted classics “Right Or Wrong” and “In The Middle Of A Heartache”. Throughout the d’60s she remained on the charts, but it was 1967′s conservative-minded “A Girl Don’t Have To Drink To Have Fun” that indicated the direction Jackson was headed. By the turn of the decade, Jackson had found God and left the secular world of country music behind. She went on to have a successful career as a gospel performer, while continuing to play rockabilly shows to the perpetually enamored Europeans.
But at the House of Blues, Jackson the long-forgotten rockabilly artist held court. There was a fair share of nostalgia, like the band doing the bunny hop mid-song, or her story of how Elvis used to warm up his sneer and pelvic gyrations before shows. Some songs are simply tired, and at least one, the atomic bomb-celebrating “Fujiyama Mama”, would be best off never played again. But overall, Jackson seems revitalized, especially while performing the recent collaborations with Flores such as “Rock Your Baby” and “His Rockin’ Little Angel”.
Who knows if this six-week tour will be the catalyst for a rockabilly resurgence of which the faithful often dream. Some will argue the genre is an open and shut case. And if alternative-country bands are the stepchild of country music, rockabilly just might be the stepchild of the stepchild. If nothing else, Flores gets to play with her hero, and Jackson gets to teach a disciple and perform her first love in front of American audiences. And maybe there will be a rockabilly grrl in the audience who will see the light and carry on the legacy of the Oklahoma gal who crashed the boys’ party 40 years ago.