Bob Dylan & Bruce Springsteen agree : Wanda Jackson Rocks!

‘Wanda Jackson, an atomic fireball of a lady, could have a smash hit with just about anything.’ (Bob Dylan)

‘There’s an authenticity in her voice that conjures up a world and a very distinct and particular place in time. It’s not something that can be developed.’ (Bruce Springsteen)

‘When I start erupting aint nobody gonna make me stop!’
(Wanda Jackson, Fujiyama Mama)

We are creatures of diverse tastes. What satisfies our appetite one day may not excite the taste buds the next.

Sometimes only Lobster Thermidor will do. Then again, some days you’d be nearly prepared to kill for a half pound hamburger slathered with onions and hot mustard.

Those of you with a sophisticated palette might care to sip a Joseph Drouhin Premier Cru Clos des Mouches at dinner followed by a vintage Port.

Some days I would too.

On others though I’d be prepared to fight my way the toughest bar crowd for a pint of plain. Which as we all know is sometimes your only man.

Settling into my armchair at night in need of wisdom I often reach for the poetry of Seamus Heaney or the deep humanity of Anton Chekhov.

Still there are times when I need the relentless drive of a Lee Child thriller or the guaranteed laughter always present in the pages of P G Woodhouse.

Similarly when it comes to music surveying the serried ranks of my record collection my eye will often be irresistibly drawn to the section containing several versions of Schubert’s masterpiece song cycle, ‘Wintereisse’.

But, but, there are times when I crave, need, and absolutely demand nitroglycerin fueled music that will blast me out of earth orbit before parachuting me back home – shaken, stirred and wholly satisfied.

And ready to relaunch.

When I feel like that I return over and over again to the late 50s/early 60s records of the Queen of Rockabilly.

The extraordinary Wanda Jackson.

Who else could deliver the lines:

‘I never kissed a bear, I never kissed a goose,
But I can shake a chicken in the middle of the room.’

and make you think – yeh, that’s exactly the kind of party I’m looking for.

Let’s have a party!

I have been known to play, ‘Let’s Have A Party!’ a dozen times in a row when the humour is on me.

Other times I’m more sober and can be content with only half a dozen spins.

Every time I hear the record I’m more and more convinced that it’s one of the greatest records ever made.

I would happily swap you a hundred foot tower of, ‘Corporate Rock’ Deluxe Box Sets for Wanda’s spine tingling, ultra sexy, ‘Hooooh’ exclamations that, once heard, will surely never leave your head.

Big Al Downing (see previous Black Rockabilly post) takes care of the pyrotechnics on piano. Big Al with guitar slinger Vernon Sandusky had been a member of Bobby Poe and the Poekats who had toured with Wanda. Producer Ken Nelson added Buck Owens on rhythm guitar and is that James Burton in there too?

Fabulous though these musicians were the undoubted star of the show is Wanda’s incendiary vocal.

Wanda sings like a wondrous mix of angel and banshee (maybe that’s a pretty good definition of the woman of all young men’s dreams!) one moment crooning pretty, the next outgrowling any bear that ever lived. All the while she’s absolutely in control and having an absolute whale of a time.

What more can you ask of a record!

Wanda was born in Maud, Oklahoma in 1937. Through her musician father she developed a deep love for the Western Swing of Bob Wills, Spade Cooley and especially, Hank Thompson.

In her early teens she was a radio star in Oklahoma City before hooking up with Thompson to record country songs for Capitol. Later she recorded straight country for Decca before rejoining Capitol in 1956.

Once she graduated from High School she hit the road with her father acting as manager and chaperone. Her dad was friendly with Bob Neal who was then managing a very promising hillbilly cat called Elvis Presley!

Wanda often toured with The King over the next few years and it is said that their closeness went beyond the artistic realm. Hardly surprising as Wanda was an absolute knockout beauty and Elvis wasn’t to shabby in the looks department either!

Elvis certainly encouraged Wanda to sing Rockabilly/Rock ‘n’ Roll and the results both live and on record were astonishing.

Wanda, at her thrilling best, is every bit as electric as Jerry Lee or The King himself.

Listen to her astounding performance of, ‘Fujiyama Mama’ from 1958 which, incredibly, was a No 1 hit in Japan.

Wanda tells us that, ‘Well you can talk about me say that I’m mean, I’ll blow your head off baby with nitroglycerine’

Who can possibly doubt her the enormity of her explosive power!

The more I reflect on what distinguishes the artists who appeal to me the most I realise that it’s the qualities of life force and personal presence in the voice (whether instrumental or sung) that does it for me. And, what presence there is in Wanda’s voice!

As regards life force let’s just say that Wanda probably watts out more energy in a two minute record than any nuclear power station. And, of course, repeated exposure to Wanda’s energy will do you nothing but good!

Wanda was able to take a contemporary R&B standard like Leiber & Stoller’s, ‘Riot in Cell Block No 9’ and give it a powerful, wholly individual reading reflecting her femininity and her humour. What a blast!

The clip below shows you how Wanda was a mercurial live performer easily dominating the stage while joyously interacting with her fellow musicians. When I get accees to time travel technology I’m definitely going to set the coordinates to a Wanda Jackson show in 1960.

What a party that will be!

Wanda Jackson. Wanda Jackson!

Always and ever the Queen of Rockabilly.

You betcha! Yeh!

Notes:

‘Let’s Have A Party’ (written by Jessie Mae robinson)was recorded in 1958 but not released as a 45 until 1960. Elvis featured it in the film, ‘Loving You’. Wanda’s version was top 40 in the USA and the UK.

The young paul McCartney must have been listening as he recorded the song himself on his Rock ‘N’ Roll record aimed at the Russian market. Of course, Paul does a mean, ‘Hooooh!’ himself!

By the mid 60s Wanda returned to country music as the tsunami from Liverpool capsized the careers of so many of the original Rock ‘n’ Rollers. Many of her country sides are well worth investigating.

But for me her glory will always be contained in those epochal records from 1958 to 1962.

These are best found on an Ace Records compilation, ‘The Queen of Rockabilly’

As so often Bear Family Records will satisfy those who demand comprehensive career coverage.

The European Rockabilly revival of the 80s/90s (in which I enthusiastically participated) saw Wanda tour and record a worthwhile album, ‘Rock ‘N Roll Your Blues Away’ on Rounder Records.

Later, she joined forces with Jack White to record the truly fine, ‘The Party Ain’t Over’ on Nonesuch in 2011.

Wanda has had a real influence as an exemplar of excellence on female artists like Adele, Rosanne Cash, Imelda May, Cyndi Lauper and Rosie Flores.

Mona Lisa must have had the Highway Blues …

‘The Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues – you can tell by the way she smiles’ (Bob Dylan)

Ah, The Mona Lisa. La Gioconda. Leonardo Da Vinci. Lisa Gherardini.

There is a fascinating post to be composed concerning the artistic, cultural and historical significance of the most famous painting in the story of art.

A painting of enormous influence which has beguiled artists, scholars and the public for more than 500 years.

Such a work would have to pay proper attention to; the signifance of the Renaissance in Florence, the relationship between secular and sacred art, the role of patronage in an artist’s life and the thorny subject of the role of the male gaze in the representation of women throughout the ages.

I wish the author of such a study well.

For my part, although I have an abiding interest in art history I must confess that when I hear the name Mona Lisa my initial response is not to reflect on the weighty matters outlined above but instead to launch, full throatedly, into my own rendition of a 1959 Rock ‘n’ Roll classic out of Sun Studios in Memphis.

‘Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?
Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art?’

I refer, of course. to Carl Mann’s immortal, ‘Mona Lisa’.

Well, great googly moo! Ain’t that just a barn burner!

Texan Eddie Bush provides the overproof White Lightning guitar with Carl pumping out the setting the woods on fire piano underneath his amazingly assured vocal.

W. S. Holland on drums and Rob Oatwell on bass make sure that the song’s rhythmic attack never lets up as a few million synapses in your cerebral cortex flash and flash and flash until it’s permanently seared into your memory.

Carl and the boys recorded, ‘Mona Lisa’ at Sun Studios and it was issued, after some hesitation by Sam Phillips, in March 1959.

It went on to be a top 30 Billboard hit and to sell well over a million copies. It’s a certifiable Rock ‘n’ Roll classic and the record which will ensure that the name Carl Mann burns bright in history.

It might well have sold even more had Conway Twitty not put out his own version after hearing Carl’s far superior take on a visit to Memphis.

Astonishingly Carl was a mere 16 year old when he laid down, ‘Mona Lisa’. He had been born in the rural area of Huntingdon Tennessee in August 1943.

The Mann’s had a lumber business which Carl would return to after the heady months following the issue of Mona Lisa turned into a life sapping grind.

Growing up in Tennessee Carl; in church, through The Grand Ole Opry and from youthful forays into honkytonks drank deep of the living streams of Country, Rhythm and Blues and Rocksbilly music that were the virtual birthright of Southern musicians.

Inevitably the towering figures of Hank Williams and Elvis loomed large in his musical imagination.

Carl was something of a musical prodigy and while barely a teenager he had performed on local radio in Jackson and featured on WSM’s Junior Opry. It was in Jackson that he made his debut recordings for Jimmy Martin’s Jaxon label.

His output for Jaxon includes a prime slice of Rockabilly in, ‘Gonna Rock’n’Roll Tonite’ coupled with ‘Rockin’ Love’ which was issued under the name of Carl Mann and the Kool Kats.

It was when W S Holland, who had played with Carl Perkins, hooked up with Carl that the introduction to Sun Records was made.

Carl never managed to hit the mother lode again with Sun and his subsequent mainstream country music work is undistinguished.

However, the late 1970s Rockabilly revival in Europe gave Carl an opportunity to demonstrate that Mona Lisa wasn’t entirely a fluke. In Holland he made two eminently listenable albums with stellar guitar from Eddie Jones.

Tiring of travel and over fond of the bottle Carl wisely retreated to Tennessee where he remains.

Perhaps, as he rocks on his porch swing he sometimes, purely for his own amusement, croons a stately version of Mona Lisa and smiles as he realises that he created a lovely, warm and very real work of art all those years ago.

P.S. Through pure serendipity I wrote this post on Carl’s 74th Birthday. Many happy returns Carl!

Notes:

‘Mona Lisa’ was written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston. It was penned for the film, ‘Captain Carey’ and won the duo the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 1950 Academy Awards.

Nat King Cole’s typically poised performance atop a Nelson Riddle arrangement of the song was a massive No 1 hit in 1950.

There have been innumerable versions since with my own favourites being those of Willie Nelson and The Neville Brothers.

Fine CDs of selections Carl’s best work can be found on the Charly and Bear Family labels.

Carl’s revival period can be found on the CD, ‘In Rockabilly Country’ on the Rockhouse label.

Riding High On Bob Dylan’s Jukebox – Warren Smith!

Now, to be clear your Honour, I can’t say for certain that Bob Dylan has a Jukebox and if he has I can’t be 100% sure which artists it features. But, but, I have to say that there is enough compelling evidence from Bob’s recording and performing history to say with some force that Bob really digs Warren Smith and has spent many an hour listening to the fabulous sides he cut for Sun Records in the late 1950s.

Consider; Bob’s tender tribute recording of Warren’s, ‘Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache’, his (unissued) take on, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, his regular 1986 tour performances of, ‘Uranium Rock’ and the aforementioned ‘Moustache’, his thanks in the sleeve notes of, ‘Down In The Groove’ to a, ‘Gal shaped just like a Frog’ (surely referencing Warren’s explosive, ‘Miss Froggie’), and, his repeated featuring of Warren on his Theme Time Radio shows and it becomes obvious that Bob in his boyhood Hibbing days, ear pressed to a transistor radio listening to John R and Hoss Allen, was hit hard by Warren and never forgot him.

Taking all that into account I think we can say with some confidence that Bob’s Jukebox, real or imaginary, will definitely be stocked with some Warren Smith 45s! So let’s cue up Warren’s April 1956 debut single for Sun (No 239), ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, a prime slice of Rockabilly that turned many a head beyond Bob’s.

Ruby rock some more indeed! Warren here is backed by the excellently named Snearly Ranch Boys with whom he had been playing at the Cotton Club in West Memphis when spotted by Sun Records supremo Sam Phillips. The song is credited to Johnny Cash (though those in the know say it was actually written by George Jones – presumably in his ‘Thumper’ incarnation). All agree that it cost Warren $40. Money well spent as it went on to be a regional Number 1 record with some 70,000 sold, outselling the debuts of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

Warren’s vocal is propulsively assured and the record bounces along like a well sprung pickup truck with some fine piano from Smokey Joe Bauch and neat guitar fills from Buddy Holobauch on lead and Stan Kessler on the steel.

Warren, then 24, born in 1932, brought up in Louise Mississippi, and a USAF veteran was ecstatic at the success of his first recording (the B side of which has a lovely vocal on the fine pure country, ‘I’d Rather Be Safe Than Sorry’). As a man with plenty of ambition and a very strong ego Warren looked forward confidently to becoming a huge star in emulation of Elvis.

Yet, life has a habit of throwing roadblocks in the way of the broad highway to fame and fortune we so fondly imagine in the days of youth. So it was for Warren. Despite recording some brilliant records, showcased below, the glittering prizes eluded him due to a mixture of the vagaries of fate, his own deficiencies, the limited marketing budget available to Sam Phillips and the appearance of more irresistible forces onto the scene (step forward Jerry Lee Lewis!).

His story, awaiting the screenplay, included a life threatening car crash taking a year out of his career, addiction to pills and booze, a spell in prison and an unexpected late renaissance courtesy of British Rockabilly fanatics before sudden death at the shockingly young age of 47 in January 1980.

Warren’s second outing for Sun (No 250) issued in september 1956 had as its flip side a somewhat strange version of the Child ballad, ‘Black Jack David’ which must be the oldest tune ever recorded on the Sun label. Its inclusion probably signified Sam Phillips trying to court the country market as well the burgeoning Rockabilly/Rock ‘n’ Roll scene.

The A side, in all its 1 minute 58 seconds of glory was the wholly ludicrous, politically incorrect, yet wholly addictive, ‘Ubangi Stomp’ penned by Charles Underwood then a student at Memphis State. I think the cartoon lyric shows that Charles was not studying Anthropology!

Warren’s band now included the excellent Al Hopson on guitar and Marcus Van Story on bass. The record sold some 100,000 copies but alas for Warren not in a rush but in a leisurely fashion over some 18 months.

Warren next recorded at in Sun Studios at 706 Union Avenue in early 1957 and the results were issued in April. The A side, written by fellow Sun artist Roy Orbison, was the thoroughly engaging, ‘So Long I’m Gone’ but it’s the electrifying, nay crazed, B side, ‘Miss Froggie’ featuring stellar incendiary guitar playing by Al Hopson and brilliant, ‘Look out! we ain’t gonna stop for no one’ drumming by Jimmy Lott that will ensure a place in Rock ‘n’ Roll eternity for Warren Smith.

My diligent scientific research over many decades has conclusively proved that it is impossible (and potentially injurious) to try to resist a song that opens with the epochal couplet:

‘Yes, I got a gal, she’s shaped just like a frog
I found her drinking’ muddy water, sleepin’ in a hollow log’

Warren Smith’s singing on this record is utterly magnificent. He generates heart stopping, heart bursting, levels of excitement smoothly increasing the pressure on the accelerator so that you half expect to hear the boom of the sound barrier being broken before the song ends.

I have to confess that in my youth as I prepared for a Saturday night out in London sure to be filled with alcoholic and romantic excess (the former inevitably more often delivered than the latter!) I would always sing repeatedly, as I made my way to the tube station, at the maximum volume I could get away without without being arrested or beaten up:

‘Well it’s Saturday night, I sure am feelin’ blue
Meet me in the bottom, bring me my boots and shoes’

It never failed to lift me up, bringing me energy and untold innocent delight. Thanks Warren.

The record was a substantial regional hit and took Warren to No 72 on the Billboard Hot 100, his highest ever placing there. However, it was, for commercially and culturally compelling reasons, Jerry Lee Lewis’, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’ that monopolised Sam Phillips attention and promotional energies. Head shakingly Warren perhaps then realised that talent, good looks and brilliant recordings don’t always guarantee the brass ring will be yours.

Warren had four more sides issued by Sun including an intriguing cover of Slim Harpo’s swampy R&B classic, ‘Got Love If You Want It’ before he and Sam called it a day in January 1959. Indeed, one of the records Warren will always be remembered for, ‘Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache’ was never even issued by Sun when recorded only seeing the light of day in the early 1970s.

Well that got me croonin’ along and gliding elegantly round my kitchen! I love the unhurried tempo of the song and Warren’s mellifluous vocal which charms me every time. This is another one that’s always playing in my head somewhere. ‘Who you been lovin’ since I been gone’ has to be one of the eternal questions we repeat to ourselves as we replay earlier scenes in the autobiographical movie of our lives.

Warren never made the big time yet he made records that will always live every time they are played. No records sums up the primal attraction of Rockabilly more perfectly for me than, ‘Miss Froggie’. That’s why, whatever’s actually on Bob Dylan’s Jukebox, ‘Miss Froggie’ now proudly takes up its place on The Immortal Jukebox as A12.

I’ve promised myself that one day I’m going to hire a Red Cadillac Convertible and drive down Union Avenue in Memphis, having brushed my moustache (taking cars to dye the strands of grey), with the top down blasting out, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, ‘Ubangi Stomp’, and ‘Red Cadillac’ before stopping outside 706 where I’m going to get out and dance like I’ve danced before as, ‘Miss Froggie’ plays and I’m going to shout with all the force I can muster – that’s for you Warren!

Notes:

Warren Smith’s Sun Sides can be found on excellent compilations on either the Bear Family or Charly record labels.

Warren also recorded some attractive, quite commercially successful, country sides for Liberty Records in the mid 1960s before his addictions, car crash and prison experience largely sabotaged his career.

Warrens renaissance concerts in London in 1977 were issued on vinyl as, ‘Four R ‘n’ R Legends’. It is cheering to learn how appreciative the London audience was of Warren and how moved he was at their response to him.

Moonshine And Molasses: Black Rockabilly

‘Sometimes, just sometimes, a one-hit wonder can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who’s got 20 or 30 hits.’ (Bob Dylan 2015 MusiCares speech’)

Rockabilly might be described as the deliriously exciting sound of a supercharged truck with no lights on hauling moonshine through the hills and hollers to outrun the dreaded excise men. Rockabilly is not a reflective music – its a full pelt, foot to the floor and damn the tyres assault on the senses.

A shot of over proof booze that might well take the top of your head off and leave you stone blind but once you’ve opened that unlabelled bottle you are likely to develop the taste and keep coming back for more.

Rockabilly owes a lot to hillbilly boogie and something to the blues and rhythm and blues. It certainly was an essential ingredient of what at Sun Studios, with a little judicious tweaking, came to be known as rock ‘n’ roll.

Generally Rockabilly was the preserve of electrically energetic white boys who had grown up on the Grand Ol’ Opry but who then found themselves wanting to apply the lessons they had learned from Hank Williams, ‘Move It On Over’ to play at a more hopped up speed while cutting loose with their vocals and instrumental breaks.

If you want pure excitement from music (and sometimes we all do) it’s sure hard to beat Rockabilly!

While it is undoubtedly true that Rockabilly was largely made by white southerners there were black musicians who were hep to the moonshine beat.

Of course, even in the darkest days of the segregated south there was one thing the powers that be could not cordon off – the airwaves! So whether you were white or black you could tune into stations like WLAC blasting out of Nashville and find yourself ready to rock.

Today I’m featuring two black musicians who, oblivious to all racial stereotyping, made classic Rockabilly records that stand up with the very finest of the genre.

To jump start your heart and nervous system we begin with Big Al Downing’s ‘Down On The Farm’ first issued on the White Rock label out of Dallas in March 1958. Strap yourself in – this is going to be a thrill filled 91 second ride!

Careful scrutiny of the label on the White Rock 45 (palindromically numbered 1111) shows the record credited to Al Downing (with the Poe Kats).

The Poe Kats were a white trio led by Oklahoman Bobby Poe featuring the incendiary guitar of Vernon Sandusky. The thoughtful Bobby, hearing the pounding piano prowess and powerful Fats Domino influenced vocal style of Big Al at a Coffeyville Kansas radio station figured that a quartet that could handle both Little Richard and Elvis material would prove a big hit in the sweat drenched beer joints and VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) halls throughout Kansas and Oklahoma.

As, ‘Down On The Farm’ shows he was completely correct in his assumption!

Al’s vocal drives smoothly at speed throughout the song while he and the band threaten to burn out their engines as they wildly take the turns with savage guitar and piano breaks.

Somehow, they manage to survive the trip in one piece and as they look back at the scorched earth smoking in their wake there’s only one thing to say -‘Whoo – Wee!’ The song leaves you in no doubt that barns all over the turning world would soon be taken over by the quicksilver power of this addictive music.

At least that’s what this crazy fool will always believe.

Our second example of black Rockabilly, ‘Look Out Mabel’ also from 1958 comes courtesy of the mysterious G. L. Crockett.

G.L. or George as his mother may have called him was born in Carrollton, Mississippi in 1928 or 1929 depending on source you believe most reliable.

In a recording career spanning eight years from 1957 to 1965 he only had four singles issued which collectively take up little more than ten minutes of your precious time.

Yet two of those singles, ‘Mabel’ and the 1965 Jimmy Reed style R&B steamer, ‘It’s A Man Down There’ once heard will take up permanent residence in your musical memory bank.

‘Look Out Mabel’ was produced in Chicago by the talented Mel London who worked with such blues luminaries as Elmore James and Otis Rush. London made sure that the record was drenched in drama so that Crockett’s, ‘If I’m gonna go down, I’m going’ down fighting’ vocal rides atop relentless piano from Henry Gray and a well nigh demented guitar solo from Louis Myers.

If I was choreographing a fight scene set in a 1950s southside Chicago club I would definitely have, ‘Look Out Mabel’ playing at full volume while the bottles broke and the knives flashed.

Assuming the script allowed I’d have the hero leaving the club later with Mabel on his arm and wisecracking as they start up the midnight blue Buick ‘Oh, come on Mabel let’s go on down the line’.

Notes:

Big Al Downing was one of fifteen children born in blink and you’ve missed it rural Lenapah Oklahoma in 1940. In addition to the wonder that is, ‘Down On The Farm’ he produced eminently listenable music in the country, soul and R&B genres during his forty year plus recording career. The standouts for me are his piano contributions to Wanda Jacksons epochal, ‘Let’s Have A Party’ and his pile drivingly excellent version of Jimmy McCracklin’s, ‘Georgia Slop’ which is guaranteed to have everybody at the party lunatically lurching in unison.