‘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!
‘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.