Wanda Jackson

Rock and roll pioneer Wanda Jackson, “the nice girl with the nasty voice,” is getting some of the flash she has deserved for a long time – about 50 years or so. Her new record, "The Party Ain’t Over," was produced by capo de tutti capi Jack White. Last Sunday, in a front-page arts-section story in the New York Times, Melena Ryzik called Wanda “among the first women to record a rock song.” If you consider the women who came to rock and roll from the country side, as opposed to the rhythm-and-blues side, you may have to count Wanda Jackson as the very first.

Wanda Jackson started as a teenage country singer in the early 1950s in Oklahoma City, singing the songs of Kitty Wells and Hank Thompson and Hank Williams. She went on tour, chaperoned by her father, as an opening act for an up-and-coming singer named Elvis Presley. As Wanda tells the story, Presley was the one who convinced her to belt it out without holding back.

Her signature tune, “Let’s Have a Party,” from 1959, still scorches. What's startling is the combination of sweetness and snarl. “Funnel of Love,” a single as bizarre as the title, can make you turn your head and say, “What?”

In the late 1990s, when Wanda’s star wasn’t soaring quite as high as it is now, she was booked to play at the old Tramps on West 21st Street, on a bill that included Lucinda Williams, Ruth Brown (RIP), Victoria Williams and some others. The all-star revue show was to promote a book from Rolling Stone Press about women in rock. Wanda had asked bassist Robert Burke Warren to assemble a band for the short set she was going to play, and drummer Will Rigby recommended yours truly as a piano player. (Thanks, Will!)

As I recall, we rehearsed once or twice without Wanda and met her the night of the show. We did four or five tunes, “Let’s Have a Party,” “Fujiyama Mama,” "Right or Wrong," “Stupid Cupid” and a few others. Wanda was totally cool, she sounded great -- actually, she sounded so much like her old records, it was hard to believe -- and she was really leading the band. She made a big hit with the crowd, and after the set, she posed for many photos and signed many autographs.

The set went well enough that when she returned to New York in 2002, she asked for the same band. By that time, Will Rigby was out on tour with Steve Earle, so we had Doug Wygal on drums. On guitar was Mark Spencer, Robert Warren still on bass, and we were to be billed as Wanda Jackson and Her New York Partytimers. We were to play two shows and record a live album.

We rehearsed a little more thoroughly for those shows, and even rehearsed with Wanda. At the end of the rehearsal, she told us what every side-person wants to hear: “You guys did your homework.” Somebody in the band asked her about a weird guitar sound on a particular track. Wanda said, “Well, that was Roy Clark, and he could do anything.”

For the first gig, at Arlene Grocery, we opened the show with some "entrance music," vamping on “Rockabilly Fever” for a couple of minutes. Her husband/manager Wendell Goodman went to the mic with some well-practiced showbiz patter: “Ladies and gentlemen, the First Lady of Rock and Roll, the Queen of Rockabilly…” Wanda came out and took charge of the stage, the band, the whole club. We did a good version of “Mean Mean Man.”

The next night’s show was at the Village Underground. We played a medley of country tunes, and Wanda told Elvis stories from the stage -- she dated Elvis for a while, and that story got plenty of woo-woos from the audience. Then we got into the rocking stuff, and it was pretty much a total victory. 

That show attracted a lot of rockabilly retro kids, young women in crazy poodle skirts and wild hairdos, and guys with big sideburns and pastel suits, like outcasts from the Stray Cats. As always, she made herself available at the merch table for photos and autographs. At one point Wanda turned to me and said, “Some of these kids have funny ideas about how we used to dress in the ‘50s.”

You can hear some the results of those two nights on a limited-release CD called "The Wanda Jackson Show: Live and Still Kickin’."

About a year later, I got the call for another Wanda gig, this time with my pal Dennis Diken on drums. This show was at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, and I realized that Wanda had at least three separate, distinct audiences: the country music fans who liked her '60s Nashville country stuff and her '70s gospel records, the retro rockabilly kids, and in Hoboken, the riot girls -- I mean riot grrls, the women who were a generation younger than Chrissie Hynde and leading rock bands.

During one upbeat number, I had a short solo to do, and I started plinking the high-register keys in a Jerry Lee Lewis style. Wanda was not digging it. She came over and pointed to the middle register of the keyboard, so I started playing down there. And she was right.

Those are the only gigs I played with Wanda Jackson, and she was, as I said, totally cool to work for, and her husband Wendell treated us well.

Over the next few years, she was “discovered” by Elvis Costello, and she sang on some duet records with pop stars who were looking for credibility. She started receiving a lot of overdue recognition. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, in case you're keeping score. And now she’s playing sold-out shows from New York to L.A. and beyond. (Wait, you mean that if I had stayed on that gig, I’d be wearing a pink shirt and recording with Jack White? Uh, no.)

So go check out some Wanda Jackson. Do yourself a favor and see the rather shocking video of that sweet young girl tearing it up on “Hard Headed Woman.” It’s from a TV appearance in 1958. And then watch her tear it up on "Mean Mean Man." For crying out loud, go check it out!

Comments

Kristen Westhoven February 25, 2011 @10:28 pm
 

Learn something new about you every time I read your blog ~ You played with Wanda Jackson!?! WOW!

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