Vol. 1, Issue #11 June 23rd - July 6th, 2006

Tiger Beat From Hell
By: Wilhelm Murg

Wanda Jackson: Queen of Rockabilly

She keeps making the final ballot for induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but just missing it – and since The Sex Pistols dissed the Hall of Fame for what they see as the exploitation of rock legends, does it really matter anymore?

She dated and worked with Elvis during his classic Sun Years, and he urged her to sing in his rockabilly style. She shared the stage with Buddy Holly. She had a string of amazing hits all over the world in the 1950s when rock’n’roll was an all-boys club, and she did it with hard driving songs written from a woman’s point of view. While other chick singers were demurely dressed in evening gowns and singing about their infatuation with the boy next store, she sported a cowboy hat and jeans while screaming, “I never kissed a bear! I never kissed a goon! But I can shake a chicken in the middle of the room! Let’s have a party! WOOO!”

On June 16th I had the pleasure of seeing Wanda Jackson perform at the Mercury Lounge in Tulsa. It was spiritual. I’m Osage and Cherokee, but I sold my soul to pop culture years ago. My friends who do dance have tried to explain the “power” they feel when they are dancing to a tribal drum. I think I had that kind of experience that night.

Wanda Jackson is not just The Queen of Rockabilly, she and The Collins Kids are really the only two serious claims Oklahoma has to “being there” in the early days of rock’n’roll, and we can hold our heads up high because if you compare their early recordings to even the first tier rock gods, like Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, the Okies had a clear edge in getting their franticness on the wax and into your living room. Wanda’s “Let’s Have a Party” cuts Elvis’ version to shreds – she doesn’t just want you to rock while you listen to the record, she wants you to sweat and scream and fall on the floor with convulsions. And for that matter, Elvis never captured anything close to the sheer franticness of The Collins Kids’ “Whistle Bait” on his recordings either.

I saw Little Richard live a few years ago and it was a waste of time. The “Georgia Peach” is having trouble getting around these days, no doubt due to his long and gaudy life. But it wasn’t just his physical restrictions; he acted like he was killing a few hours just to pick up a check, and he didn’t really play piano. Through most of the show he was bringing “fat women” out of the audience and having them dance on stage. It was closer to drag comedy than rock’n’roll.

Wanda, on the other hand, is still in top form. She played guitar for a few songs at the show, but spent most of the time simply knocking the audience out with her amazing voice. She has physically transformed from being rock’s prototype of the sultry girl singer to beloved a grandmother-type – many of her fans at the show were not even born when The Cramps revived Wanda’s style of rockabilly in the late-seventies – but her voice is perhaps even stronger than it was during her classic period in the late-fifties. It seems a little less nasal and driven with a tab more power in her back-throat growls. I’ve likened it to a cross between Brenda Lee and AC/DC’s Brian Johnson. And I also saw that the growls do something primal to the audience, like an alpha wolf starting a growl in his pack; it stirs up the other wolves.

Wanda Jackson was given a guitar at the age of six. Her father moved the family from Maude, Oklahoma to California, then back to OKC while she learned her art. By the age of fifteen Wanda had her own radio show where Country legend Hank Thompson first heard her. Thompson got her a recording contract with Capital in 1956, and that’s when the magic began. Wanda began recording her classics, most of which she did at the show; “Let’s Have a Party,” “Fujiyama Mama,” “Riot in Cellblock #9,” “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad,” “Funnel of Love,” and many more, not to mention her heartfelt country sides, often on the flip of her rockabilly masterpieces.

Make no mistake about it, Wanda is a great country singer too, it’s just that in the fifties there were plenty of female country singers, but only one female rocker to hit the charts.

Wanda refused to be pigeonholed as either a rock or country singer, but as rock music styles started changing by the year, Wanda became better known in country circles, and even had a successful stint in Las Vegas. In the early 1970s she became born again and spent a good chunk of the next decade as a Christian singer. A good friend of mine saw Wanda sing at his family’s Southern Baptist Church service in the 1980s.

It was around that same time that I first read about her in the “Rolling Stone” of the emerging greaser/ psychobilly/ sexploitation / Juxtapoz culture, Kicks Magazine, published by former Cramps and current A-Bones drummer Miriam Linna. I had to buy a German import LP of her hits, as her fifties catalogue was completely out of print in the U.S. in those dark vinyl days. Shortly after that I saw her on the Richard Roberts Show talking about her faith – however it is interesting to note that she barely let Brother Richard get a word in edgewise. She was totally in control of that interview, just like she was in control of her band at the show.

Watching her at the Mercury Lounge, which is a converted gas station, where the packed crowd seemed to be an even mix of rockabilly and alt country fans between the ages of 21 and 45, she was obviously back where she belongs. She had a band of hired guns that rose to the occasion, and the mixture of tight musicianship and an appreciative crowd made the decades disappear. The Queen of Rockabilly has definitely reclaimed her throne.

Wanda has two rock CDs out at the moment, “Live and Still Kickin’,” recorded in 2002 at the Village Underground in New York City, where she performed her major rockabilly songs, and “I Remember Elvis,” which is easily one of the best albums of this year. This is no B.S. cash in by a rock dinosaur, Wanda has reinvented Elvis’s Sun catalogue in her own image and it is brilliant. She doesn’t just cover the songs; she makes them her own, just like she did forty years ago with “Let’s Have a Party.”

If you get a chance to see her live I highly recommend it. She’ll blow your head clean off!

To keep up with Wanda visit WandaJackson.com.

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©2006 NONCO Media, L.L.C.