Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Hard-headed woman

Wanda Jackson

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketQueen of Rockabilly she undoubtedly was, but she must feel in retrospect to have been queen for a day in a genre that itself lasted only a few years in mainstream popular music.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSuch fame as Wanda Jackson once had coincided with the heyday of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly, but whereas they are household gods whose lares are kept polished, it's probable that even rockabilly fans of younger generations, raised on the Blasters and Stray Cats, have never heard of Jackson, or know her just as a name. The only song of hers I can ever remember hearing played on the radio, and that was ages ago, is "Let's Have a Party." It was a cracker, but I wrote it off as a one-hit wonder.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketLately I happened to run across this anthology of her releases circa 1957–1963 at my local library and checked it out, for curiosity's sake as much as anything. And was very nearly flabbergasted when I played it. This woman was the real deal!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe CD linked to is a fairly recent compilation from the U.K., and bless the heart of the engineer who transferred the old tapes to the digital medium. It must have been a labor of love as well as money, because the sound is remarkably clean and immediate for its age, the instruments well balanced on most tracks — I suspect some helpful remixing took place.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketJackson belts 'em out with a mixture of gunpowder and honey. She adapts some vocal mannerisms from Elvis, like filling out lines with breathy "uh-huh-huh's," but contributes her own trademark "growled" notes. The anthology is a diamond mine of three-minute wonders from the days when rockabilly was new and high on itself.

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Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAs a performer, she strikes me as having as much star quality as the Big Names of the era. So what happened?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAccording to the CD notes — I can't quote exactly because I returned the album to the library — Wanda Jackson was too wild for the times, and audiences — especially country audiences — weren't ready for a woman who rocked out. Normally I dismiss claims like that as feminist cant, but for once I suspect there's some truth in it. Women country singers of the time like Patsy Cline typically sang melting ballads, and even female vocalists who occasionally slammed one home (e.g., Brenda Lee) kept plenty of soft'n'tender items on the menu. No one in skirts consistently shook the walls like Jackson, a hard-headed woman for sure.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketHer producer and record labels must have been at sea trying to figure out how to position her. The best they could come up with was to put her in the country music frame, as can be seen
in the YouTube video from her guest appearance on a "Grand Ole Opry"-type program. But her style didn't easily mesh with traditional country. (I wonder what the other musicians on the show thought of her. The guitarist in the white Stetson seems to get into the spirit of things, as does the Jerry Lee Lewis–ish pianist. How about the fiddler who is reduced to marking time because the arrangement didn't call for her?)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketOne other factor probably held Jackson back: rockabilly has pretty narrow limits. There's only so much you can do with it before it starts devouring itself. Elvis soon evolved from rockabilly into other pop styles, but to judge from the anthology Jackson kept in the same groove as the '50s became the '60s. By '63, in apparent desperation to bring some variety into her act, her producer was inserting those terrible background vocal choruses that were the fashion of the time into the mix. She even reprised "Let's Have a Party" with a copycat "Man, We Had a Party."

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAccording to the liner notes as I remember them, Wanda Jackson dropped out of sight, resurfaced for not very satisfactory periods as a pure country singer, then took up gospel. Today she still performs her early hits on stage, although examples on YouTube suggest she doesn't wear the intervening half century lightly. Better to look at the grainy old black-and-white videos of her electrifying early days. Better still, check out the CD. She'll bring the party.

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1 comment:

Vanishing American said...

Rick, somehow I missed this post.
Wanda Jackson is one of the greats in rockabilly, and she stands alone as one of the few females to succeed in that genre. I suppose you could also count Lorrie Collins of the Collins Kids but Wanda Jackson had no peer.
I missed a chance to see her in person in South Texas a few years ago, and I wish I had, but maybe I'd prefer to remember her in her prime.
She was one of a kind. Thanks for this post