‘Queen of Rockabilly’ Wanda Jackson brings it to Somerville
By Jim Clark
The stage at Johnny D’s has played host to some of the most storied names in the world of popular music. On October 13 that stage will be tasked with containing the sprightly dynamism of Wanda Jackson and band, as she stops by on her current tour in support of her new upcoming album, Unfinished Business, to be released on October 9.
Jackson is regarded by many as the undisputed ‘Queen of Rockabilly,’ but has also captured accolades for her work in the country, gospel, and straight ahead rock and roll genres. She is widely acknowledged as the first female rock star, having scored hits such as Let’s Have A Party, Fujiyama Mama, and Funnel Of Love in the 50’s and 60’s.
From that time forward she has maintained a steady following of ardent admirers as she traversed her path, exploring and mastering the nuances of those musical styles that she has embraced.
Her collaboration with Jack White, of The White Stripes and solo fame, on 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over album and follow-up tour put her into the mainstream spotlight once again. Critical acclaim over the White produced record was all but unanimous.
Jackson’s newest release, Unfinished Business, boasts production duties by Justin Townes Earle, son of popular singer-songwriter Steve Earle. “From day one I really liked Justin’s idea to take me back to my roots and make a record of country, blues, and rockabilly songs. The band was extra tight and great to work with during the whole process. The record just sounds terrific and I’m hoping that my fans enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed making it.”
The production process was more old school, Jackson said. “It was special for me to be able to be singing in the same room with the band members. It gives the songs a real ‘live’ feeling. That is something I haven’t done for many years.” Jackson had further high praise for the production techniques used in these sessions, citing the opportunity to go through the “scratch vocal” technique in seeking the proper keys and tempos for each song. “The recording process for this album was very satisfying for me,” Jackson effused.
Jackson is more than qualified to judge and comment on the state of the recording industry, having been a working professional in the scene since the very inception of rock and roll and the “modern” era of country music. As a young child, her father moved the family from their Oklahoma home base out to California. There, she absorbed the musical styles of such country swing notables as Tex Williams, Spade Cooley, and Bob Wills, having had the ability to see them live in concert.
The family eventually moved back to Oklahoma City, and in 1952, at the age of 12, Jackson won a local talent contest and was given a 15-minute daily radio show – that was soon expanded to 30 minutes – on a local station. Hank Thompson was impressed by what he heard on the show and in 1954 invited Jackson to perform with his group, the Brazos Valley Boys, and ended up recording a few records on their Capitol Records label. The single You Can’t Have My Love, a duet with Thompson’s bandleader, Billy Gray, reached No. 8 on the country chart. When Jackson approached Capitol about being signed for a record deal of her own she was turned down and told by producer Ken Nelson, “Girls don’t sell records.” Jackson secured a deal with Decca Records, however, and soon proved him wrong in a big way.
Jackson finished high school and then began touring as a performer, often sharing the bill with Elvis Presley, who she also briefly dated at the time. Both Presley and her father, who served as her manager and chaperone, encouraged Jackson to record and perform rockabilly songs in addition to the standard country fare that she presented. She made regular appearances on ABC-TV’s Ozark Jubileeprogram from 1955–60.
Aided by her mother, Jackson worked on developing an image that matched the style of music that she was presenting. “I was the first one to put some glamour in the country music: fringe dresses, high heels, long earrings.” Her trademark wardrobe set the standard for female artists to come after her.
Ironically, she eventually signed a record deal with Capitol, and directed producer Nelson to make her recordings sound similar to label-mates Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, emulating their unmistakable rockabilly edge. Many of the day’s top session musicians were brought in to work with Jackson, including pianist Merill Moore and a new arrival on the scene, Buck Owens.
A string of hits followed, as Jackson’s star continued to rise. Her fame reached across oceans when she recorded a number of records for the German and Japanese markets.
As rockabilly’s popularity gradually began to wane in the mid-60’s, her focus shifted to country music. By the 70’s she had largely moved into the field of gospel music, after marrying and turning to Christianity at that time. Since then she has remained a steadfast fan favorite, and returned to secular performing in the 80’s. Successful tours all over the globe further secured her position as the “First Lady” of country and rockabilly.
Her influence on new generations of musicians cannot be overestimated. Fellow female artists such as Cyndi Lauper, Rosanne Cash, Pam Tillis, Jann Browne and Rosie Flores have cited Jackson’s classic rockabilly records as a major influence on their works. According to popular songstress Adele, “She’s like my rockabilly Etta James. I love her, she’s so brilliant. I don’t think Rollin’ in the Deep would exist if it wasn’t for Wanda Jackson.” Of Jackson’s work, Bruce Springsteen has said, “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.” The legendary Bob Dylan has said, “Wanda Jackson, an atomic fireball of a lady, could have a smash hit with just about anything.”
Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
As she turns 75 this month, Jackson declares that she is nowhere near stopping the rollercoaster ride that continues unabated. “I’ll probably keep going until I drop,” she cheerily declares. That is the prime messages she hopes to deliver in the title of her forthcoming album, Unfinished Business. “There is a lot yet that I have to do.”
We can be grateful that we have the opportunity to enjoy more of her musical virtuosity, especially in an intimate live setting such as that being offered at Johnny D’s. Thankfully, for all concerned, the party is far from over.
Wanda Jackson performs on Saturday, October 13, 8 p.m., at Johnny D’s, 17 Holland St., Somerville. Phone: (617) 776-2004. Web: www.johnnyds.com.