Fifty-eight years into a hugely successful and iconic rock-and-roll career, Wanda Jackson still gets onstage wide-eyed and impressed as if it’s her very first time. “Wow, what a fancy place,” she said of The Hamilton, Washington, D.C.’s latest live performance-meets-dinner theater venue. “I don’t think this is the kind of place for rockin’ and rollin’, but if you do…you might want to bring along some Alka Seltzer!”
Seventy-five years young, Jackson is truly the first female rock star. “We called it rockabilly then, or was it rock and roll? I guess it doesn’t really matter, they’re the same thing.” Within an hour, a packed house received an education in the roots and fruits of rock. Equal parts country and Elvis, with a little bit of Jack White and Amy Winehouse thrown in for good measure, it was a stirring of the echoes turning into a whoopin’ and hollerin’ feel good night.
Jackson started off things with her rendition of legendary rock songwriters Leiber and Stoller’s handiwork of a night in a women’s prison gone wrong, “Riot in Cellblock Number 9.” To hear Jackson’s well worn yet throaty vocals still possess a level of magic to make teenage wantonness into a timeless notion was impressive. Within two minutes an entire room went from cooing and revering an old woman to wanting to play along and be wrapped around her little finger. The jet black beehive and bangs were still there, as was a cream and gold sequined and fringed jacket. Classy and timeless as ever, we were transported back in time to Maud, Oklahoma, where a bright-eyed 17-year old girl with big bangs and a bigger heart had taken the stage as Elvis’s opening act.
It was a night that was impressed due to storytelling as well. From starting as a strictly country artist recalling Elvis telling her to record “his kind of music” to giving her life to Christ, being married to the same man for 51 years and recording a wildly successful album with ex-White Stripes guitarist Jack Black, she, like the timeless Sinatra lyric, lived her life “her way,” and was more than happy to oblige in earnestly and honestly chronicling it for us all. An example of one of the highlight stories of the evening? Her first number one song? Well, it occurred in Japan. 1957’s “Fujiyama Mama,” a rockabilly cover of an R & B classic that with lyrics like “Ive been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too / the same I did to them baby, I can do to you” when cooed by the then 20-year old, cute and spunky Jackson had immediate global appeal. Still, to this day, she claims, “when I’m overseas, everyone – no matter the generation – knows all of the words.”
Intriguing for more modern pop fans was her retelling of working with Jack Black on 2011 album The Party Ain’t Over. Described as being “a stone wrapped in velvet,” she did praise the taskmaster of a producer for his bold choice of her covering Amy Winehouse’s 2007 classic “You Know I’m No Good.” The 21st century equivalent of Northern girl-group songs from the same era as when Jackson ruled rockabilly, it was intriguing to hear the song sung with rockabilly phrasing.
What makes rockabilly great is the same thing that drives early country. Great singers aren’t so much tops as vocalists as they are excellent at clear and plain talking, words being drained of melodic timbre and delivered as a series of cold, hard facts. Amy Winehouse sings the lyrics “I’m in the tub, you on the seat / Lick your lips as a I soak my feet / And then you notice my little carpet burns / My stomach drop and my guts churn / You shrug and it’s the worst / Who truly stuck the knife in first” with an accented lilt that gives it the sense that she’s a recalcitrant Lolita attempting to curry favor through sensuality. As sung by Jackson, the song’s subject is a cold-hearted woman, staring her man in the eye until he apologizes for trying to care.
Wanda Jackson is an American treasure. Near the end of her set, while performing 1960 hit “Let’s Have a Party,” her voice began to crack. However, she bravely soldiered on through the song. Whereas for a younger or less established performer, the hush that fell over the room would be considered a dismissal of their potential, something much different happened to the rockabilly great. “WE’LL ALWAYS LOVE YOU MRS. JACKSON” a voice shouted out from the crowd. “Well, I guess you’re my lover, aren’t you. Let me strike one of those cute ’50s poses for you!” Even in the face of the unfortunate, the earnestness, the humanity and just the downright likability that has endeared her to generations of rock fanatics shone through.