A Look At Life: Rockabilly

4th July 2014

Put your hands together for…
Wanda Jackson, Rockabilly Queen

Jack Watkins

You might have noticed a few programmes on BBC Radio 2 lately celebrating the 60th anniversary of ‘the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll’. That’s because, along with 1954 being the year Elvis Presley recorded That’s All Right Mama for Sam Philips’s Sun record label in Memphis, Tennessee, it was also when Bill Haley and the Comets cut Rock Around the Clock. The latter went on to sell 22 million copies around the world, probably more than any other record in rock history.

Now I’ve no problem with old Bill getting little bit of the action. To show how old I am, I can remember him and the band winding up on Blue Peter, circa 1977, on a nostalgia tour. Bill, with his beaming round face and big, cow eyes, looked more like a dependable uncle – he must have been about 52 at the time (I thought he was Methuselah) – than a wildman teen hero. He had been quickly swept aside as the 1950s progressed, anyway, by more daring and photogenic rockers like Elvis, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent. Still, Bill Haley and the Comets were a lot more talented than we knew, and having too often been left out of the story of the evolution of rock, he deserves every plaudit he gets.

It’s annoying, though, how music documentaries so often coalesce around the old familiar names. How many more on the Rolling Stones or the Beatles do we have to take? How about, for a change, something on the early female pioneers of Rock ‘n’ Roll, such as Janis Martin, Connie Francis ,Brenda Lee and – the greatest of them all – Wanda Jackson? The thought arose in my mind the other day on receipt of a welcome parcel from Easy Action.

This is a small British record company (www.easyaction.co.uk) specialising in selling beautifully put together rereleases, often on vinyl, of recordings by ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’s primeval aristocracy.’ They’ve been doing a fine job rereleasing some of Chuck Berry’s earliest albums from the late 1950s, and have another one coming up later this summer on seminal early rockabilly outfit Johnny Burnette and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio.

And Wanda Jackson: Rockabilly Queen is the latest vintage. It’s a pink vinyl beauty, a remastered pressing in LP format, on Easy Action’s Vip Vop label, of nearly all of Wanda’s rocking-most tracks from between 1957 and 1961. It’s hard to put into words the visceral thrill you get from hearing the likes of Hard Headed Woman, Rock Your Baby, Riot in Cell Block Number 9 and Long Tall Sally.

Jackson had the looks of Cleopatra and is widely credited with having brought a touch of glamour to the redneck world of rockabilly, with her drop earrings and dazzling dresses – specially designed for her by her mother – but, of course, you can’t see the visual image on a spinning disc, and what comes though the speakers is her sheer talent, her formidable growl and her humour, laced with a delightful southern belle twang.

For at heart, Wanda was, and remains, a country girl, and would actually record some superb country sides like In the Middle of A Heartache and Right or Wrong (I’ll Be With You) which are well worth seeking out if you find yourself succumbing to her charms on the Vip Vop album. She dated Elvis for a brief period in the mid-50s, and it was the so-called Hillbilly Cat, as he was dubbed at the time, who encouraged her to let rip with her more rocking side – “freer, with more teenage attitude and that vocal hiccup,” as she put it. Nina Antonia, who wrote the sleeve notes for the album, refers to her “high octane husk.”

There was never anything of the token female rockabilly about Wanda, though. She was a genuine talent, a fully trained musician who always had excellent musicians in her band. She didn’t actually figure much in the pop charts until after rockabilly’s period of greatest fashionability had passed. In more recent times, she has recorded with Jack White of the White Stripes, with mixed results. The greatness of rockabilly lies in simplicity, not overkill, a foreign concept to the too technology-dependent performers of the 21st century. Wanda Jackson didn’t just
rock, she had unforced soulfulness, and she could channel it into three minutes of heaven. Now then, about that documentary…

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