Album: Wanda Jackson, The Party Ain't Over (Nonesuch / Third Man)
Sunday 23 January 2011
For years, maybe even decades, Wanda Jackson was written out of the accepted histories of women in rock.
Incredibly, she doesn't even merit a mention in Lucy O'Brien's She-Bop or Joy Press & Simon Reynolds' The Sex Revolts, to name but two.
But make no mistake, Jackson was about as vitally important a figure as it's possible to get. The first female ever to record a rock'n'roll record, having been persuaded by a young Elvis Presley, whom she supported – and dated – when she was still a 19-year-old country singer, to cover his own "Let's Have a Party" (to which the title The Party Ain't Over is clearly a reference). Jackson single-handedly showed an alternative to the twee, demure, "How Much is That Doggy in the Window" with her rasping delivery and raw rockabilly, and scandalised Nashville by showing her shoulders on the Grand Ole Opry stage (it really was another world).
The Queen of Rockabilly retreated to the world of country and gospel in the late 1960s, but in more recent years Jackson, now 74, has been coaxed back in the direction of rock'n'roll, helped by the patronage of alternative types such as the Cramps and the Fall, by her portrayal in Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, the channelling of her style by the likes of Imelda May, and now by the intervention of Jack White.
Having already recorded an album with Loretta Lynn, White has previous form for working with septuagenarian country divas, and The Party Ain't Over doesn't foolishly try anything clever or radical, merely allowing that voice – its rough edges still intact – to do what it does best.
On a dozen carefully picked covers, she's backed by a band including assorted Raconteurs, Dead Weathers and My Morning Jackets, White's missus Karen Elson, and Jack himself, whose lightning fingertips were born to tear into the immortal riff of the opener "Shakin' All Over".
In the main, she remains stylistically faithful to the originals, such as the blistering big-band boogie of Little Richard's "Rip it Up". She's perhaps least comfortable on Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good" – you've got to wonder what she makes of references to Stella and pitta – even though she growls gamely through. She's on more familiar turf with Hank Williams' "Dust on the Bible", a lone piece of religiosity which she has the decency to tuck away at track nine.
It ends with Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodle #6" (sic) on which, following the line "When a woman's down, you men don't want her around...", she slips in the whispered afterthought "...rascals!" It's a moment which – like the entire album – cannot help but put a smile on your face.
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