Wanda Jackson, who performs at the High Noon Saloon on Sunday, Aug. 6, met Elvis Presley in 1955 when both singers were performing on a package tour. Jackson was just 17 at the time and pursuing a career in country music. But Presley advised her to start singing rockabilly, and she listened.
Kinescopes of her TV appearances attest that the teenage Jackson was a respectable country singer. But her rockabilly work was out of this world. Wrapping her high, nasal voice around unhinged sides like "Fujiyama Mama," "Mean Mean Man" and her biggest hit, the bourbon-and-Coke corker "Let's Have a Party," she was a female hellion every bit the equal of Elvis' rockabilly cat. Live footage from the '50s available at Youtube.com shows a winking, wisecracking teenager performing with as much fire as any punk rocker or riot grrrl.
A lot of the bad-girl attitude was an act, of course. Jackson's dad went out on tour with her until she married in the early '60s, and the handful of dates she had with Presley between 1955 and '56 apparently never went beyond the occasional movie matinee. Even so, Jackson's spunk was very real, and if rockabilly hadn't begun to fade just as she scored her biggest hit with "Let's Have a Party," rock 'n' roll might have developed very differently.
Today, Jackson's voice isn't quite so nasal, and her trademark banshee yells aren't nearly as crazed as they were when Japanese fans sent her version of "Fujiyama Mama" to the top of their country's singles chart for six months, despite the lyrics' offhanded references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A long gospel career also softened her edges.
But she's still plenty feisty. Her latest CD, I Remember Elvis, finds her performing spot-on versions of "Heartbreak Hotel," "Good Rockin' Tonight" and "Mystery Train" that are both fiery and wise. And the sexagenarian's takes on "Let's Have a Party" and other old hits are plenty potent, too. Why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has failed to induct Jackson despite the entreaties of Elvis Costello and other vocal supporters is a great mystery. She's the "Queen of Rockabilly," after all, and one of rock 'n' roll's greatest mavericks. The music and its fans owe her a lot.