Wanda Jackson exchanged country music for rock’n’roll on the advice of her teenage boyfriend Elvis Presley – and never looked back.
I just love the introduction to this song. A tiny brunette in a party dress, holding an acoustic guitar, demurely introduces “one of the most beautiful love songs that’s ever been written – and we’d like to do it for all of y’all.”
Then she lets rip like Jerry Lee Lewis’s even more demented little sister.
Not for nothing did Wanda Jackson earn the title The Queen of Rockabilly, back before Elvis was crowned the King. In fact she played some of her earliest gigs with Elvis back in the mid-1950s and they were a romantic item for more than a year when he was starting out and she was still a teenager.
I was lucky enough to see Wanda when she was in her mid-seventies and her energy was undiminished despite being in her mid-seventies – a tiny fireball onstage in a room full of whooping and hollering psychobillies in Kilburn, all quiffs and sideburns, Hawaiian shirts and circle skirts, red lipstick and extravagant tattoos.
She had taken a train hundreds of miles from her last gig in eastern Europe to make it to the Lumiere in time because of the huge ash cloud that covered much of Europe at the time, causing planes to be grounded – and less stalwart performers to pull out of shows.
Her backing band didn’t make it, so she played with a pickup band that was, as far as I recall, the British psychobilly band The Polecats. As a result of having hired them only hours earlier, her set consisted largely of rockabilly standards that they already knew – and was all the better for that.
I remember she kicked off with her signature song, They Called It Rockabilly Long Before They Called It Rock And Roll and regaled us a number of anecdotes about her time with Elvis, whose ring she still wears around her neck to this day.
Her only false step was when she launched into an evangelical monologue about how she had found Jesus, and played Praise The Lord, which probably goes down a lot better in the Bible Belt than it did in a room full of hard-drinking Londoners less than half her age.
But like the trouper she is, she read the room and got right back on track with numbers like Riot In Cell Block #9, Fujiyama Mama, Mean Mean Man and her signature song, Let’s Have A Party.