Wanda Jackson – Queen of Rockabilly at Islington Assembly HallCultureMusicLive music
Wanda Jackson bounded on stage last night, whoopin’ and hollerin’ her way through the Leiber and Stoller classic, Riot in Cell Block #9. Between songs – a mixture of yodelling country standards, rockabilly grooves and contemporary hits – she delighted the audience with a detailed and cheerful account of her life.
And what a life it has been: her career kick-started in 1952 when, upon winning a local talent concert, Jackson was granted a 15-minute daily show on KLPR that lasted throughout her high school years. Upon completing her studies, Jackson hit the road, becoming famous for injecting glamour and sparkle into country music with her elaborate stage outfits. The woman that took to the stage last night is every bit as glamorous as when she started out, rocking a shimmering fringe shirt and her trademark black bouffant hair.
It was during this touring period that Jackson met and hit it off with another member of rock ‘n’ roll royalty, Elvis Presley. “I have so much to thank Elvis for,” said Jackson last night, before launching into a fiery version of his 1956 hit Heartbreak Hotel and later on in the night crooning to his romantic ballad Like a Baby. “He asked me to be his girl,” she reminisced. “I still wear his ring around my neck today.”
Jackson certainly attracts the most colourful, distinct audience. Rockabilly, as a genre, has spawned an entire counter-culture made up of people – old and young – committed to upholding the music’s retro glamour and sense of fun. Last night, Islington Assembly Hall’s rather soulless interior was filled by a rainbow of 50s skirts, Hawaiian shirts, red lips, bleach blonde hair and vivid tattoos. It was a joy to behold; if Wanda is Queen of Rockabilly, then the audience were her loyal and humble servants.
Although she is constantly touring and on the move, Jackson’s career has enjoyed something of a revival recently due to her collaboration with enigmatic rock god Jack White on 2010’s acclaimed The Party Ain’t Over. Their version of Johnny Kidd and The Pirate’s Shakin’ All Over was a hip-shimmying delight.
Jackson also purred through a cover of Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good, switching some of the song’s more sexually explicit moments to words appropriate for a woman of 74. Despite its few moments of uncertainty over the lyrics, this rendition was a poignant nod to a tragic young woman who will never enjoy the same longevity, artistic growth and mellowing into greatness that Jackson herself has experienced. “I would have liked to have met Amy,” said Jackson with a sad smile, “but now I’ll never get the chance to.”
Despite this sombre note, the general atmosphere was one of celebration. “And it’s true, why should you just stop partying and enjoying life just because you’re getting older?” smiled Jackson to the appreciative whoops of her (largely much younger) audience. “So we got a lot of senior citizens in here tonight then?” she joked. This, I believe, is the secret to Jackson’s ongoing success. Her self-deprecating, warm-hearted delivery more than makes up for whatever patchiness or strains her vocals may battle through in some of the song’s higher notes. With more than 60 years in the business – and a recent European tour – behind her, who can blame her for a little bit of warble in her delivery?
As Queen of Rockabilly, Jackson is now celebrating her diamond jubilee year. If last night’s atmosphere is anything to go by, she shows no sign of letting her crown slip any time soon.
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