She’s been dubbed “the sweet lady with the nasty voice,” and anyone who has met her and had seen her perform live can appreciate the dichotomy of that statement. Wanda Jackson, the undisputed Queen of Rockabilly Music, bridged nascent rock & roll with traditional country in the Fifties, then proceeded to blow up that bridge with a one-of-a-kind voice like spring-loaded dynamite wrapped in sandpaper.
The 81-year-old Jackson, who recently announced her retirement from performing after more than 60 years, has had an ardent following not only in the U.S. but throughout Europe and Japan, peppering her live shows with the rockabilly ravers that kicked off her career, and the later country hits that kept it going. Among her devoted fans are two men named Elvis (Presley, whom she dated, and Costello, who championed her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Lemmy from Motorhead, and produer-musicians Jack White and Justin Townes Earle, who oversaw latter-day projects for her.
Here are Jackson’s 10 essential performances, representing her forays into rock, pop and country and stretching from the Fifties right up through this decade.
Jackson showed her sense of humor as she introduced this fierce rocker during a 1958 appearance on California’s Town Hall Party TV show, calling the tune “one of the most beautiful love songs that’s ever been written.” Accompanied in the clip by guitarist Joe Maphis, Jackson recorded her sizzling version in Nashville in the fall of 1960. Among the musicians on those sessions was young guitar whiz Roy Clark.
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“Shakin’ All Over”
Bridesmaids fans might know this rollicking rocker and its unusual fits and starts from the film’s closing credits. A 1960 U.K. Number One for Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, Jackson featured it on her 30th studio LP, The Party Ain’t Over, a 2011 collaboration with producer Jack White. This wildly electric performance from the Late Show With David Letterman led to the 73-year-old Jackson setting a record as the oldest female artist to make the Billboard 200 album chart.
“Let’s Have a Party”
Although her former beau Elvis Presley had recorded this song before Jackson, the singer only knew it through fellow Town Hall Party performers Larry and Lorrie Collins. The amped-up tempo, pounding piano and ringing guitars set the frantic pace, but Jackson’s wild and wicked vocal makes this an invitation worth accepting. Jackson’s version was later used in the film Dead Poet’s Society, and the song has been covered in live shows by Led Zeppelin.
“Pick Me Up on Your Way Down”
Jackson’s flamethrower of a rock & roll voice could also belt out pure, passionate honky-tonk as in the case of this acerbic Harlan Howard tune that had been a huge hit for Charlie Walker in 1958. With Ranch Party regular Fiddlin’ Kate Warren kicking off the performance, Jackson soon takes command of the stage, her Oklahoma roots on fine display throughout.
“In the Middle of a Heartache”
In January 1960, Jackson was in Capitol’s famed Hollywood recording studio, on the cusp of her big break at country radio. With the legendary Ken Nelson producing, and a band that included steel player Buddy Emmons and fiddler Gordon Terry, she cut this very different version of the song that would become her biggest hit in 1961. Eschewing the bouncy fiddle-and-steel arrangement here, the hit version was awash in strings and lush background vocals and would reach country’s Top Ten and the pop Top 30.
Compton, California’s Town Hall Party (also known as Ranch Party) tapings brought stars of country music’s Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride to the west coast, along with such rockabilly acts as Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and Wanda Jackson, one of the few women — and certainly the hardest-rocking — to step into the spotlight. Featuring lyrics with hip jargon (“let’s start gettin’ with it baby, you’re actin’ like a square to me”), Jackson shakes her fringey outfit and attacks her guitar like a total badass.
“Right or Wrong”
Nationally syndicated out of Boulder, Colorado, and co-hosted by bluegrass musician Nick Forster and his wife Helen, the eTown radio show was a favorite of Jackson’s. It’s easy to see why in this 2014 webisode, as she croons with confident ease the self-penned ballad “Right or Wrong.” A 1960 Top Ten that signaled the rocker’s return to her country roots, Jackson’s B-side of the hit, “Funnel of Love,” would lead off Cyndi Lauper’s 2014 country LP, Detour.
“Fujiyama Mama” (with Jack White)
The song that hit Number One in Japan — where volcano Mount Fuji stands as one of the most majestic sites on the planet. The tune’s success there was also a dream come true for Jackson, who was enamored of Asian style and had dreamed of visiting the exotic island nation from childhood. Jack White and band backed her on the tune at a 2011 performance in Brooklyn, but Jackson quickly took command of the proceedings, delivering a performance erupting with swagger.
“I’m Tore Down”
In 2012, Justin Townes Earle was at the helm of Jackson’s Sugar Hill album Unfinished Business, offering a more stripped-down, organic representation of the rockabilly legend in contrast to Jack White’s more ostentatious approach a year earlier. Accompanying this easy-rolling version of a 1961 Freddie King blues hit was a music video featuring a trio of female rebels looking to cause trouble for anyone who gets in their way. And if you’ve been searching for something that links Jackson with porn star Ron Jeremy, you’re in luck.
“Thunder on the Mountain”
Producer Jack White got a hot tip on this song for Jackson’s The Party Ain’t Over from the guy who wrote it, one Bob Dylan. Sounding a bit like Dylan’s original Modern Times version on a heavy dose of helium, Jackson nevertheless substitutes the odd shout-out to Alicia Keys for one closer to her rockabilly bone, name-checking Jerry Lee Lewis and his hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana. White termed the end result “explosive” and he — and Dylan — were right.