|Out Of The Blue
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|Local & National Entertainment Coverage Since 2001. For The Fans, By The Fans.
As a journalistic writer for most of my adult life, I am fascinated with cliché. While there is a resistance to use trite
figures of speech to describe unique events, sometimes it becomes evident why those cliché exist; they are based
upon basic truths. This time, I found myself questioning the cliché, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. When
veteran rockabilly singer Wanda Jackson came to Columbus for her Rumba Café show recently, she most certainly
disproved this maxim. While she performed faithful versions of songs recorded over 55 years ago, the diminutive
76-year-old added a few fresh twists that speak to the twenty-something Americana and Roots-Rock fans of today.
Her youthful and capable backing band, Louisville’s Ladybirds, kicked off the 90-minute set with what is becoming a
rockabilly cliché, a rendition of the Link Wray instrumental “Rumble.” As the ominous tune finished, the iconic Wanda
Jackson took the stage. The elderly five-foot-nothing singer, dressed in an age-appropriate crimson dress with jacket
and dyed-black bouffant hairdo, warmly greeted the audience and tore into her 1960 near-hit, a cover of the Coasters’
“Riot in Cell Block #9.” Adding the lyrical twist of a women’s prison gave the song a wonderfully sleazy quality that
evoked similarly-themed trashy films. This was not lost on an audience comprised mainly of members of Generations
X and Y.
As the night progressed, Jackson and the Ladybirds treated the crowd to several of her famed songs, effortlessly
switching back-and-forth between ballsy rockers and traditional country fare. The “Queen of Rockabilly” introduced the
incendiary “Fujiyama Mama” as her only number one hit, which is true; the song topped the charts in Japan in 1958.
Sadly, the success with rock ‘n’ roll was not echoed in the USA, where her best-selling records were more country-
flavored. Reflecting this other side of the coin, the Oklahoma native crooned her way through beautiful Nashville
balladry like “Right or Wrong,” the pivotal 1961 country hit that laid the plans for the remainder of her 1960's recording
career as a “mature” Nashville vocalist.
A song that contained both sides was the split personality “I Gotta Know.” Raucous and irreverent, the verses rock
in 2/4 time. The choruses, begging for love and marriage, slip into a gorgeously sanctimonious country waltz.
Although losing the traditional fiddle of the original recording, the Ladybirds effortlessly shifted the song between
moods and attitudes.
As noted, this show was not just about nostalgia. Ms. Jackson performed songs from her 2011 Jack White-produced
album, The Party Ain’t Over. Describing her younger mentor as a “velvet brick” who used his charm to ultimately get
his creative way, the singer showed fans a side rooted in vintage soul with an interpretation of Amy Winehouse’s
“I’m So Bad” that beautifully carried on the legacy of the late British chanteuse. Another Jack White-inspired trick was
a take on the Johnny Kidd chestnut “Shakin’ All Over,” with erotic vibrato added to both lead guitar and the veteran
singer’s voice. In the hands of a woman, this sexual tune takes on entirely new shades of meaning. What a refreshing
twist on a beloved warhorse.
Along the way, Jackson recounted her mid-‘fifties friendship with Elvis Presley which included numerous chaperoned
dates. The King’s inspiration was reflected in passionate covers of “Hard Headed Woman” and “Let’s Have a Party”
that, in many ways, outstripped Presley’s original versions. A bit of originality showed up in a slow and soulful
interpretation of “Heartbreak Hotel” colored with nimble runs on the Fender Rhodes electric piano, evoking an entirely
different era of Memphis music.
Wanda Jackson closed the night with her testimony to Jesus Christ, to whom she dedicated her life in 1971.
She followed with a heartfelt take on the Hank Williams gospel classic, “I Saw the Light.” An audience of believers
and non-believers alike felt the inspiration and joined in on the choruses on what proved to be the zenith of a rockabilly
aficionado’s spiritual event.
First Lady of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson remains resurgent
Seventy-six-year-old Wanda Jackson is noted as the first female rockabilly vocalist and the first woman
to have a hit rock song. During her career, she has worked with artists including Elvis Presley and
Roy Clark and most recently, Jack White. (Photo Courtesy Publicity)