The Party Ain’t Over – Wanda Jackson

  • Bob Dylan's track Thunder On The Mountain from his Modern Times (2006) album includes the enigmatic reference to "thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys". Why Alicia Keys? What was it about her that drew Dylan's attention? Had he happened by chance to hear her on the radio, or had her name been nudged into his attention by a third party? Maybe he felt the song needed a contemporary reference, and it was quite by chance that he selected Alicia Keys instead of, say Boyonc� or Rihanna. Maybe Alicia's name just fitted the rhyme scheme? Whatever, when Wanda Jackson reinterprets the song for this album she alters the reference to a more logical Jerry Lee Lewis. Wanda knew Jerry Lee. "When he was born in Ferriday, I was living down the line," she sings truthfully. She'd toured with 'the killer'. When she reconfigures the lyric it becomes autobiographical in a way that Dylan's original is not.

    Now, when rock has more past than it has future, most record-buyers know Wanda Jackson for her hit Let's Have A Party, which reached a UK #32 in September 1960 (#37 in US Billboard that same October). The song, written by Jessie Mae Robinson, was lifted from the soundtrack of Elvis Presley's second movie, Lovin' You, and is referenced in the title of this current album. As a kid I misheard her sing the lyric "send to the store" as 'sin to the soul', and although wrong in the literal sense, the way she belts out the line suggests that in another sense, I was absolutely right. For a couple of years she was 'queen of rockabilly', although prior to that and across the period afterwards, she worked in country music with considerable success.

    Born Wanda Jean Goodman* in Maud, Oklahoma (20th October 1937) she started young, joined radio station KLPR after winning a talent competition, scored a Decca contract, and sang with Hank Thompson's western-swing band. But it was when she switched labels in 1956 that Ken Nelson, producer at Capitol, saw in her energetic vocal wildness a female version of their star rocker Gene Vincent. For her Capitol sessions she even recorded with Bluecaps' guitarist Roy Clark, as well as with boogie-pianist Merril E. Moore, Merle Travis, and a young Buck Owens playing rhythm. She subsequently achieved a primitive 'Sun'-records echo on Honey Bop, inserted odd tempo-changes from country dirge to jumpy rocker into I Gotta Know, and cut the proto-feminist Hot Dog, That Made Him Mad - offering advice on how to deal with your errant man.To promote her subsequent hits Mean Mean Man (a gender-switched re-write of Mean Woman Blues), In The Middle Of A Heartache, and Fujiyama Mama she toured with other early rockers, including Elvis, who dated her and encouraged her rock 'n' roll ambitions. So much so that journalist Mat Snow considered Wanda "had moments when she was not only queen of rock 'n' roll - but king too!" (in NME, 10th May 1986). Maybe it was the onset of Brenda Lee, with a similar raw-power vocal attack, but served by better songwriters, that prompted Wanda's return to country. Whatever, the sides she cut with Capitol, including her album Rockin' With Wanda (1960) only increased in value to avid collectors across the decades since.

    It would be interesting to have sat in with Wanda and her producer Jack White when the song-selection for The Party Ain't Over was being planned. Did Wanda draw up her own list? Did White have his own programme of songs in preparation? Did one choice predominate over the other, or did they compare and contrast, working on the track listing together, arguing the final selection out by compromise and trading titles one against the other? When Wanda appeared on the Jools Holland New Year 'Hootenanny' it would have been helpful if there'd been at least a brief interview, sufficient to iron out such details. But there wasn't. In her white fringed top, black stretch-slacks and boots she allowed the songs to stand, opening with Rip It Up. The 'Bumps' Blackwell and John Marascalco song was most perfectly recorded by Little Richard - but also by Bill Haley, Elvis, the Everly brothers, and later by John Lennon. She treats it to the same curiously clipped diction she uses for the whole album. Whether an evolving style-affectation, or something that advancing years has invested, it works to staccato effect on this classic rocker.

    The White Stripes have an authenticity that few rock bands have achieved in decades. Jack White did this by, rather than learning from his immediate contemporaries, rehearsing rock, blues and Americana by studying bands who had copied bands who copied bands all the way back to the originals, Eric Clapton or the 'Stones - with each generation-copy losing some of the original sharpness like copying and recopying videotapes, Jack White took his inputs direct from their root sources. He knows his music, and once he'd achieved sufficient visibility he furthered that by seeking out and working with surviving practitioners. Much as Rick Rubin championed and resuscitated the moribund career of Johnny Cash. This elevates his credibility, certainly. But there's something else that suggests it's an exercise in genuine dues-paying.

    The progenitor prototype for the Wanda Jackson project was self-evidently Jack's Grammy-winning collaboration with Loretta Lynn on the 2004 album Van Lear Rose. Unlike the Lynn project, which was worked up from newly-written songs, Wanda ranges far and wide for material. And faced with two options for the album, either recreating the simple rockabilly sounds of the 1950s, or slotting her raw vocal style into current technology, he chooses neither. Cut at Jack's analogue Third Man Studios in Nashville, the third way is to step sideways into a timeless arrangement of near-burlesque horn-flourishes which work best on the jaunty Caribbean sway of Rum And Coca-Cola - about local island-girls dubiously "working for the Yankee dollar," which picked up heavy Radio 2 airplay as a result. Another focal point is Wanda's interpretation of Amy Winehouse's You Know I'm No Good, with Jack White's dirty raunch back-up erupting into a swaggering Dixieland break. The years of weary experience Wanda draws into the lyric gives it an unexpected dimension distanced from the more fecund Winehouse original.

    Elsewhere she delves back to 1930 for Jimmie Rodgers' Blue Yodel no.6, then adds electro-quivers to Johnny Kidd and The Pirates' Shakin' All Over, going from Ray Charles' Busted, to Eddie Cochran's early flat-out rocker Nervous Breakdown - not only a dry-run for the three CF&G riff-chords of C'Mon Everybody but the "no more cruisin' for a week or two/ no more runnin' round with the usual crew" lyric too. There's also Jessie Stone's Like A Baby, maybe most familiar as one of the King's most powerful blues-performances on the Elvis Is Back (1960) album. But the question of song selection is brought most perfectly into focus by Kitty Wells' Dust On The Bible (also done by Hank Williams) about the dire consequences of neglecting the gospels. What Jack White might consider quaintly ironic, there's just a sneaking suspicion that Wanda - who drifted into the dubious Christian-rock zone in the 1970s, might actually take these lyrics seriously. Perhaps, for her, the opportunity to chide a corrupt world about the need for godliness, is her motivation for participating in the project at all? While, returning to the Dylan song, although she cuts and rearranges the lyrics of Thunder On The Mountain to her evident satisfaction, the line "for the love of god, you ought to take pity on yourself" is left intact.