WANDA JACKSON with the Rizdales and Ancient Chinese Secret at the Cadillac Lounge (1296 Queen West), Friday and Saturday (May 27 and 28). Sold out. 416-536-7717. www.wandajackson.com. Rating: NNNNN
While the names of rebel rockers like Billy Lee Riley, Ronnie Self, Rudy "Tutti" Grayzell and others are burned in the brains and sometimes tattooed on the arms of rockabilly fans around the world, their hiccupin' female counterparts, like Sparkle Moore, Janis Martin, Joyce Green and Charline Arthur, have largely been forgotten.
Even the queen of rockabilly, Wanda Jackson, who wrote and recorded some of the genre's most exciting and enduring music, rarely has her rip-snortin' classics featured on compilations, and much of her greatest work languishes out of print in North America.
Jackson really deserves to be considered along with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran as one of the ground-floor greats, but she has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She's actually been passed over for the decidedly un-rocking James Taylor and Paul Simon.
Today, Jackson might still be toiling in obscurity on the gospel circuit if it weren't for the encouragement of overseas fans as well as the many artists she inspired. Chief among them are the Cramps and Rosie Flores, who helped keep the sexually charged sound of Jackson's wilder side alive.
It was Flores who finally coaxed her back to the club circuit in 96, and Jackson has been hollerin' up a storm ever since. She's just getting back from her second tour of Scandinavia this year when I reach her at home in Oklahoma City to talk about the Bloodshot label tribute album Hard-Headed Woman: A Celebration Of Wanda Jackson.
On this tribute, the cast of alt-country and roots-rockin' acolytes including Flores, Kristi Rose, Robbie Fulks, Wayne Hancock, Kim Lenz, Laura Cantrell, Neko Case and others say thanks for the inspiration with personalized covers of Jackson's best-loved songs.
"Oh, I just loved that!" enthuses Jackson. "I really liked the way Jesse Sykes did Weary Blues, and Candy Kane's Rock Your Baby. I was just listening to that this morning.
"I also really enjoyed Kelly Hogan's version of Right Or Wrong. When you write a song, you tend to hear it a certain way. I've never heard anyone do Right Or Wrong like she did it. What a voice - that girl can really sing."
Along with revealing the stylistic diversity of Jackson's back catalogue - which includes storming rockers like Let's Have A Party as well as bluesy ballads and honky-tonk swingers - Hard-Headed Woman succeeds at showing off Jackson's songwriting chops.
Just composing the songs that she was recording was enough to set her apart from almost all of her contemporaries, but many of Jackson's songs also came with a jarring take-no-shit attitude that was very unusual for women artists of the Doris Day era.
"I was recording mostly other people's tunes until I started working in a rockabilly style. That's when I really began recording my own songs. It was mostly out of necessity, because I was having trouble finding anything written from a girl's perspective that I wanted to sing. So I just wrote my own.
"In those days, a lot of the songs women were singing were 'I'll love you forever' kinda things, while my feeling was more like 'If you don't love me, I'll wring your neck!' I guess I've always had a bit of an attitude."
No doubt that was appealing to the young Elvis Presley, who became Jackson's teen sweetheart soon after the two met at a radio session in 55. It was actually Presley who first encouraged the country starlet to try singing rock and roll. Later this year, Jackson will repay the favour by saluting Presley with a tribute album of her own, focusing on his Sun material recorded during the two years she wore his ring.
"At first I didn't think I could sing the kind of music that Elvis was doing, but he said, 'Of course you can - there's nothin' to it!' So when he had a show in Memphis, we went back to his mother's house and he started playing some of his 45s - mostly blues and R&B - so I could get an idea of where he was coming from. Then he got out his guitar and took me through it step by step. He really helped me a lot."
And what records was Presley playing?
"Now, Tim, honey, think about it. I'm alone with Elvis in his bedroom.... Do you really think I was paying any attention at all to those records?"