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May 17, 2017

City Winery, Chicago

Wanda Jackson & The Ladybirds 

by Linda Cain

photos: Roman Sobus

At age 79, Wanda Jackson remains an inspiration, not only as a live performer but as a recording artist whose musical legacy – that dates back 62 years to the 1950s -- continues to be discovered by younger generations. She was a trailblazing pioneer during the birth of rock ‘n’ roll music. In a male-dominated field, teenaged Wanda stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the bad boys, eclipsing them all with her fiery personae and hell-raising vocals.

Wanda Jackson LP cover, the Queen 

The Queen of Rockabilly can count among her fans Elvis Presley on up to Jack White and Adele. Throughout her 73-minute show, she told fascinating stories about all of them in great detail. Her set list heartily covered the genre she helped define: rockabilly. But it also included several of her country music hits along with a gospel song. Wanda’s backup band, The Ladybirds from Kentucky, were impressively adept at  delivering the goods for all three styles, not to mention keeping up with whatever antics the boss lady threw at them.

Wanda Jackson by Roman Sobus 

The rockin’ five-piece ensemble – keyboard, two electric guitars, bass and drums – opened the show with a sinuous version of the Link Wray instrumental “Rumble,” that got the retro music fans in the crowd pumped up. Without further ado, the drummer played the snare drum intro to “Riot in Cell Block #9” as Ms. Jackson made her entrance, decked out in shocking pink fringe and rhinestones. Seated on a stool at center stage, Wanda screamed, growled and purred the lyrics to the rock’n’roll prisoner tale.

The Rock And Roll Hall of Famer segued right into another rockabilly classic, “Rock Your Baby (All Night Long)” that had us boppin’.  After this, Ms. Jackson explained that she was recovering from knee surgery and thus had to perform while seated. Her City Winery show was originally scheduled for April 1st, but was postponed until now.

Wanda Jackson by Roman Sobus 

The singer then introduced her next song as “the very first rock ’n’ roll song I ever recorded.”  Prior to this, Wanda was strictly a teenaged country performer with a golden voice. The song, “I Gotta Know,” she explained, was written specifically for her. The Ladybirds proved their chops on this quirky number which shifted styles and tempos between country music and rock ‘n’ roll throughout.

Wanda introduced the next song, her hit “Funnel of Love,” with a story about British multi-Grammy and Oscar winning singer/songwriter Adele. It seems Adele first heard the song while riding on a bus in her youth. She asked the driver, “Who is that?” and became an instant Wanda Jackson fan. “She said it inspired her to write ‘Rolling In The Deep’,” Wanda related. Adele also invited Wanda on tour as the opening act for 10 shows, which no doubt won the rockabilly legend new fans of an even younger generation.

Wanda Jackson by Roman Sobus 

The versatile Ms. Jackson switched gears to chat about her country music career and sang two of her past hits: one a tell-off song about a little lady who teaches a lesson to a big man while wielding a big iron skillet. The second country song featured a bouncy polka beat that got us clapping along as Wanda took us by surprise with some first class yodeling!

Wanda Jackson cowgirl  

Then it was time for the story we were all waiting to hear: the first time she met Elvis Presley! At age 17, Wanda was an up-and-coming country artist from Oklahoma. “The first person I toured with was Elvis.” They first met at a radio station and Wanda wasn’t aware of him or his music. But he made a big first impression. “He wasn’t like any of the Oklahoma boys. He had long sideburns, wore a yellow sport coat and drove a pink Cadillac! I thought: Oh, boy, what am I getting myself into?”

Wanda & Elvis 

Even with her father on tour as Wanda’s manager, she and Elvis managed to have a brief romance, mixed with music business. “I credit Elvis for my success, he encouraged me to sing like he did, to sing rock ‘n’ roll, for a teenaged audience because they bought lots of records.”

Wanda then dedicated the next song to Elvis and to all of her fellow rockabilly buddies from the 1950s -- all of them men -- as she was the first female rock ‘n’ roll artist. She was rightfully inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.

Wanda sang “Heartbreak Hotel” in her own emotive style -- not an imitation of Elvis -- her plaintive voice alternating between whispers and shouts, with plenty of pathos for good measure.

Wanda then related how another rock star has influenced her: Jack White. He called her in 2009 to see if she’d record an album that he would produce and play on. “He was a slave driver… But we really had a great time,” she said about the sessions that yielded the acclaimed The Party Ain’t Over album on White’s Third Man Records label.

Wanda & Jack White 

The Ladybirds kicked off the thumpin’ intro to “Shakin’ All Over” as Wanda belted it out and shook her pink fringed shoulders; she even “shook her voice” by spinning a quavering vibrato on her vocals. She slapped her thigh and snapped her fingers as the band simply smoked and the house rocked. Jack White would have loved it.

 “Jack and I only butted heads on this next song. I thought it was too sexually explicit for me and not age appropriate. I didn’t think my fans would like it,” she explained. However, White prevailed. The song was Amy Winehouse’s “I’m No Good” and Wanda commenced to sing it for us, dramatically expressing the story of love and betrayal; her vocals ranged from coquettish to snarling. (She did, however, alter a verse in which Winehouse sang about her “buzzer” going off). The Ladybirds rocked out for the big finish and the house cheered and stomped for Wanda.

Wanda took us back to 1959 for her first Number One rock ‘n’ roll hit single. Her ultimate bad girl song, “Fujiyama Mama,” topped the charts…in Japan! As the band started playing, Wanda attempted to open a water bottle without success so she handed it to a fan in the front row who helped. After taking a swig, the singer walked across the stage, splashing water on several patrons in the front seats. Yes, Ms. Jackson is still a Fujiyama Mama!

Wanda Jackson plays guitar 

She settled down for “Right or Wrong” a country ballad featuring some nice Floyd Kramer style 88s by her keyboardist. Next, Wanda sang about salvation and got the crowd clapping along for the gospel standard “I Saw The Light.”

She honored a fan’s request and sang her hit “Let’s Have A Party,” on which she got us all to sing “Whoooh” on the chorus as she flapped her pink fringed arms and we got our party on.

As the song ended, the band vamped and Wanda stood, waved and thanked the crowd as we rose to our feet for an ovation. Wanda faked us out and didn’t leave the stage just then. “Ain’t no sittin’!” she commanded us. So we remained standing for the rockin’ finale: a medley of “Whole Lotta Shakin’” by Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis’ “Rip It Up.” She belted it out and swayed along to the beat until her gray-haired hubby appeared to escort her off stage, arm-in-arm. A good time was had by all, especially by Ms. Jackson.

The title “legend” is often overused. On this warm, windy night in Chicago, Wanda Jackson clearly demonstrated why she has a right to that title.

About the Author: Linda Cain is the Managing Editor/Founder of Chicago Blues Guide.


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