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Thursday, June 24, 2004 06:34 pm

Make way for the queen of rockabilly

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Wanda Jackson

When Wanda Jackson began singing country music in the '50s on an Oklahoma City radio station, her voice had that certain something that caught the ear of Hank Thompson, a popular singing star of the time. He called Jackson and asked her to perform at his next show. " 'I'd sure like to, Mr. Thompson, but I'll have to ask my mother.' That's what I told him," Jackson says. Mom said yes, and the 14-year-old singer embarked a recording and performing career that still rolls on to this day.

After a few years of standard country releases, she took the advice of her dating companion, one Elvis Aron Presley, and tried her hand at rocked-up hillbilly music, popularly known as rockabilly. A young woman on fire, Jackson acquired hit after hit with some of the most lascivious songs around. In the early '60s, she was singing more country and a bit more rock & roll, and by the mid-'60s, she was married and starting a family. In the ensuing years, she played Las Vegas, turned to a Christian life, added gospel music to her set list, and toured extensively in Europe and Japan.

"In Germany I had a No. 1 song in 1965 that became what we call an evergreen song. It's a standard," she says. "Before the last 15 years I did over 80 percent of my touring overseas." She has recorded 18 songs in German, four in Dutch ("That's tough"), and four in Japanese. "The music never died out over there like it did here. They don't change as fast as Americans do."

A statewide resurgence of swing and rockabilly in the early '90s reintroduced Jackson to a new U.S. audience. When singer-songwriter Rosie Flores, a huge Wanda Jackson fan, was recording her Rockabilly Filly album in 1995, she asked the Queen of Rockabilly to sing on the disk. Jackson went on a five-week tour with Flores to help promote the new recording and there she discovered another legion of admirers enraptured by her '50s persona and excited by the recorded music she had created over 40 years ago. "At these venues we found a new generation of fans who wanted to hear the original singer of these songs," she says. "They knew the words, the dances, and even dressed like the times." Not only were new fans coming to her gigs, musicians were excited by the opportunity to play music with the woman who rocked the world all those years ago. On Heart Trouble, released in 2003, Jackson sings with Elvis Costello and performs duets with Flores. Dave Alvin plays tasty guitar licks on several songs and the Cramps show their rockabilly roots on a few tunes. Backed by a stellar band and aided by her fan/guests, Jackson relives a few of her '50s hits, strums through a couple of country standards, and knocks out a bunch of newly composed numbers to create a wonderfully spirited album.

Remember, this is by a woman (a delighted grandma no less) still out doing her thing after half a century in the rough-and-tumble music business. "I had to follow Jerry Lee [Lewis] on stage one time," she recalls. "That was tough, but we did it. We rocked."

Yeah. No problem, she can do it. Wanda Jackson rocks.

The Sangamon Valley Roots Revival presents Wanda Jackson and the Lustre Kings at 8 p.m. Friday, June 25 at the Underground City Tavern, Hilton Springfield, 700 E. Adams St. Tickets are available at Recycled Records (522-5122) for $15 or buy them at the door for $20.

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