It's something of a shock to witness the great Wanda Jackson, a 61-year-old grandmother who became a born-again Christian in the 1970s, belt out a song like "Fujiyama Mama" -- the two minutes of explosive sexuality that Jackson recorded in 1954 and released three years later. "I'm a Fujiyama mama/And I'm just about to blow my top," she howled in Denver this weekend. "And when I start eruptin'/Ain't nobody gonna make me stop." For years, Jackson refused to sing her wonderful rockabilly hits, incendiary songs like "Rock Your Baby" and "Let's Have a Party." But her fans insisted, and after consulting with the Lord (and her husband), Jackson relented.
Good thing. Jackson, who was discovered in Oklahoma City by honky-tonker Hank Thompson, has always been a great country singer, but it's her rock numbers that endure, even if they didn't sell particularly well back in the 1950s. America, apparently, wasn't quite ready for a female version of Elvis (whom she toured with in '55 and '56). "Wanda Jackson," writes Colin Escott in his liner notes to Rhino's recent box set "Loud, Fast, & Out of Control: The Wild Sounds of '50s Rock" (which contains two of her songs), "insists she really wasn't that kind of girl, but while other women singers were simpering about where the boys are, Wanda always sang as if they were in her hotel room." "Let's Have a Party," which Elvis had recorded for his 1957 film "Loving You," was Jackson's breakthrough to the pop charts in 1960, but by then she was well on her way to giving up on rock and returning to her country roots.
At Saturday's LoDo Music Festival in downtown Denver, Jackson was introduced as the "Queen of Rockabilly," and she easily lived up to the billing. "I think I'm where it's happenin' tonight!" she bragged, much to the delight of the small, reverent crowd. Backed by the Cadillac Angels, a three-piece combo from Santa Barbara, Calif., Jackson played an hour-long set that emphasized her pioneering, female-centric rock 'n' roll.
Dressed in a satiny, all-white pants suit, her jet-black hair perfectly coifed, Jackson growled her way through "Riot in Cell Block #9," the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller song, originally recorded by the Robins but brilliantly recast by Jackson in 1960. "Here's another song just for the girls," she said before launching into the sassy "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad." ("Well, the moral is to play it cool/Let your guy know, you're nobody's fool/When he gets to thinkin' you're all his own/ Let him know that you can take him, or leave him alone.") The song, she said, "almost got me in trouble, but I said, 'The heck with it!'"
On "Fujiyama Mama," she whooped and hollered with wild abandon, while a group of adoring female fans sang along. "I think it's so neat that you gals know all the words to that one," she said in her thick Oklahoma twang. By the time Jackson professed her devotion to Jesus ("My life changed in 1971, when Jesus came into my life") as an introduction to Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light," the crowd had begun to thin. But those who remained were treated to a blazing "Let's Have a Party," followed by the Jerry Lee Lewis classic "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Never a hit for Jackson, it was nonetheless an appropriate song for her to end the show with, for Jackson and Lewis are musical -- and spiritual -- soulmates, deeply religious singers torn between sexuality and salvation, between Saturday night and Sunday morning. In other words: true, honest-to-god, Southern born-and-bred rock 'n' rollers.