It's an exciting time to be Wanda Jackson.
Not that there's ever really a dull time to be Wanda Jackson, but, as the 72-year-old ‘First Lady of Rockabilly' explains by phone from her room in Rockefeller Center's Club Quarters, she has to hustle on the whole interview thing — she's due to be photographed by Vogue magazine in 40 minutes.
Briefly, the mind reels — there are not, one imagines, many septuagenarian rockers gracing Anna Wintour's fashionable pages. But Jackson is enjoying the latest in a decades-long string of moments that begins with an early career as an acclaimed country singer — she charted her first hit at 17 years old with 1954's ‘You Can't Have My Love' — and continued through a rockabilly revival that began in Europe in the '80s and migrated to the United States. On Jan. 25, she'll release ‘The Party Is Over' on Third Man Records/Nonesuch, an album of covers produced by Jack White, whose similar championing of Loretta Lynn with 2004's Grammy-winning ‘Van Lear Rose' seemed to work out well for that country pioneer.
‘It's been an exciting twentysomething years,' laughs Jackson, who celebrates her birthday Friday night at the Continental Club with friend and creative descendant Rosie Flores, in what has become an annual tradition.
It was Flores who first clued Jackson into a fierce, devoted rockabilly fan base in America — a fan base that knew and loved Jackson well from her long career. Jackson began her musical life as a country singer but made waves as one of the first women to tackle rockabilly music in the mid-'50s, at the urging of tour mate and once-boyfriend Elvis Presley. Jackson toggled between rockabilly, country and gospel music; she and longtime husband and manager Wendell Goodman became born-again Christians in the early 1970s. She began regularly touring Europe in the mid-1980s, but it was Flores who showed her that there was an appetite for her smoky rockabilly classics in America.
‘She introduced me to this new generation of rockabilly fans that I didn't know were out there. They had my records and knew all my songs, but they had never seen me perform in person,' says Jackson. ‘It floored me. I'd been spending so much time in Europe where things were happening for me, so when I found all these fans over here of mine, that was a very exciting and wonderful era. Rosie got tickled at me because I said, "You mean people are still listening to rockabilly?" And she just said, "You have no idea. I can't wait for you to do a tour and see how popular you are.'' '
Jackson sang two duets with Flores on Flores' 1995 ‘Rockabilly Filly' and tackled a brilliant comeback record in 2003's ‘Heart Trouble,' which boasted guest appearances by Flores and Elvis Costello. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
‘The Party Is Over' began its life as a duets album, an opportunity for Jackson to tackle classic songs with a series of high-profile guests. She got in touch with noted fan Jack White and discovered that while White had no interest in a duet, he did have an even grander plan.
‘When we first started talking about a duets record, everybody told us to contact Jack White, that he was a fan of mine, which surprised us, but we got a hold of him,' says Jackson. ‘And what he proposed was recording and producing a single and an album with me, which was much more exciting than what we had in mind. I mean, I was just flattered that a young, very popular guy was interested in recording me.'
That single was a scorching take on Amy Winehouse's ‘You Know That I'm No Good,' released on White's Third Man Records as a vinyl single earlier this year. Jackson says the finished product will straddle many styles.
‘It has a good variety of the genres. I think he wanted to kind of showcase all the various types of music that I've done through the years — some country, some gospel, some rockabilly, some rock ‘n' roll. It's got all of that, and we threw in a Bob Dylan song, "Thunder On the Mountain," just to be safe,' laughs Jackson. ‘I had some reservations about doing the album at first, which is maybe surprising to some. But it was going to be very contemporary, and I was not quite sure that I could pull it off and that my rockabilly fans would want me singing these types of songs. But it was a wonderful experience.'
Partially, Jackson says, that's because White wasn't about to treat her with kid gloves.
‘At this point in my career they usually set up a microphone and start up a track and don't tell me how to sing or anything, because I guess they're afraid of me, I guess out of respect,' says Jackson. ‘But I'm an artist, and I can always take instruction. And Jack knew exactly how to pull out what sound he wanted. He was relentless in making me sing it until he got it the way we needed it.'
Wanda Jackson and Rosie Flores Double Birthday Bash
When: 10 p.m. Friday
Where: The Continental Club, 1315 S. Congress Ave.