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She's paid her dues in the rockabilly club

Wanda Jackson, earlier nicknamed 'the female Elvis,' is joined by a cluster of admiring guest stars on her new album.

October 05, 2003|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

What would Elvis Presley's life have been like had he been born a woman?

Ask Wanda Jackson.

The onetime teen Queen of Rockabilly is in as good a position as anyone on the planet to answer.

"America was just not ready to accept this screaming rock 'n' roll from a girl," says the now 65-year-old singer who has an album coming out Oct. 14. "Heart Trouble" includes a new version of her biggest hit, the rockabilly classic "Let's Have a Party," as well as other songs old and new on which she's joined by guest admirers including Elvis (Costello, that is), Dave Alvin, Rosie Flores, Raul Malo and, improbably, L.A. psychobilly band the Cramps.

"I started out in country and country was my first love," she says from her home in Oklahoma City. "But after Elvis came along, I saw what happened with him, and he encouraged me to try this kind of music. I was 17 and I started trying my hand at it, and I recorded all this rock material. But nothing was happening. I didn't have a hit until 1960 with 'Let's Have a Party' and by that time, I'd gone back to country music."

She also spent a couple of decades singing nothing but gospel music after becoming a Christian in the early '70s. Still, to legions of rock fans, she'll always be "the female Elvis," as she was often promoted early on.

Says Alvin: "Wanda Jackson's voice is one of the national monuments of American roots music and she sounds better now than ever."

She pairs with the other Elvis for a duet on Buck Owens' "Cryin' Time," one highlight of the new album, her first U.S. release in almost two decades. She has, however, put out several albums that were distributed only in Europe during that time.

She and her manager-husband raised two children, neither of whom followed in her footsteps.

Jackson, who still does her rocking on stage instead of in a chair, is now a grandmother of four, including one granddaughter who is 17.

"When I see Jennifer, I think, 'Gosh, at your age I was already recording and out touring," Jackson says. "It's a different world today."

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