Teenage Titan (February 5th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

I bet every Wanda Jackson fan can remember where they were when they first heard her.

My good friend Bryan Stuart and I were riding up U.S. 67 after midnight, sometime in the mid-Eighties, on the way to his home in Jacksonville from Little Rock. Of course, we had the radio on–Arkansas when it’s late at night, you know. We’d just witnessed a classic show–Gatemouth Brown, with Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks–and we were in very high spirits. Suddenly, a feral voice ripped a hole in our post-concert meditation:

Some people like to rock

Some people like to roll

But movin’ and groovin’s

Gonna satisfy my soul!

I was like, “Fuck!”; I like to avoid degrading the language, but that is what I was like. At that point in my life, I was still foolishly believing I knew what I needed to know about rock and roll history (bulletin: I still don’t). Before it’d started, the song was over–ahhh, rockabilly–and like thunder claps after lightning cuts the skies, our minds were cuffed in the ensuing silence.

“Who the hell was that?”

I didn’t know, and I don’t think Bryan did. Oddly, I was sure the singer was black*, though today she doesn’t sound at all that way to me–as if one can always tell. Eventually, some way, the Queen of Rockabilly, the Wildcat of Maud (Oklahoma), Ms. Wanda Jackson, was revealed to me, and she’s been a fixture on my turntables ever since. Singing on the radio before Elvis did, forced by the Opry to cover her shoulders (she never went back), writing songs in class instead of doing homework, deliberately aiming to bring a Marilyn Monroe-influenced sexual shock to the early rock and roll stage, she is a true heroine–she did all that before she’d turned 19.@

This all comes to mind because I’m engrossed in her excellent new autobiography Every Night is Saturday Night. It’s charming, spunky, and revelatory–and you forget it’s a still-active octogenarian telling you the story, one of the last titans still standing.

*Oddly, Wanda is described on her Wikipedia page as belonging to the genre of “black country rock.” But I get that. And by the way, did you know that the Jackson classic “Fujiyama Mama” was a cover version?

@Nicole and I were lucky enough to see Wanda play here in Columbia in 1998, in the old parking lot of Shakespeare’s Pizza, with Robbie Fulks opening. She was very high energy–and she was 60 then!

Short-shrift Division:

SZA: CTRL–As I told my students last week, it is great time to be alive if you’re an r&b fan. This young lady can really write–in some ways, it’s one of the most confessional r&b recordings ever–and she has an ear for settings that is white acute. A St. Louis, Missouri, product.

The Lester Young Trio–1944. Prez in amazing form (check the stunning “I’ve Found a New Baby”!), and Nat King Cole’s very fleet and fluent pianistics provide a bracing contrast to Young’s laconic lines.

Good To My Earhole, June 17-July 3: “Masque of the Red Def”

Highlights of my last weeks’ listening, scored on a 10-point scale based on how hard it was for me to read while each record was playing (the harder the higher).

I’VE ALWAYS KEPT A UNICORN–THE ACOUSTIC SANDY DENNY – 8.5 – That title, plus the prospect of a folkie (albiet a rowdy one) knocking out mostly demos unadulterated by musical support that often enhanced, rather than limited, her performance, would seem a red flag. Not so. Across two discs, the too-soon-departed Ms. Denny demonstrates that her just-impure-enough timbre (gentle whiskey smoke), her way of thinking through phrasing based on a line’s meaning, and her attraction to the theme of mortality are enough to keep one’s attention rapt. A great complement to her performances with Fairport Convention and an insightful look into her development as a singer and writer–I eagerly await the book this accompanies.

Diamanda Galas/MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH TRILOGY – 8.4 – Based on one observation of her live performance (on NBC’s much-missed Night Music) and a few listens to a comp prepared by a friend, I, at 25 or so, judged Ms. Galas hilariously and unbearably pretentious–but I was so much older then. My ear has since become less guarded; my musical desires more extreme in this time of relative artistic timidity. A Kyle Gann review piqued my curiosity about this haunted, spell-casting, spirit-calling item, and damned if it didn’t kick my ass this morning (as they say). The frightening intensity I was prepared for; the dynamics and wit and conceptual skill, not so much. I even laughed when (I think) she was wanting me to. If you’re familiar with the wicked Poe story and love it madly (as you should, students), you’re going to want to hear it. I am saving my second exploration of it for ballast against an appropriate time I’d prefer does not come. A voice for the ages, if not all ages.

JD Allen/AMERICANA–MUSINGS ON JAZZ AND BLUES – 9.3 – Imagine a classic Rollins trio crossed with the dark, earthy intensity of a deep pre-Meditations Coltrane session, and you’ve got this. Yep, it’s that good. Detroit native Allen has honed this group (Gregg August on bass, Rudy Royston on drums) across several excellent albums, resulting in one I’d definitely recommend to anyone missing the days when those two forebears ruled the tenor world. That’s not to say it’s a throwback. Hard to believe, but, as Allen argues, there’s a need for those musings in 2016. A nice musical way to, say, treat that reeling feeling you may have had after watching the Roots remake or the O. J. 30 for 30.

**JOHNNY BURNETTE’S ROCK AND ROLL TRIO AND THEIR ROCKIN’ FRIENDS FROM MEMPHIS – 8.8 – Well, since both Burnettes had gone to meet Elvis by the time of this 1980 release on Rock-A-Billy Records, the billing’s confusing: the rhythm section is the one which backed the original slashing unit on its best recordings, the guitarist is indeed fellow original Paul Burlison, who still strikes lightning, but the vocalists are the deceased brothers’ pals, most notably the unflappable Charlie Feathers. Against the odds (have you heard of Robert Geisley, Glenn Honeycutt, or Marcus Van Story, three of the other lead vocalists?), the project works. There’s something about Memphis, about rockabilly, and about locals who don’t stop believing. Secret weapon: Jim Dickinson on piano and vocals.

EARL HINES PLAYS DUKE ELLINGTON – 9.5 – Hines recorded these between his 68th and 72nd birthday, and that fact plus a peek at the man’s toup and glasses on the cover might warn you away. But one of jazz’s first pianistic avant-gardists–maybe the first instrumental match for Armstrong, as he proved in their recordings together–still had plenty tricks up his sleeve. My favorites are sly runs where he takes off with the rhythm and/or melody like a cat burglar clambering up a roof or rappelling down a wall; even recording in the wake of Cecil Taylor, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell (who’d all have been lesser without his influence), he’s flat-out exciting. The Ellington selections mix time-honored classics with forgotten gems. Note: look for Hines’ equally dazzling tributes to Louis and W. C. Handy, from the same period.

**JOHNNY GIMBLE’S TEXAS DANCE PARTY – 9.0 – “PRODUCED IN TEXAS BY TEXANS,” the credits boast; master fiddler Gimble’s bandmates–The Bosque Bandits!– are listed by their Texas homes (Waco, Dallas, Austin–and Gimble’s been everywhere, man). And the music, recorded live on August 29, 1975 at Austin’s Chaparral Club, is indeed pure, lively Texas dance hall swing–but don’t think you’ll be treated by old warhorse tunes. When’s the last time you heard “La Zinda Waltz,” “Under the ‘X’ in Texas,” “Bosque Bandit,” or “Blues for Joe Tee”? An irresistibly warm and surprising half-hour, and like I said but don’t trust me, Gimble is a flat-out master.

**I recently scored both of these from European sellers, and, as a result, I have no more musical grails to seek. I guess that means I can sit back and just wait for new stuff….

“Panther Burn” Take Over Memphis Public Access and the Cotton Carnival in 1979

Somehow, Tav Falco and his “art-damaged” rockabilly band finagled their way onto Memphis’ public access show “Straight Talk” (hosted by the perfectly-named Marge Thrasher) in 1979. On stage with them…the King and Queen of Cotton, looking bewildered. After slinking through a version of The Rock and Roll Trio’s “Train Kept A-Rollin’–an example of the “invisible Memphis” Falco talks about in the clip, the band is stopped in its tracks by the host as they attempt to barrel right into a “rock tango,” and the ensuing clash between Tav and Marge is one for the ages. A classic example of art busting up stale and ironic convention, and does Falco maintain his cool during the conversation. Keep an eye out for the still-loony, still-rockin’ Ross Johnson on drums, and the late, great “XL Chitlins” on guitar. And if you love this, seek out the band’s great BEHIND THE MAGNOLIA CURTAIN and Robert Gordon’s epic IT CAME FROM MEMPHIS. Exhilarating!