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CD Review: Wanda Jackson – I Remember Elvis

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When Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studios in 1954, he was 19 years old and running on the kind of breakneck momentum most artists only dream of. His Sun recordings are simple and spare, sometimes eerily so; yet with little more than Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and Sam Phillips’ famous echo to back him up, his fast-paced, hot-blooded mixture of country and R&B made history. Just two years later, a streamlined version of that sound would be frightening parents across America and beyond. In short, this was truly epochal stuff.

The story of Wanda Jackson may not be quite as legendary, but its ingredients are similar: a young, aspiring singer, whose geographic and historical position put her on the cusp of a full-scale musical revolution the likes of which has never been seen, finds her sound and uses it to craft some truly earth-shaking music. Jackson’s music isn’t only notable because her mentor in the world of rockabilly was Elvis himself, or because her short-lived romantic relationship with Presley put her in a convenient position to be the Queen to his “King of Rock and Roll”; it continues to be worthwhile on its own merits, raw and visceral and crackling with sexual energy that manages to put even the Pelvis to shame. Wanda Jackson might not have filled stadiums and TV screens the way Elvis did in his prime, but her impact in terms of influence is nothing short of monumental: like Elvis’ Sun sessions, the tremors of those late ’50s recordings can be felt everywhere, from Patti Smith to Chrissie Hynde, Neko Case to Peaches.

I Remember Elvis, despite its artist and track listing, does not capture the essence of either of those bodies of work. It doesn’t because that’s not what it’s trying to do: 2006 is not 1956, any more than the Wanda Jackson of today is the same shrieking, spitting rockabilly queen who shimmied her way into notoriety fifty years ago. This covers album isn’t about starting a fire, bursting boundaries, or even (that less-vaunted Sun Records goal) selling records. It is, like Wanda herself says at the beginning of the album, simply “my way of saying ‘Thank You’ to a dear friend.” And when viewed in that context, it could hardly be a better effort.

But for those who expect the kind of intensity found in early sides by Wanda and Elvis, a little adjustment will be necessary. Despite the best efforts of Wanda and a studio band which includes former Blondie drummer Clem Burke, opener “Good Rockin’ Tonight” sounds flaccid, a pale, mid tempo shadow of Elvis’ classic call to arms. Nor does it help that Ms. Jackson’s almost 70-year-old voice, while still impressive, is beginning to show its age; that famous growl has diminished to something a bit more stately, and it’s ironic that her long-awaited return to rock and roll has found her with a voice that’s better suited to country music. Once producer and bandleader Danny B. Harvey latches on to that fact, however, I Remember Elvis hits its stride. Slower numbers like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Trying to Get to You” work best, of course, but there are a few surprise successes, as well: “Baby, Let’s Play House” and “Mystery Train” may not be able to hold a candle to their original counterparts in a strict side-by-side comparison, but they’re more than convincing rockers, faithful to the Elvis arrangements and yet covered with Jackson’s personal stamp as well.

In the end, the overarching mood of I Remember Elvis is exactly as it should be. This album is about nostalgia: for a simpler music, a simpler time, and a friendship which, thanks to Presley’s early death, has now been over for longer than it lasted. Jackson pours her heart into every song; more importantly, she and the band seem to be having the time of their lives as they rock and roll through thirteen well-loved chestnuts. Even the sole original, “I Wore Elvis’ Ring,” is heartfelt and sweet where it could have been cheap and maudlin. The words, written by R.B. Warren but clearly meant by Jackson herself, nicely sum up the record’s personal bent: “They called him the Hillbilly Cat long before they crowned him King/And I wore Elvis Presley’s ring.” It’s simple, pure, and yes, more than a little slight…much like the album itself. No, it can’t match the dizzying heights Wanda and Elvis both reached in the mid-1950s – what could? But as a gift to the fans, a celebration of Wanda Jackson’s fiftieth year in rock and roll, and a personal tribute to a very important relationship, I Remember Elvis is perfect.

Reviewed by Zach Hoskins

This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.

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