The Queen of Rockabilly is still regal.
Once known as the “Female Elvis” for her growling delivery and captivating stage presence, Wanda Jackson may have been slowed down by age, but she has lost none of her charm.
During an appearance at the latest show in the Rent Party series (benefiting local hunger initiatives) in Maplewood on Friday, the 79-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee remained on a stool during her nearly hour-long set and clearly needed to pace herself by telling anecdotes of her storied past between some songs.
But she held forth like a queen who still knows how to party, even if the she no longer careens across the stage, strumming a guitar and swiveling her hips.
True to form, Jackson was decked out in a hot pink fringed top and smiled demurely at an audience that was not nearly old enough to remember any of the hits that placed her on the pop culture radar during the early days of rock ‘n’ roll.
But the crowd may have known some of her latest work and certainly enjoyed watching a legend come to life, especially since Joan Jett was in the crowd in advance of plans to produce Jackson’s next album in New York. (Jett stood directly in front of the stage for most of the show, and seemed to be listening intently; she also graciously agreed to “pass the bucket” between sets, in a Rent Party tradition where charitable donations are solicited the old-fashioned way.)
Like some others of her generation, Jackson has made a modest, late-in-life comeback by teaming with younger, successful artists. In recent years, she has recorded albums that were produced by Jack White and Justin Townes Earle, who both succeeded in capturing her trademark penchant for mixing early rock and country while pushing her to reinvent herself.
And Jackson attempted to straddle the past and present when she stepped onstage. She opened with “Riot in Cell Block #9,” which was initially a hit for The Coasters, offering verve and enthusiasm that belied her age. She then tackled one of her own songs, “All Night Long,” before displaying a wry and fun-loving sense of humor in chatting with the crowd.
Jackson joked about her knee surgery, which kept her on the stool, by cracking that “I blew (my leg) out a long time ago by rocking and rolling.” And she then briefly chatted about the many times she played venues in New Jersey and claimed that “I played all the dives that your parents went to.” And she looked like she meant it.
There were rough spots, though. She appeared to need breaks between some songs to regain her stamina. So she told stories, including a five-minute tale about her early friendship with Elvis, whom she briefly dated while he encouraged her career.
“He took a liking to me,” she recalled of her 1955 romance. “He took me to a movie and for a burger. And then we went to his house and he had a record player in his bedroom.” Of course, this brought hoots and cheers. But Jackson has probably relished telling the story countless times and with the timing of a standup comedian, quickly added, “His mother was home!”
But backed by The Lustre Kings, a rockabilly revival band, Jackson picked up the pace and gamely sang many of her best-known songs, including “Funnel of Love,” and even briefly veered toward her mid-career country phase by singing “Iron Skillet,” a No. 20 hit on the Billboard Country chart in 1970.
Jackson then performed two songs from the album she did with White, who also produced a Loretta Lynn comeback album several years ago. There was a cover of “Shakin’ All Over,” which was originally done by Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, although most rock aficionados know the ground-thumping version by The Who. And she sang Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.”
Although Jackson was starting to look a bit tired, she ably conveyed enough emotion, offering growls and intonations that brought the songs to life.
Not surprisingly, she closed with a trio of fan favorites from the late 1950s — “Fujiyama Mama,” “Mean, Mean Man” and “Let’s Have a Party” — the songs that helped make her a legend and, on this night, left the audience wanting more.
But at 79, Jackson called it a night. Give her credit, though. She still knows how to rock and, hopefully, she’ll back soon enough to throw another party.
For information about the Rent Party series visit rentpartylive.com.