Wanda Jackson isn’t one of the first names that pops up when folks think about early rock ‘n’ roll, but it should be. It would be difficult, in fact, to name rockabilly singles that had more impact than Fujiyama Mama in 1958 and Let's Have a Party in 1960. Vocally, Jackson was nothing short of astounding on these cuts, packing her rockabilly recordings (she also sang country) full of kinetic energy and uncanny asides. My response when first listening to Jackson was simply to play each song again and again: They were just too good to be believable.
Over forty years later, Jackson is still in the game, releasing a tribute to Elvis Presley, the person who encouraged her to sing rock (before it was cool) in the mid-fifties. I Remember Elvis pays that tribute by returning to the cream of Elvis’ early recordings, with two-thirds of the content borrowed from the Sun Recordings and Presley’s 1956 RCA releases. Jackson strengthens the tribute with the backing of a fine band, featuring guitarist Danny B. Harvey, bassist Razor X, pianist Don Randi, and drummer Clem Burke. The small combo references similar arrangements on Presley’s early recordings, and it doesn’t hurt that they’re a crack band.
The best of the album begins with Good Rockin’ Tonight and includes dynamic versions of classics like Heartbreak Hotel, Trying to Get to You, and Baby Let’s Play House. Jackson’s vocals lack the range and elasticity that once made her a rock ‘n roll marvel, but her voice retains the same recognizable characteristics, and, with the addition of fifties’ style echo, she covers songs like Give Me the Right with aplomb. It helps that the band, tight and spunky, are always right there with her, evoking the spirit of Bill Black and Scotty Moore without attempting to copy the original arrangements.
Jackson opens and closes with dialog and stories, thanking Elvis’ for the role he played in her career and recalling the Elvis she knew. While she apparently felt the need to repay this fifty-year old debt and does so with sincerity, it’s rather cloying, and a cynic would say that she’s trying to cash in on an old friendship. (There’s also a strange autobiographical ditty called I Wore Elvis’ Ring that seems to get off track from the tribute at hand.) Still, this is living history, and it’s kind of fun to hear someone who actually knew the King recall a few stories about the early days.
It’s easy to forget how revolutionary Elvis’ early music was, and perhaps that’s why there’s a need for tributes like I Remember Elvis. Believe it or not, early Elvis—by today’s standards—was rather simple and relatively quiet music, performed with vigor and pizzazz. This was also true of Jackson’s rockabilly recordings, which makes her the right person to remind listeners of Presley’s early and most groundbreaking recordings. I Remember Elvis is an enjoyable outing, custom-made for old Jackson and Presley fans, and for anyone who thinks that they don’t make rock ‘n’ roll like they used to.
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