Rockabilly Redeux

Wanda Jackson And Ronnie Dawson, Two '50s Titans, Team Up For A Major Blast.

By Ron Bally

BOTH TEENAGE TRAILBLAZERS back in the exploding post-Elvis late '50s rockabilly music scene, Wanda Jackson and Ronnie Dawson have re-emerged and are teaming up for the first time in their respective 40-year careers to co-headline a bodacious rock and roll barn dance at the Rialto Theatre on Friday, April 10.

Music Rockabilly is a classic Americana folk form which embraces a smorgasbord of influences--western swing, rock and roll, blues, country and gospel. Jackson and Dawson were both playing rockabilly before the term was coined, and just prior to their 18th birthdays. Their careers both nose-dived and vanished just before the Beatles and the British Invasion landed. They were virtually invisible for decades, until a rabid mid-'80s European neo-rockabilly scene resurrected interest in them both.

Jackson was born in Maud, Oklahoma, on October 20, 1937. She moved to Oklahoma City at age 12, and still resides there with Wendell Goodman, her husband-manager of 26 years. She began playing piano at age 9, and switched to guitar soon after. She had her own daily radio show on station KLPR by age 16, and was discovered by western swing pioneer Hank Thompson. She signed to Decca Records while on tour with Thompson, singing mostly hokey country songs.

In late 1955 and early 1956, she toured with Elvis, who had just inked a deal with RCA and was on the brink of becoming the biggest rock and roll star in history.

"I started working with (Elvis) as soon as I graduated from high school," Jackson remembers. "I had never heard of him until I went on the first tour, and, of course, we liked each other right off. So when we had the opportunity, we dated. He just had such charisma. When he walked into a room everyone just gravitated toward him."

Elvis encouraged her to try singing in the fiery rhythm-and-blues style he swiped from black singers like Little Richard, Arthur Crudup and Roy Brown.

"Elvis wanted to see me do this type of music that was causing such a stir across the nation," she explains. "And I guess I was like most people, I thought, well a girl can't do that kind of racy music."

She couldn't have been more wrong. In his book, Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll, author Nick Tosches called Wanda Jackson "the greatest menstruating rock and roll singer whom the world has ever known." Jackson's voice was an exceptional tool of many functions. Her voice switched from a breathy, lascivious hellcat in heat to a wailing banshee shrieking for carnal gratification. She growled her words with smoldering sexual passion and savage fury.

"She sounded like she could fry eggs on her G-spot," Tosches crudely added. If all the prepubescent girls couldn't have Elvis, they now had a role model in Jackson. Unfortunately, mainstream America was barely able to embrace Elvis, let alone Jackson and her fast, loud songs dealing with sexual frustration and liberation.

"The only difficult thing I found during the '50s was that America just wasn't ready for a female rock and roll singer," Jackson recalls. "It was so new to everyone, they just weren't sure what they were going to accept. They finally accepted Elvis, Carl (Perkins), Jerry Lee (Lewis), Little Richard and Chuck Berry, but they still weren't ready for me--for a woman to sing. I guess I was a bit of a renegade."

The public was simply not prepared to accept a vivacious young woman who looked and sang as Jackson did. Radio and television yearned for the wholesome, white-bread plainness of Connie Francis and Brenda Lee. By 1961, Jackson traded in her strapless gowns and high-heels for cowboy boots and fringe jackets as she veered towards a tamer country sound for her new label, Capitol.

In 1971, she and Goodman became born-again Christians and devoted themselves fully to God and gospel music. She doesn't see any conflict between singing rockabilly again and her devout religious beliefs. She even consulted with her preacher beforehand, and he gave his blessing.

"I think the '50s music was pretty innocent," she says. "It's a fun music. It doesn't have these undertones of evil."

Though in the U.S., Jackson had become known as a proficient gospel singer, she often trekked to Europe over the next two decades where she did short rockabilly-flavored tours to accommodate the growing numbers of adoring European fans. So she never really chucked her vivacious, lewd-voiced invocations of love and relationships. Her renewed stateside interest occurred in 1995, when she was asked to contribute vocals to rockabilly-country artist Rosie Flores' album, Rockabilly Filly.

RONNIE DAWSON, A.K.A. the "Blond Bomber" (he always sported a blonde flattop haircut), saw his fledgling rock and roll career stall by 1962 because Dick Clark and his Swan Records imprint tried to mold Dawson into a homogenized teen crooner like Ricky Nelson and Frankie Avalon. Dawson says the onslaught of the British Invasion did nothing to ruin his chance at stardom.

"I truly believe that Dick Clark, and maybe even the leaders of our country, wanted to get kids calmed down a little bit--that this music (rockabilly) was driving them a little too crazy," he offers. He accuses Clark (Dawson appeared on American Bandstand twice) of "coming along and whitewashing everything."

Dawson, as a 17-year-old, began playing rockabilly four decades ago and has remained steadfastly grounded to his roots. He was born in Dallas on August 11, 1939, and not unlike Jackson was raised an only child by a musically inclined father. Within months of picking up the guitar at his father's encouragement and forming his first band, Ronnie Dee and the D Men, Dawson entered and won the Big D Jamboree talent contest, the Southwest equivalent of the Grand Ole Opry. After winning 10 straight weeks, he inked a deal with Ed MacLemore, who was managing Gene Vincent at the time. Dawson's first single, "Action Packed," was released on MacLemore's own Rockin' label, and sold well regionally.

The Cramps-covered Rockin' Bones followed in the summer of 1959. On Rockin' Bones you can hear a kid still so young his voice hasn't changed. His raw tenor snarl cuts like an electric chainsaw across the percussive Ubangi stomp swinging behind him. Today, Dawson sounds even tougher than he did in his youth, barnstorming through his live sets with inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm. His song "Yum Yum" can be heard on the Primary Colors soundtrack.

The notorious payola scandal which blackballed Alan Freed, and dragged Clark and countless deejays into unforeseen legal battles, also damaged Dawson's recording career. He eventually rebounded by picking up session work as a drummer, playing on songs by Paul and Paula, Bruce Channel and the Light Crust Doughboys. Several years later, Dawson released a hodgepodge of tracks for Columbia Records under the pseudonyms Snake Munroe and Commonwealth Jones, but they also vanished without a trace.

Unlike Jackson, Dawson admits Elvis never really appealed to him. He loved Carl Perkins instead. He was also enamored with "race music," a term used to describe black rock and roll or rhythm-and-blues that was turning all the white kids' heads at the time. In 1954, he first heard the intricate guitar picking of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and Dawson soaked up every note like a dry sponge.

"I think Elvis opened the doors for a lot of people," Dawson says. "But I was more impressed with the black rhythm-and-blues guys and Carl (Perkins). Carl was probably my first influence and I actually thought he was black for the longest time. And, of course, when Gatemouth, Chuck (Berry) and Bo Diddley came along, well shit, I loved them. Of course, black music was something we couldn't get enough of."

Dawson says the term rockabilly was never used back in his '50s heyday. "I think Carl (Perkins) was the first one who called Elvis a 'hillbilly cat,'" he says. "I think Buddy Knox had adopted the word 'rockabilly,' but we never really used the term back then. I think what Elvis did early without a drummer, and what Carl did with his brothers before W.S. Holland started playing drums would be as close to rockabilly as anything--and maybe Johnny Burnette--he certainly did some great stuff."

Despite never having performed together, Wanda Jackson left an impression with Dawson that has lasted all these years.

"I remember when she came through the Big D Jamboree," he recalls fondly. "God yeah. Who could forget her?" He says he was amazed that someone "that pretty could sing like that." TW

Wanda Jackson, Ronnie Dawson and openers the Cadillac Angels perform at 9 p.m. Friday, April 10, at the Rialto Theater, 318 E. Congress St. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door. Call 740-0126 for information.

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