Its easy to forget how much early rocknroll took from country music. We take it for granted that rock owes its existence to the blues, but Elvis and other early rockers owed as much to Hank Williams as they did Arthur Crudup or Muddy Waters. Yet, every time someone returns to rocks country roots, whether its the Byrds in the late '60s or the alt-country bands today, it strikes people as a revelation.
Every ten years or so rockabilly, the style music contained in these four discs by Gene Vincent and Wanda Jackson, seems to ease briefly into rocks consciousness, and when it does it feels like a jolt of energy. The rockabilly of these two singers differed significantly, but they both had a strong country-music foundation, and they sang with energy and conviction. These four discs restore to print the early recordings of these two rocknroll pioneers who ignored the borders separating rock and roll.
Wanda Jackson had been recording for three years when she signed with Capitol records in 1956, and she knew what she wanted to sing. Shed had one country hit, but she had also toured briefly with Presley. He played her some of the records from his R&B collection and encouraged her to "turn up the yelpin and yodelin part of her act," as Holly George-Warren puts it in the excellent liner notes to Wanda Jackson.
For that disc, Ms. George-Warren explains¸ Capital " cherry-picked Wandas country sides." There were only three rockabilly tunes on the original record and the six bonus tracks on the new reissue are country -- and that's where Ms. Jacksons real talent lay. Her rockabilly sides, which dominate Rockin with Wanda, are peppy and fun, but her country recordings are masterful. Her voice had a slightly girlish quality, but she sang world-weary songs in a knowing, authoritative manner. The results dont feel like novelties, while the rockabilly sides do. Ms. Jacksons country performances convey the sense that she lived the tales contained in those songs -- or, at the very least, that she had an understanding of them beyond her years.
Jacksons recordings are full of the great playing of such twangful pickers (Ms. George-Warrens wonderful phrase) as Joe Maphis, Buck Owens and Lewis Talley. These crisply remastered discs capture all the elements that make country and rock recordings from this era such a pleasure to listen to, from slap-back reverb to the simple straightforwardness of the arrangements.
Theres not much straight country on the Gene Vincent discs, although a strong Nashville current runs through his music. These sides from 1956 and 1957 are as vital, powerful, and essential as any rocknroll ever recorded. As Jeff Beck notes in the liner notes for both discs, "If you arent completely freaked by the time 'Hold Me, Hug Me, Rock Me' [from Vincents second disc] ends then my friend you need to seek help -- and you are not a Rock & Roll fan."
If you think its odd that Beck should write a tribute to Vincent, then you need to hear the breathtaking genius of the guitarist on these tracks, Cliff Gallup. Gallups playing had the visceral punch of Presleys guitarist, Scotty Moore, and the finesse of a good country or jazz player. He was usually given only a few bars to make his point (it was the pre-guitar-hero 50s), but his solos were beautifully crafted -- carefully thought-out while retaining an edge of immediacy and fire. Gallup's playing, like Beck's, combined feelings of raw physicality and graceful melody.
Gene Vincent was one of early rocks best singers, at ease singing jubilant rockers or moving ballads. He was also a great, underrated songwriter. Vincent wrote or co-wrote much of his best material, including "Be-Bop-A-Lula," probably the best Elvis song that Presley never recorded. One of the biggest surprises of these two discs is how consistent they are. Record companies in the 50s typically threw one or two singles on a rock LP and then padded them with mediocre material. There isnt a throwaway track on either of these discs and even songs that at first glance dont look promising, such as "Aint She Sweet" from Bluejean Bop!, are saved by a stirring vocal performance from Vincent or a blistering solo by Gallup.
The remastering of these discs was obviously done with great care. The sound is free of the digital edge that often taints discs of recordings from this era. I have a feeling that vinyl copies might still be preferable, since digital inevitably throws things like the reverb on vocals into sharper relief. But were very lucky that Capitol chose to reissue these recordings and that they cared enough to do them well.
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