New albums showcase the enduring talents of Wanda Jackson, Dion and Ray Davies

By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


March 14, 2006

"Hope I die before I get old."

"It's better to burn out than to fade away."

Rock 'n' roll was still pretty young when those lines were written, by Pete Townshend and Neil Young, respectively. The general belief was that rock was a young person's genre. It didn't seem to matter to baby boomers that Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald or Muddy Waters never outgrew the music of their youth -- and got better with age.

So here we are in 2006 and, despite the age jokes, the Rolling Stones are among many acts from rock's formative years that soldier on, not because they can but because they are working musicians and that's what they do.

Three new CDs are in the stores now from three very different artists who began 40 to 50 years ago and, despite age, personal demons or changing tastes, never stopped recording or performing:

* From early rock and rockabilly: Wanda Jackson, 68, a former girlfriend of Elvis Presley's in the '50s. She was a budding country music star who tried her hand at rockabilly at Elvis' urging and became known as the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll.

* From the doo-wop era and early teen-idol rock, Dion DiMucci, 66, known professionally as Dion. "Teenager in Love," "The Wanderer," "Runaround Sue" and "Abraham Martin and John" will be radio staples forever, thanks to one of the great voices of any genre and any era.

* From the British Invasion, Ray Davies, 61, leader of the great and hopefully not permanently late Kinks. Blessed with incredible range in both subject matter and expression, Davies, with guitarist brother Dave, all but invented heavy metal music with "You Really Got Me" in 1964. He was, and is, equally capable of such achingly beautiful songs as the timeless "Waterloo Sunset."

Each has helped define a genre in rock music and, more important, each has influenced generations of artists and continues to make vital music.

'Other People's Lives'
Ray Davies
Grade: A-

Ray Davies has been the involved observer, documenting fashion, politics and relationships with influences ranging from blues and country ("Muswell Hillbillies") to music hall and skiffle.

This CD is his first solo album of original material, and the first since the Kinks' underrated "Phobia" in 1993. And while Davies is in attack mode against greed, corruption and the everyday stupidities that drive people crazy, he still is a romantic at heart.

From "The Morning After," in which Davies/Everyman picks himself up off the floor, through the rocking Dear John letter of "All She Wrote," to the redemptive "Over My Head," Davies chronicles the struggles we all face to survive with a little happiness.

In the Kinks-like "Next Door Neighbors," Davies reels off character ministudies of just folks, acknowledging that it takes a Village Green to survive in this world.

In the end, Davies celebrates the individual victory of "Life After Breakfast" ("yes, there is!") and the blessings of family in "Thanksgiving Day."

Some of "Other People's Lives" is informed by time Davies has spent in New Orleans in recent years. A far cry from Muswell Hill and the English countryside, New Orleans provided the songwriter with different rhythms and perspectives -- Carnaby Street's "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" checking out the French Quarter and the slums as "The Tourist," and the wonderfully swampy, John Fogerty/Tony Joe White rhythms of "The Getaway (Lonesome Train)."

As a bonus, the liner notes contain Davies' witty and informative take on each track.


'Bronx in Blue'
Grade: B+

There were two great male pop singers in the second half of the 20th century. One of them was Frank Sinatra; the other was Dion.

Bronx-born Dion could and did sing everything, from teen laments and doo-wop ("Teenager in Love") with the Belmonts, to swaggering macho rockers ("The Wanderer," "Runaround Sue") to gentle folk music ("Abraham, Martin and John") and gospel.

He never stopped performing or recording. And while his material was usually first-rate, often his producers betrayed him. But that voice -- note-bending, scale sliding, at once gritty and tender, evocative of the New York streets -- that voice was a constant.

On "Bronx in Blue," Dion has solved the producer problem: He does everything himself. This is an acoustic blues album, a tribute to the music Dion heard drifting north from Southern radio stations when he was a child. He plays all of the vintage guitars on a recording made without overdubs or sweetening.

Many of the songs will be familiar to rock fans, but that's OK. Dion makes these tracks his own: the Robert Johnson/Son House "Walkin' Blues," Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," Johnson's "Crossroads," Jimmy Reed's "Baby, What You Want Me To Do" (famously covered by Elvis), Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues," plus Hank Williams' "Honky Tonk Blues."

Dion includes a couple of original tunes that mesh perfectly, helping "Bronx in Blue" look back and forward at the same time.


'I Remember Elvis'
Wanda Jackson
Grade: B

This Elvis tribute album actually has its roots in Missouri. Young novice country singer Wanda Jackson met Elvis Presley in July 1955 in Cape Girardeau when both were part of a package show playing there. The pretty Oklahoma teenager and the boy from Tupelo who only recently had been driving a truck hit it off and became a chaste '50s couple -- chaperoned by Jackson's father-manager.

Jackson took Elvis' advice, turning to rockabilly and scoring with growling, sassy songs including "Mean Mean Man," "Hard Headed Woman" and her signatures, "Let's Have a Party" and "Fujiyama Mama."

After hitting the country charts in the '60s, Jackson was born again in the '70s and devoted herself to Christian music exclusively until she was rediscovered by fans in Europe in the mid-'90s and returned to pop music and touring.

"I Remember Elvis," however, has two problems: The songs are incredibly familiar and forever seared into our collective brain as Elvis songs; and, sadly, time has begun to take its toll on Jackson's voice. At 68, her diction has lost some of its snap.

So while "Good Rockin' Tonight" and "Heartbreak Hotel" earn A's for effort, Jackson fares far better on ballads such as "Give Me the Right" and "Love Me Tender" and the lone original, "I Wore Elvis' Ring."

Musically, Jackson is supported by a crack band featuring longtime rockabilly guitarist Danny B. Harvey, veteran piano man Don Randi and ex-Blondie drummer Clem Burke, who must know something about backing up feisty women.

A couple of spoken-word tracks of Jackson reminiscing about Elvis and some period photos round out an enjoyable package.