The notion of a woman making a rock ‘n’ roll record in 1960 may have seemed downright scandalous to people who hadn’t yet gotten used to the music of singers like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. So when Wanda Jackson released the uptempo rocker “Let’s Have a Party” she helped open the door for women who were tired of letting the guys have all the fun.
Jackson is retired today, but in 2011, after several decades out of the spotlight, Jackson returned under the direction of Jack White with a new album called The Party Ain’t Over. She discussed her career, and the song that really started it all for her, “Let’s Have a Party,” with Clash magazine in 2011.
“The [rockabilly brother-sister act] Collins Kids had it recorded, and I worked with them in California on the Ranch Party show. They were doing it, it was their new record, and I thought, ‘Boy, that’s a cute song.’ So I learned it, and started opening my shows with it, and gosh, people loved it. It’s a perfect song for if you’re at a dance or you’re out for the evening – let’s have a party! And then I recorded it eventually.” Elvis Presley, who Jackson toured with, also cut the song.
While Jackson was partially responsible for ushering in a new era for women in the music business, though, the person who actually wrote “Let’s Have a Party,” Jessie Mae Robinson, helped open the doors for both women and black songwriters. Before Robinson wrote “Let’s Have a Party,” she’d had had cuts by Dinah Washington (“Mellow Man Blues”), Hank Snow (“I Went to Your Wedding”), Charles Brown (“Black Night”) and others, and was purportedly the first black female ASCAP member. And if Robinson, who died in 1966, were alive today, she would be seeing mailbox money for works recorded by Lana Del Rey, Nina Simone and Sir Paul McCartney, who cut “Let’s Have a Party” (he simply called it “Party”) for his 1999 Run Devil Run album.
One of the song’s verses has long been puzzling to just about anyone trying to cover it, including Sir Paul:
I’ve never kissed a bear, I’ve never kissed a goon,
But I can shake a chicken in the middle of the room.
Let’s have party, let’s have party, send it to the store,
Let’s buy some more, let’s have party tonight.
In a promotional interview for Run Devil Run, McCartney told interviewer Laura Gross, “As kids we could never quite get the words … And we always used to think it was ‘I never kissed a goo.’ We didn’t know what a goo was, but that’s what it sounded like. So we were always doing, ‘never kissed a bear, never kissed a goo, like a chicken-chicken in the middle of the room, let’s have a party’ … We looked it up and it said, ‘never kissed a goon,’ which I don’t think is a whole lot more sensible, either.”
Sensible words or not, Jackson became known as the “Queen of Rockabilly” because of “Let’s Have a Party.” And because of this song, and others, Jessie Mae Robinson was recognized as a serious professional black female songwriter for the few remaining years she had left.