Six months ago, you could be forgiven for thinking that Wanda Jackson was dead—assuming, that is, you knew who she was in the first place (correct answer: the "first lady of rockabilly," who dated Elvis in the fifties and ruled the charts in the sixties). And career-wise, she was six feet under. But then Jack White offered to cut a single with her. One song turned into 11, which make up Jackson's rollicking new album, The Party Ain't Over. "I'm hoarse," the 73-year-old singer says during a phone call from England, where she's on a press tour. "Three straight days of interviews. People are flipping over this album. Jack's got a whole new generation interested in me." All it took was a sprinkling of the garage god's rock-and-roll fairy dust.
You may recall that White has pulled off this sort of old-timer revival before: In 2004, he put the defibrillators to Loretta Lynn's calcifying legend, producing the coal miner's daughter's comeback album, Van Lear Rose. And he's not the only star extending a hand to a musical grandparent. Last year, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy teamed with gospel matriarch Mavis Staples, and in 2007 the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood partnered with cult soul singer Bettye LaVette. The gold standard of this micro-genre is Rick Rubin's work on 1994's American Recordings, which saved Johnny Cash from becoming a black-clad museum piece. It's no longer enough to revere your idols; now you must rescue them.
"Reverse mentoring" is an accepted concept in the business community, but it's gaining traction in the creative sphere as well. For the mentor, it's a sly move, one that goes beyond hero worship to show not only empathy but also cultural power and curatorial panache. For the mentee, it's a second chance that offers good odds. "If you're long in the tooth and haven't done anything significant of late, your best option is to tie yourself to the tail of a young talent and see if it rubs off," observes Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Q Scores, which measures the familiarity and appeal of celebrities and other cultural ephemera.
Remember, before becoming Wes Anderson's droll muse, Bill Murray had spent years acting alongside elephants and Michael Jordan. Darren Aronofsky revived Mickey Rourke's career, and Paul Thomas Anderson dusted off Burt Reynolds. But credit Quentin Tarantino with perfecting the archival-reclamation project: He rescued Pam Grier, Robert Forster, and David Carradine from mothballs and made John Travolta a box-office dynamo again. And the benefits these stars bring to Tarantino are obvious—think of the echoes of Saturday Night Fever when Vincent Vega takes the dance floor. "By using faded stars, particularly ones who have specific associations in the minds of audiences, he increases the resonances of his scenes," notes Aaron Barlow, author of Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes.
And although some forgotten legends surely deserve a Do Not Resuscitate order, thoughtfully chosen collaborations tend to work out well for all involved. LaVette got a Grammy nomination, and both Lynn and Cash took home statues. Staples played Letterman. The actors begin getting offers again, while their directors get cred for having brought them back. In an entertainment business obsessed with breaking ever-younger talent, the real sign of taste (and influence) may be the ability to revive an old performer's career. For White, this latest homage-cum-partnership is yet another feather in his porkpie, and for Jackson, the party looks set to continue for quite a while longer.
Resurrecting the Gramps
Aerosmith and Run DMC
Drug problems had almost broken up the iconic Boston band before a collaborative cover of "Walk This Way" helped bring them back.
Chuck Berry and Keith Richards
Even though Berry had once punched Richards backstage, the Stones' guitarist organized a massive 60th-birthday concert for him in 1986.
Billy Ray Cyrus and Miley Cyrus
The former chart-topper released two unsuccessful Christian albums before his daughter made him popular with the Disney Channel crowd.
Bad Blake and Tommy Sweet
In Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges' former protégé, played by Colin Farrell, gives him the chance to perform again.
Betty White and Facebook Users
Last year hundreds of thousands of online fans successfully campaigned for America's grandma to host SNL.