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Ann-Margret, Pete Townshend and Pat Boone Tell All About Her Rock Album ‘Born to Be Wild’

The singer makes her first classic-rock hits record at 81

spinner image Ann Margret sitting on a pink and black Harley Davidson motorcycle for her album Born to Be Wild
Cleopatra Records

Ann-Margret, who turns 82 on April 28, just released her first new music in over a decade, and it’s also her first classic-rock album. Born to Be Wild is a collection of covers of hits from the 50s through the 70s, including the Everly Brothers’ 1957 “Bye, Bye Love,” with Pete Townshend, 77, and the 1954 hit “Teach Me Tonight,” with Pat Boone, 88. She tells AARP that though her famous contralto has become duskier with age, it only helps the album tap into the rock ’n’ roll heart of a singer whose first hit, 1962’s “I Just Don’t Understand,” was covered by the Beatles. Townshend and Boone also chime in on their collaborations with her on the album.

Why she chose these tunes

“Oh, man, Manischewitz! They’re songs that make me happy!” she says enthusiastically, her voice rising from its usual kittenish purr.  Recording them made her feel half her age. “Oh yeah — 40!” She sent her renditions to her all-star collaborators. “All of the people who did the album, they decided what they wanted to do.”

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spinner image Ann Margret in a silver jumpsuit riding a motorcycle for the album cover for Ann Margret's Born to Be Wild
Cleopatra Records

She still gets her motor runnin’

The come-hither cover photo of the Born to Be Wild album finds her astride a motorcycle in a silver lamé jumpsuit, setting the tone for her version of Steppenwolf’s 1968 hit. “‘Born to be Wild’ certainly makes me feel wild, oh, yes,” she says. “It's everything about it, the rhythm and the guitars, the lyrics, and I mean, it's me being on my bike!” Her husband and manager of 50 years, 77 Sunset Strip star Roger Smith, didn’t like her riding her beloved Harley-Davidson, but since his death, she’s been racing around her Los Angeles neighborhood, where she lives in Humphrey Bogart’s old house.

“What can I tell you? I love my motorcycle. It’s lavender, and it's got little daisies that go around each letter, Harley-Davidson. My uncle Calle, mother's brother, in Sweden, had a big, huge motorcycle. And I always jumped on the back with him. We lived 10 minutes away from Norway. You’d see the mountains on one side, and then way, way down, the fjords of Norway. That never left me. I love speed. The speed and the danger. Vroom! Vroom!”

Pete Townshend was thrilled to reunite with his 'Tommy' star

Ann-Margret hadn’t been in touch with Townshend since she got her second Oscar nomination (after 1971’s Carnal Knowledge) for starring in his rock opera Tommy in 1975. “Her voice was almost operatic, sensuous and perfect for the role,” Townshend tells AARP in an email. “I was so shocked and pleasantly surprised. Relieved, too, because she could rock.”

“Do you know that she slashed her hand on some glass and continued to act?” asks Townshend. Indeed, she earned that Oscar nomination the hard way. In the Tommy scene where she hurls a Champagne bottle at a TV screen, the TV erupts, soaking her with bubbles and shards of the bottle, which sent her to the hospital for 27 stitches. But not before she finished the scene, rolling around the floor in a mess of baked beans, chocolate, bubbles and her own blood. Top that, Iggy Pop! Plus, her catsuit shrank with every take, making it a torture instrument in its own right. “The girl has always been a hard nut," says Townshend. “It was an honor working with her again. She is a really capable music studio musician — an adventuress, willing to take chances and tackle unfamiliar territory.”

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Pat Boone made their duet a hoot

The two have remained friends since a bare-chested Boone sang Richard Rodgers’ yearningly romantic “Willing and Eager” to her in the 1962 film State Fair.  This time, they tackle the jazzy, come-hither “Teach Me Tonight,” a hit for Jo Stafford, Dinah Washington and Helen Grayco in 1954, and again for the DeCastro Sisters in 1955. On the sparkling new rendition, you can almost hear the cocktail shakers in the background.

“She had already done her vocal and just wanted me to do whatever I wanted,” Boone tells AARP. “I thought, Wait a minute. This lady, as lovely as she is, is at least 80 and I'm 88 and we're singing this teasing love song. What in the heck is one of us trying to teach the other at this stage? So he sang it as if “she was singing to me with full romantic intent and that I was too old to even get the message.” On the track, he ad-libs, “You know, I’m thinking we may be writing an octogenarian love song,” and later jokes that he’s turning up his hearing aid.

“I thought she might be upset with me, but she got the humor right away. I think people will hear that we are two old friends who are having fun. They might think it’s a little bit far-fetched at our ages, but maybe we're still exploring what it could mean. It doesn't matter what your age is. You can be romantic and should be.”

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Her rock record is packed with legends

Britain’s Cliff Richard, 82, shows up for “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, 72, Stax guitarist Steve Cropper, 81, bandleader-pianist Paul Shaffer, 73, country’s Oak Ridge Boys and the late Mickey Gilley (in one of his final recordings) also drop by for such songs as “Rock Around the Clock,” “Earth Angel,” “Son Of A Preacher Man,” “The Great Pretender,” “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” and “Splish Splash.”

spinner image Ann-Margret sings while Elvis Presley plays an acoustic guitar in the film Viva Las Vegas
(Left to right) Ann-Margret and Elvis Presley in "Viva Las Vegas."
Courtesy Everett Collection

She won’t sing with (or talk much about) Elvis Presley

You might expect her to tinker with one of the duets she recorded with Elvis Presley for 1964’s Viva, Las Vegas, keeping his vocal, for example, and rerecording her own — but to her that would be sacrilege. “I wouldn't do that! Oh, no, no, no, no. We both had a great time doing the film and the recordings. I remember everything.” She is, as always, tight-lipped about their personal relationship.

“Musically,” says Townshend, “she was reborn in the fire of Elvis’s era of movie rock ’n’ roll — a period that could be seen as an experiment for Elvis that didn’t always work. But she learned something huge from being around Elvis, and I have a feeling that was where her husband Roger became her partner and manager. His support and love for her was tangible.”

Smith, who had myasthenia gravis, died in 2017, and today she's seeing Gary Sandy, 77, who played program director Andy Travis on the brilliant ’70s show WKRP in Cincinnati. “The three of us were friends for a long time. You learn with each experience, and if it's a rough one” — like her famously awful 1972 fall 22 feet from a platform on stage in Lake Tahoe — “you just keep going and trying new things.” Like this album.

She looks back on life with gratitude

She turns teary, thinking about what her life would have been like had her parents not immigrated to the U.S. “Oh, I probably would have been an entertainer in Sweden, because that's such a big part of me,” she says, fanning her face from emotion. “I hope that I would still be a good person. It's hard for me to believe everything that has happened to me. I'm just so blessed. I thank the good Lord.”

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