A groundbreaking performer in two genres, Wanda Jackson’s early rockabilly style burned with hottempered sexuality and continues to inspire such modern rockabillies as Marti Brom, Rosie Flores, and Kim Lenz. When the market for southern-fried rock ‘n’ roll dried up during the twist era, she forged a substantial career in country music long before rock contemporaries Conway Twitty or Jerry Lee Lewis made a similar switch. Roy Clark summed up her influence in his 1994 autobiography My Life in Spite Of Myself, “Wanda was more than just a great singer, she was an inspiration to a whole generation of singers. Brenda Lee and Tanya Tucker are just two among the many whose style has been influenced by her.”
Born in Maud, Oklahoma, Jackson was six years old when her family moved to Los Angeles and later Bakersfield. Speaking with this writer, Jackson fondly recalled those California days. Remembering the 1940s swing concerts to which her parents took her, Jackson said, as quoted in the Brutarian Quarterly, “[T]hey said I was standing at the bandstand until I got cricks in my neck from looking up…. [E]ach show band had its own girl singer, sometimes two, and they dressed in the pretty flashy clothes and most of them yodeled. When people asked me…. ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ I would always say, ‘I’m gonna be a girl singer.’… So, the next thing I had to do was learn how to yodel, which was a pretty easy thing for me to do, then I was ready to be a girl singer.” Although she could barely fit her hand around a guitar neck, Jackson fell in love with the instrument and reveled in duets with her father, who played fiddle.
Jackson’s father, a part-time musician and barber, worked steadily, but her mother became homesick for Oklahoma. Jackson remembered, as quoted in the Brutarian Quarterly: “My daddy said, ‘All right, we’ll go back to Oklahoma if you’ll help me make a living,’ because she had quit work by then, ‘and the first time you have to make gravy out of water, we’re going back to California.’” It was in Oklahoma City that the 14-year-old singer won a talent contest that resulted in her own 15-minute afternoon radio show on KLPR.
Jackson quickly became a local celebrity, singing at Saturday-night dances with Merle Lindsey and the Oklahoma Night Riders. Her success was noted by one of the biggest stars of the day, her idol Hank Thompson. “When I first moved to Oklahoma … the people were talking about a young high school girl that picked a guitar, sang, and had her own radio show,” Thompson reminisced in Blue Suede News: “So I tuned … in [her show] and listened to it and said, ‘Boy this little ol’ girl’s good! She’s got some rough edges but she’s sure got a good voice and sings the heck out of these songs.’… I had a couple of network radio shows I was doing,… [s]o, I featured her on those and I took her on tour with me and her dad would go along. He’d chaperone her because she was still just a teenager, still going to high school.”
Born Wanda Lavonne Jackson on October 20, 1937, in Maud, OK; daughter of Tom Jackson, a small-time musician, and his wife Nellie; married Wendell Goodman (her manager), 1961; two children.
Hosted 15-minute radio show on KLPR in Oklahoma City, 1952; joined Hank Thompson’s band, recorded the country hit “You Can’t Have My Love” with Billy Gray for Decca Records, 1954; began 18-year association with Capitol Records, 1956; scored first crossover hit with “Let’s Have a Party,” 1960; released dual market hits “Right or Wrong” and “In the Middle of a Heartache,” 1961; LP Two Sides of Wanda Jackson received Grammy Award nomination for Best Country & Western Vocal Performance, Female, 1964; hosted syndicated television program Music Village, 1967-68; the single “A Woman Lives for Love” received Grammy nomination for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female, 1970; hosted 13 episodes of Country Gospel on TBN, 1988-89.
Awards: Voted Best New Female Singer by Jamboree Magazine, 1956; named Best Country & Western Female Singer by Trail magazine and Best New Singer by Disc Jockey magazine, 1958; induction, International Gospel Hall of Fame, 1990; induction, Rockabilly Hall of Fame, 1992; induction, Oklahoma Country Music Hall of Fame, 1994; honored as an Oklahoma Native Daughter, 1998; induction, International Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame, 1999; induction, Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, 2001.
Addresses: Record company—Bear Family Records, P.O. Box 1154, 227 Hambergen, Germany, e-mail: [email protected], website: http://www.bear-family.de. Management—Wendell Goodman, Wanda Jackson Enterprises, P.O. Box 891498, Oklahoma City, OK 73189-1498, phone: (405) 692-7719, fax: (405) 692-7769, e-mail: [email protected] Website—Wanda Jackson Official Website: http://www.wandajackson.com
Jackson’s days with Thomason and his Brazos Valley Boys gave her a good show-biz education. “That’s where I really cut my teeth on entertaining—learning about stage presence and stage manners. Because I watched every performance of his all the way through, I learned a lot,” Jackson was quoted in the Brutarian Quarterly.
Jackson wanted to be on the same label as Thompson, but Capitol Records deemed her too young. Thompson engineered a deal to have her record at Decca Records with his bandleader Billy Gray. Their vocal duet “You Can’t Have My Love” was a top-ten country hit in 1954, but follow-up duets and solo outings weren’t successful.
Before signing with Capitol in 1956, Jackson noticed a new performer taking audiences by storm: Elvis Presley. “I began working with Elvis in ‘55 after I graduated from high school…” remembered Jackson, as quoted in the Brutarian Quarterly. “We were boyfriend and girlfriend…. [H]e thought I should start doing this new music because he was just starting to really get big. I said, I don’t think I can do that because I’m just a country singer. He said, ‘Well, I am too basically, but I think… it’s going to be the next really big music’ Well, how right he was…. It was through his encouragement that I got into rock ‘n’ roll music and daddy agreed with him thoroughly.”
Jackson’s first single in the new direction, the half-country, halfboppin’ “I Gotta Know,” hit the country top 20. Warming to the rock style, she instructed producer Ken Nelson to make her records sound like Capitol labelmate’s Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps. Nelson complied and brought in such session luminaries as boogie-pianist Merrill Moore, a then-unknown Buck Owens, and guitar wizard Joe Maphis. Boasting a unique rasping vocal style that embraced humor and rebellion, along with a knack for writing dynamic songs, Jackson forged the last great body of work to emerge from rockabilly’s original era.
However, the snarling, sexy rockers prized by today’s rockabilly cult—“Honey Bop,” “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad,” “Baby Loves Him,” “Cool Love,” “Mean Mean Man,” and her wild version of the Robins’ “Riot in Cell Block #9”—were regional hits at best. Her finest rock performance, “Fujiyama Mama,” was quite successful in Japan, but her raw, overtly erotic style scared away most American radio programmers. As a result, the saucy belter didn’t score a true national hit until her whooping 1958 remake of Presley’s “Let’s Have a Party” became a surprise pop top-40 entry in 1960.
Finally a headliner in her own right, Jackson began touring with her band The Party Timers. Prominently featured in her show was a black rockabilly pianist Big Al Downing—a courageous move in that era—and a young guitar phenom named Roy Clark. Clark also played the hot riffs on Jackson’s last full-out rock sessions, which couldn’t capitalize on the momentum of “Let’s Have a Party.”
Although Jackson’s most consistent success came from sweet and pure ballads such as “Right or Wrong” and “In the Middle of a Heartache,” and country audiences preferred such moralistic odes as “Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine” and “A Girl Don’t Have to Drink to Have Fun,” her later recordings often asserted the fiery, sometimes violent persona of her rockabilly side. Indeed, decades before the Dixie Chicks caused a sensation with the fight-back anthem “Earl Had to Die,” Jackson routinely released shocking fare such as “The Box It Came In” and “Big Iron Skillet,” which threatened death and/or brutal assault for a lying, cheating spouse.
A constant top-40 presence in country music until the early 1970s, Jackson garnered two Grammy nominations and hosted her own TV series, Music Village (1967-68). During this era she was also Capitol’s top-selling foreign language artist, learning to re-do her songs phonetically. “It was the hardest work I’ve ever done and also the most rewarding,” Jackson stated proudly, as quoted in the Brutarian Quarterly. “The very first song they released [“Santo Domingo”] became a number one hit not only in Germany, but five of the bordering countries… [l]t’s become what Germany calls an “evergreen” song—every generation has known this song. When I start singing it, it doesn’t matter what age my audience is—they sing it with me.”
Although successful, Jackson and her husband/manager Wendell Goodman faced a spiritual crisis in 1971. Jackson explained in the Brutarian Quarterly: “[B]y then we had our two kids and we were still traveling. We were gone half the time from ‘em and they were being reared by their grandmas… They were being well taken care of but we knew we were missing out on a lot and our marriage wasn’t in real great shape … [but w]e knew we were in love still. We didn’t want a divorce.” Begged by their children to attend church, the couple went “[j]ust to get ‘em off our backs.” During that service that the couple wholeheartedly embraced Christianity and vowed to change their lives. Their fresh spiritual resolve brought them great inner peace, but created career conflicts.
Jackson stopped playing nightclubs and although she never intended to quit recording secular material, her desire to record more gospel songs—perennial slow sellers—worried Capitol Records. “My first gospel [album] was with Capitol and that was fine,” explained Jackson in the Brutarian Quarterly. “Then I went in six months later and said, ‘I’d like to do another gospel album because I’m doing a lot of gospel concerts.’ Well, Capitol wasn’t interested. So, [producer] Ken Nelson … said … ‘I think you should pursue a recording company that would allow you to do all the gospel that you need to do.’ So, he got me my release from Capitol, which is [sic] almost unheard of back then.”
Becoming a full-fledged gospel artist, Jackson released several LPs of sacred songs on the Myrrh and Word labels. During the late 1980s, the one-time rockabilly hellcat and her husband hosted their own religious program on the TBN cable network.
The death of Elvis Presley in 1977 renewed interest in Jackson’s original rockabilly sides, particularly popular in Europe and Scandinavia. She cut a new album of rock ‘n’ roll for Sweden’s Varrick label in 1985. “We prayed about it and it seemed like God was saying, ‘This is the way I want to use you now,’” explained Jackson in the Brutarian Quarterly.
Still mixing rockabilly with religion, Jackson has played festivals worldwide, recorded sporadically, and cowrote a Swedish-only autobiography. Her American profile was raised considerably when she appeared with fellow rockabilly pioneers Janis Martin and Brenda Lee in Beth Harrington’s 2002 documentary Welcome to the Club. In early 2003 she returned to the studio to record a new album for CMH Records.
Wanda Jackson, Capitol, 1958; reissued, 2002.
Rockin’ with Wanda!, Capitol, 1960; reissued, 2002.
Right or Wrong, Capitol, 1961.
There’s a Party Goin’ On, Capitol, 1961.
Lovin’ Country Style, Decca, 1962.
Wonderful Wanda, Capitol, 1962.
Love Me Forever, Capitol, 1963.
Two Sides Of Wanda Jackson, Capitol, 1963; reissued, EMI, 1987.
Blues In My Heart, Capitol, 1964.
Sings Country Songs, Capitol, 1966.
Reckless Love Affair, 1967.
Salutes the Country Music Hall of Fame, Capitol, 1967.
You’ll Always Have My Love, Capitol, 1967.
Cream of the Crop, Capitol, 1968.
The Happy Side of Wanda Jackson, Capitol, 1969.
The Many Moods of Wanda Jackson, Capitol, 1969.
Wanda Jackson in Person(Live), Capitol, 1969.
A Woman Lives to Love, Capitol, 1970.
Country!, Capitol, 1970.
I’ve Gotta Sing, Capitol, 1971.
Praise the Lord, Capitol, 1972.
I Wouldn’t Want You Any Other Way, Capitol, 1972.
Country Keepsakes, Capitol, 1973.
When It’s Time to Fall in Love Again, Capitol, 1973.
Country Gospel, Word, 1974.
Now I Have Everything, Myrrh, 1974.
Make Me A Child Again, Myrrh, 1975.
Closer to Jesus, Word, 1978.
My Testament, Word, 1982.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Your Blues Away, Varrick, 1987.
Rockin’ in the Country: the Best of Wanda Jackson, Rhino, 1990.
Right or Wrong, Bear Family, 1993.
Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine, Bear Family, 1997.
Wanda Rocks, Bear family, 2002.
The Wanda Jackson Show: Live and Still Kickin’, DCN, 2003.
Clark, Roy, and Marc Eliot, My Life in Spite of Myself, Pocket Books, 1994.
Gaar, Gillian, She’s A Rebel—The History of Women in Rock & Roll, Seal, 1992.
Garbutt, Bob, Rockabilly Queens—The Careers and Recordings of Wanda Jackson, Janis Martin, Brenda Lee, Ducktail Press, 1979.
Helander, Brock, The Rockin’ ‘50s—The People Who Made the Music, Schirmer Books, 1998.
Jancik, Wayne, and Ted Lathrop, Cult Rockers, Simon & Schuster, 1995.
McCloud, Barry, Definitive Country—The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and its Performers, Perigree Books, 1995.
McNutt, Randy, We Wanna Boogie—An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement, HHP Books, 1988.
Morrison, Craig, Go Cat Go! Rockabilly Music and Its Makers, University of Illinois Press, 1996.
O’Neil, Thomas, The Grammys—The Ultimate Unofficial Guide to Music’s Highest Honor, Perigree Books, 1999.
Whitburn, Joel, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Country Hits, Billboard Books, 1996.
Whitburn, Joel, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Country Hits, edition, Seventh edition, Billboard Books, 2000.
Blue Suede News, Winter, 2000/2001; Winter, 2003.
Brutarian Quarterly, #34, 2001; #35, 2002.
Country Standard Time, December, 2002.
“Wanda Jackson,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (February 1, 2003.)
Wanda Jackson Official Website, http://wandajackson.com (February 1, 2003).
“Wanda Jackson Recording Again,” Rockabilly Hall of Fame, http://www.rockabillyhall.com/ThatsNewToMe.html (February 6, 2003.)
Additional information was provided by the author’s fall of 2000 interview with Hank Thompson, which appears in Blue Suede News, and a fall of 2001 interview with Jackson, which appears in the Brutarian Quarterly, as well as e-mails from Jackson’s husband/manager Wendell Goodman in January of 2003.
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