by Penne J. Laubenthal
When I was young, I did not even know Wanda Jackson by name but there was no mistaking that distinctive voice. She could rock the rafters with “Let’s Have a Party,” and “Hard Headed Woman” and get down and bluesy with“Right or Wrong.” Between the mid-50s and 1970, Wanda Jackson recorded well over a dozen albums. It was not until Jackson was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year that I realized I had been a fan of hers all my life without ever knowing who she was.
Jackson, who will be 72 on October 10, is still knocking them dead in the United States and Europe. Although she slipped out of the spotlight in the United States sometime after 1970 despite a string of country music hits, her popularity in Europe never faded. She still draws huge crowds and is revered as a rock and roll icon. Last year, Elvis Costello wrote a letter urging the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to induct Wanda in 2009. His appeal, among many others, was heard, and on January 14, the Hall of Fame Foundation announced that Wanda Jackson would be inducted on April 4, 2009, in the Early Influence Category.
Wanda Jackson was still in high school when she was discovered by Hank Thompson in 1954. Shortly afterward, Bob Neal brought her to Memphis and there she met Elvis Presley whom she dated and with whom she occasionally shared the stage. Presley encouraged her to sing rockabilly instead of country. Jackson says, "I'm just so grateful to him for believing in me and encouraging me to stretch myself….I kept saying, 'Elvis, I'm just a country singer. I can't sing like you.' He said, 'Sure you can. You need to be doing it.' "
Jackson ended up hitting the big time with hits such rock and roll hits as “Let’s have a Party” (1960) which was first recorded by Presley, “Riot in Cell Block.#9,” and the soulful “Right or Wrong.” According to Wikipedia, Jackson had hoped to sign a contact with Capitol Records but was told by the producer that “girls don’t sell records.” Two year later she signed with Capitol.
Wanda Jackson has been called the queen of rock, the first lady of rockabilly, and the female Elvis Presley. Jackson paved the way for female artists and helped make it possible women to compete with men on top record labels. Her song "Rockabilly Fever" says it all: "We called it rockabilly before they called it rock 'n' roll." While other white female artists were singing songs like “Doggie in the Window” and women on television commercials were wishing for more efficient kitchens, Jackson was growling and swinging her hips and bringing sex out of the closet with “Hard Headed Woman,” “Mean, Mean Man,” and “Rock Your Baby.”
Moving away from the traditional female country singer garb of cowgirl hat, boots, and fringed shirts, Jackson turned heads and started tongues wagging as she appeared on the stage in tight fitting skirts, plunging necklines, and high heels. Strumming her Martin D-18, bought for her by her father in a local pawn shop, the sweet little girl from Oklahoma had to wear a fringed jacket over her spaghetti strap dress (made by her mother) when she performed on the Grand Ole Opry.
In 1971 Jackson, along with her husband and manager Wendell Goodman, underwent a religious conversion (much like that of Jo Jo Billingsley of Lynyrd Skynyrd fame who became a born again Christian in 1986), and Jackson began recording gospel music. Jackson and Goodman have been a husband–wife team for 47 years. Jackson credits their conversion for the strength and duration of their marriage.
When Europe beckoned in the early 80s. the crowds wanted rockabilly so Jackson returned to the hits of her youth and once again packed the concert halls. Young fans imitated her clothing and hairstyle and rocked in the aisles. Jackson completed numerous tours of Europe, began touring again in the US, and released a new album in 2003, Heart Trouble. In 2008 she appeared in England at the London Rock and Roll Festival.
Jackson’s touring schedule is daunting. She often appears at the Knitting Factory in NYC, and she has a full set of concert dates for this spring that include Oklahoma (her home state), California, Texas, Indiana, Michigan, and New Orleans, LA. Jackson was the subject of an NPR documentary in 2002 and this month the Smithsonian Channel is airing the documentary film The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice. In this 2008 documentary Bruce Springsteen summed up his fascination with the legendary singer saying, "There's an authenticity in the voice that conjures up a world, a very distinctive place and time, that is so specifically American.”
When asked recently if she had plans to retire, Jackson replied, “ Me? Retire? Never.”