Wanda Jackson - Biography



By Jonny Whiteside

 

             With her pin-up girl good looks and built-in knack for supercharged, big beat ravers, singer-guitarist Wanda Jackson is an artistic and cultural force to be reckoned with, one who boldly disregarded mid-1950s social convention and recorded some of the most hard-charging examples of rockabilly ever created. Born October 20, 1937 in Maud, Oklahoma, where her father, Tom, had worked as musician in dance bands, the family re-located to Los Angeles in 1941, quickly moving north to Bakersfield after her father graduated from barber college. By 1943, he had presented Jackson with her first guitar, and by age nine, she was also dabbling both in songwriting and learning to play piano. The Jackson clan returned to their native state in 1949, settling in Oklahoma City and by 1953, she auditioned at radio station KLPR and was given her own, fifteen minute slot (often alongside the great country singer-songwriter Tommy Collins, valuable experience for the fledgling writer). The high-falutin' youngster proved a hit with listeners and the show was soon expanded to a half-hour broadcast. Soon, she was also working with the Merle Lindsey Band, a local hillbilly outfit, but that job ended after Hank Thompson caught one of her KLPR shows.

 

            Thompson was a major country star of the post-war era whose opulent blend of honky-tonk grit and jazzy Western swing had already racked up some impressive hits on Capitol Records, and his invitation to go on the road with he and his Brazos Valley Boys was an opportunity that Jackson, though still in high school, could not resist. In 1954, she went out as part of Thompson's road show. Thompson knew she had what it took, and tried to get Capitol to sign her; when the label passed due to her tender age, Jackson, thanks to another Thompson sideman Billy Gray, landed a deal with Decca, an outfit not averse to grooming juvenile talent (they already had teen sensation Tommy Sands). She made her first recording, "You Can't have My Love," a duet with Gray,  that managed to push it's way into the country Top Ten that year.

 

            Having outgrown her role with Thompson (and graduated high school), Jackson joined another prestige package, Red Foley's Ozark Jubilee, and through 1955 found herself touring with Johnny Cash and another up-and-comer from Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis Presley. Jackson and Presley also dated, and he frequently urged her to forego straight country in favor of the volcanic rockabilly style that was bringing him such notoriety. Jackson, a stone hillbilly singer herself, understandably hesitated--most country stars, like Foley and Porter Wagoner, who hosted the Ozark Jubilee when Foley was on tour, detested the new style proposed by Elvis. After signing with famed manger-booking agent Jim Halsey, she was finally able to get a deal with Capitol records in 1956 and Jackson soon found herself in a Los Angeles  recording studio, working with musicians like steel guitar pyrotechnician Speedy West and guitar titan Joe Maphis. Clearly, she reconsidered Presley' suggestion: her second Capitol single, "Hot Dog (That Made Him Mad)" was a slab of vintage, steam-heated rockabilly that entered the Top Twenty and helped her win the title of Cash Box magazine's "Most Promising Female Vocalist."

 

            Significantly, Jackson also agreed when Halsey suggested she use the Poe Boys band as her road unit--it was anchored by the great African-American piano man Big Al Downing, and when Jackson took them on the road, it was a stunning act of audacity. No one in country music (or rockabilly, for that matter) used a mixed race band, and Jackson was clearly not averse to challenging the prevailing social attitude on such matters.

 

            Jackson was nothing short of revolutionary and to understand what she represented, it’s important to establish exactly where country music was in the 1950s, particularly for a “girl singer.” Despite the impact her earthy, shimmy-shakin’ predecessor Rose Maddox had already made, the prevailing model of the female star was Kitty Wells, a restrained, immobile figure on stage whose subject matter may have visited the honky-tonk but whose presentation and demeanor were rigid Grand Ole Opry respectability all the way.  To say Jackson was the complete opposite hardly begins to cover it. When Jackson broke out as a rockabilly artist, she proved herself a formidable combatant, one who just about declared war on established country methodology. Her wildly passionate approach and taboo-shattering, downright confrontational use of  the Poe Boys was not merely atypical, it was downright aberrant, and no other contemporary female performer came anywhere near to pulling off such a magnificently successful outrage.

 

            In short order, she became the figurehead female artist of the rockabilly scene. Her eruptive, growling vocals, on such thrillers as “Hard Headed Woman,” “Rock Your Baby” and “Mean Mean Man,” were electrifying, while atmospheric, almost exotic numbers "Funnel of Love" demonstrated that Jackson was capable of far more communicative and subtle musical exercises. Perhaps her most vibrant and representative song is 1958's "Fujiyama Mama," where her taut, torrid cry reaches for the height of rockabilly's mix of exaggerated abandon and sheer, for the hell it frolic. That record also made significant inroads for her internationally, both in Japan and the UK, countries whose allegiance to the singer has proved undying.

 

            Yet in much the same manner as kindred misfit Johnny Cash, she used that basis as a launching pad for a musical flight that reached both surprising artistic heights and sustained commercial success. While ninety nine percent of the original rockabillies saw their careers go straight down the toilet, by 1960, with Elvis in the Army, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran dead, Jackson still made first-rate rockers. She released Top 40 pop hit "Let's Have a Party" that year, but also began to diversify her sound, and became a mainstay draw in Las Vegas, now using the monster picker Roy Clark as her lead guitarist. She also actively returned to writing (Buck Owens had a 1961 hit with her “(Let‘s Stop) Kickin‘ Our Hearts Around“), and began recording straight country songs. Her self-penned "Right or Wrong" became a top ten hit on both the pop and country charts in 1961. Jackson kept at it, following that success with another solid chart entry "In the Middle of a Heartache" and was regularly filming her own syndicated Music Village TV show.

 

            When Capitol's new parent company EMI, ordered a purge of the label's under-performing country roster, Jackson was one of a very few spared (likely due to her consistently heavy European sales--mentor Hank Thompson got the boot), and she kept up a respectable run of Top Twenty country hits for the remainder of the decade. This was a considerable feat for one who started as a straight girl singer, transformed herself into a fad-riding, R&B fueled teenage spitfire, then managed to come back to hard country. At her artistic core, she is pure country, not a pop-influenced sock-hop flash to be confined within the limits of rockabillys’ self-made ghetto. Jackson‘s talent and track record ranks her as a significant predecessor to the singer-songwriter likes of Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton; moreover, as a practitioner of pure hillbilly form with a natural mastery of the rock & roll vernacular, Jackson inhabits a unique musical territory.

 

            In the early 70s, Jackson had a spiritual awakening, became a born again Christian and vowed that she would no longer perform the secular songs that had made her famous, a promise she kept for decades at home anyway; by 1985 she was persuaded to travel to Sweden and sing rockabilly again. Jackson began undertaking lucrative overseas tours, singing her rockabilly hits to an adoring cult audience.

 

            In 1995, Los Angeles rockabilly-country powerhouse Rosie Flores persuaded Jackson to not only record some rockers on one of Flores' albums but to once more perform the likes of "Hot Dog" and "Fujiyama Mama" on the American club circuit. Jackson effortlessly reclaimed her domestic crown as the Queen of Rockabilly, and eventually began releasing her own non-spiritual albums, sets like Heart Trouble (2003 CMH), which featured collaborations with the likes of Elvis Costello and the Cramps' Ivy Rorschach and I Remember Elvis (2006 Cleopatra) . Jackson's re-discovery has been comprehensive, she was honored by  tribute album, Hard-Headed Woman: A Celebration of Wanda Jackson (2004 Bloodshot), featuring contributions from alt country princess Neko Case, among others, and has been also the subject of two documentary films (The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice and Every Night is Saturday Night). As of 2008, more than fifty years after she began her musical career, Jackson remains active.

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