“In the ’50s, when I had the nerve to jump out there and be the only girl recordin’ this stuff, and singin’ this wild stuff, and with my fringe flyin’ and my guitar twangin’, and breakin’ strings, I didn’t ever get any recognition for that then, which was okay. But now with a whole generation of rockabilly fans, and ’50s rock music, I have a new career at this point in my life. It doesn’t get any better than that, does it?”
That’s Wanda Jackson, raven-haired and still wearing fringe at age 71, talking from the stage of the Public Hall in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 4. She’s just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fifty-four years after she made her first 45, Wanda’s day has come. And Rosanne Cash, the daughter of one of her old touring buddies, is alongside her, having just told the 6,500 cheering people in the audience, “Wanda was there at the beginning of rock ’n’ roll’, and for girls with guitars—myself included—Wanda was the beginning of rock ’n’ roll’.”
In the 1950s, a gutsy, guitar-playing gal from Oklahoma was the rare woman among such rockabilly cats as Rosanne’s dad Johnny Cash, who were mixing up rhythm & blues and country and western, creating primal rock ’n’ roll in the process. Wanda Jackson wasn’t afraid to step outside the prim confines of a woman’s place in pop—sonically, lyrically, and aesthetically. She snarled, using a “nasty” voice to sing sassy lyrics, when “girl singers” were supposed to sound pretty and look pretty. Instead of going the cowgirl, country lass, or prom queen route, the gorgeous brunette dressed in befringed cocktail dresses that shimmied and shook as she cut the rug onstage. With her unique bluesy yelps and raucous growls, sensual and energized stage presence, and catchy, rhythmic repertoire, Jackson helped change the face of popular music.
Wanda Lavonne Jackson was born on October 20, 1937, the only child of Tom and Nellie Jackson, who met in Maud, Oklahoma at a dance where Tom was playing fiddle. In 1942, Tom headed west to seek better opportunities for his family in Los Angeles, where Nellie and Wanda joined him the following year. Before long, six-year-old Wanda was singing along with her dad’s Jimmie Rodgers 78s, as well as to the Western swing and hillbilly boogie staples on the Jackson record player. Tom and Nellie took Wanda with them to the Riverside Rancho to see Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, and Tex Williams.
“They said I would stand at the bandstand all night long and just look up there,” Wanda recalls. “My neck would nearly be broke from looking straight up. I’d cry when we had to leave. I saw Rose Maddox and the Maddox Brothers somewhere along the way. It really stuck. She was so feisty, so full of spunk, and they wore all those colorful, sparkly clothes. I said, ‘I gotta be like her!’”
The Jacksons’ next stop was Bakersfield, where Tom took up barbering. He bought Wanda a guitar and showed her some chords. Nellie missed the folks back home, though, so in 1949 the Jacksons settled in Oklahoma City, with Tom spending his days selling cars and driving a cab, and evenings teaching Wanda music lessons, which had expanded to piano. By the time she was 13, she sounded like a professional, her strong, distinctive voice belying her youth. After winning several talent shows, she auditioned for a radio show on Oklahoma City’s KLPR. Hitting all the high notes on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 6,” she got the gig, winning a daily 30-minute show at 5:15 p.m. In addition to singing and playing her Martin D-18 on the program, she enlisted sponsors for whom she wrote and announced ad copy.
Wanda’s radio show got noticed by Hank Thompson, whose Brazos Valley Boys held court at the city’s largest dancehall, the Trianon Ballroom, from 1952 to 1954. Thompson had his own Oklahoma City–based TV program, and he’d scored the Number One C&W song of 1951 with “Wild Side of Life.” He called Wanda at the station and asked her to guest at his Trianon show that Saturday night. When the excited Jackson told him she’d have to get her mother’s permission, Thompson asked, “How old are you, gal?” Jackson later recalled. When Wanda told him, “15,” he gasped, “Ain’t that somethin’!”
Nellie and Tom Jackson stood front and center when their teenage daughter made her big-band debut, and from that night on, Wanda was hooked. “I was a little old snotty-nosed kid, and he believed in me enough to ask me to sing with him,” Jackson said of the late Thompson at her Hall of Fame induction ceremony. He was the second on her list of thanks, after her mother and father.
Her career started before she was even old enough to drive a car. In addition to frequently performing with Thompson, Jackson began fronting Lindsay’s Oklahoma Night Riders, who had a Saturday-afternoon radio show, followed by a gig at Merl Lindsay’s Funspot. In 1954, Thompson recommended his 16-year-old protégée to his Capitol Records A&R man, Ken Nelson. Citing her youth, Nelson passed, so Thompson pitched Wanda, his guitarist and singer, Billy Gray, and a song that belonged to his publishing company, “You Can’t Have My Love,” to Decca Records’ Paul Cohen, who’d sign Buddy Holly the following year. The deal went through, though Jackson had serious qualms about starting her recording career as half of a boy-girl pairing: “I didn’t want to be known as a duet act. I wanted my own career. But it was a hit.”
After “You Can’t Have My Love” rose to number eight on the country chart, Jackson cut 15 more singles for Decca, including her friend Tommy Collins’ “The Right to Love” and her own composition, “If You Knew What I Know.” Soon, she had her own TV show in Oklahoma City, and just as she started writing her own songs, she began to create a new image for herself with the help of her seamstress mother. “A lot of the girls wore the cowboy hats then,” Wanda says, “and they hung them on their backs. But I started wearing the go-go dresses. We put fringe all the way around so that I could look like I was shaking and moving a lot. It turned out to be a lot like what the go-go girls wore in the ’60s. Well, I’d been wearing them for 10 years by then.”
After graduating high school, Jackson joined the Bob Neal C&W package tour during the summer of ’55. Also in the revue was Elvis Presley, who met Jackson at a Cape Girardeau, Missouri radio station just prior to their first show together. The two hit it off, and the following October they hooked up for a tour of West Texas. By then, Tom Jackson had quit his job to be his daughter’s full-time road manager, so when Elvis wanted her to ride along to gigs in his Cadillac, the answer was no. But before and after each show, the two singers hung out, talked about music, and caught a few movies. Presley urged Wanda to take up the up-tempo, bluesy stuff he was doing, rather than continue singing straight country.
On April 4, Jackson was reunited with members of Elvis’ first band: drummer DJ Fontana, who was being inducted in the sideman category along with the late bassist Bill Black, and guitarist Scotty Moore, who had been inducted in that category in 2000. “I don’t know about y’all,” Wanda said, “but with D.J. and Scotty here tonight, I feel the presence of Elvis very strongly. Thank you, Elvis, for encouraging me to try [rock ’n’ roll].”
In 1956, Jackson finally inked a deal with Capitol, which initially tried to pigeonhole her as a country artist. “I told Capitol, ‘I’m a singer,’” she says. “’I’m gonna sing whatever I want to sing!’” At her induction ceremony, she also thanked Ken Nelson, saying, “He was the type of producer that believed so much in his artist that he never held us back. Capitol Records didn’t know what to do with me. They signed me as a country artist, now all of a sudden I’m singin’ this new music. But he just gave me the freedom to choose my own material and do it however I wanted to do it.”
So the 18-year-old firebrand split her early singles between country weepers and red-hot rock ’n’ roll’. For her first sessions, in June and September 1956, she cut “I Gotta Know,” showcasing both sides of Jackson’s sound. With verses alternating between slow country fiddle tunes and electric guitar-fueled rave-ups, her vocals seesawed easily between the two styles.
Her September session found Jackson sounding as if her pent-up energy had reached its boiling point, resulting in the rollicking “Honey Bop” (co-written by Mae Axton, coauthor of “Heartbreak Hotel”) and the combustible “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad,” earlier crooned on disc by Betty Hutton. Another highlight of the session was “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” which Jackson emoted with unbridled passion. Her own “Baby Loves Him” seemingly was inspired by her relationship with Elvis.
The following year, Jackson segued between constant gigging and cutting more rockabilly and country for Capitol, including the two songs that would become her signature numbers: the incendiary call-to-teenage-arms “Let’s Have a Party” and the searing “Fujiyama Mama,”—ironically a 1958 smash in Japan—with Jackson hurling out the words, “You can say I’m crazy, so deaf and dumb / But I can cause destruction just like the atom bomb!”
To back her live performances, Jackson needed her own band and found a rockin’ combo in Kansas: Bobby Poe and the Poe Kats, which included the pounding R&B-styled pianist Big Al Downing, who happened to be black.
“It was so hard on Al in those days. We had to hide him in the car when we’d check into a motel and get a room for him. At one of the clubs, when we started playing, the owner came up and said, ‘You’re gonna have to get the black man off the stage; they’re not welcome in here.’ So I said, ‘If he goes, I go.’ So he finally gave in. Al plays on a lot of my early Capitol recordings.”
Though Jackson and the Poe Kats performed frequently, chart action didn’t come until 1960, when a Des Moines DJ adopted her “Let’s Have a Party” as his theme song. When requests poured in, he informed Capitol that a single of the two-year-old number would be a Top 40 hit. He was right.
Soon after, Jackson formed a new band called the Party Timers, revolving around hotshot lead guitarist Roy Clark, whom she had discovered playing clubs in the Washington, D.C. area. Clark joined her for a stint in Las Vegas, dates on the road, and in October 1960 in Capitol’s Nashville studio. Those sessions produced the sultry “Funnel of Love,” punctuated by Clark’s exotic, reverb-drenched licks.
That number’s flipside, the self-penned “Right or Wrong,” got the full-on Patsy Cline–style treatment, propelling Jackson back into the charts and yielding her second biggest hit (No. 9 country, No. 29 pop). On the barnburner “Hard Headed Woman,” Clark played an “astonishing solo that must have had every other picker in the city of pickers shaking their heads,” according to music historian Colin Escott.
In 1961, Jackson married Texan Wendell Goodman, who became his wife’s manager, and the two have been together ever since. “Wendell was in computer work, and he had a great future ahead of him,” Jackson says. “But he said, ‘No, you’ve worked too hard for the success you have now. Don’t throw it away. I’ll quit my work and join you as long as I can be helpful. But I’m not gonna just tag along.’ He proved himself indispensable to me.” The couple had two children, who stayed home in Oklahoma with their grandparents while Jackson continued to tour.
Over the next decade, Jackson focused again on country, then in 1971, she found Jesus and devoted herself to gospel music. Then in 1985, a European rockabilly promoter convinced her to tour Scandinavia, Germany, and England, where she performed for ecstatic audiences. A decade later, Texas-born, L.A.-based Rosie Flores sought out Jackson to sing on her Rockabilly Filly album. A tour ensued, during which Flores shared the stage with Jackson.
Since 1995, Jackson has continuously toured, introducing a new generation of fans to her music. In 2003, she recorded her first new studio album in 15 years, Heart Trouble, featuring several of her admirers, including members of the Cramps and the Stray Cats, as well as Flores, Dave Alvin, and Elvis Costello. Recording a duet of “Crying Time” with this Elvis, says Jackson, felt as comfortable “as an old pair of shoes. He played the guitar and we stood facing each other and sang. It made getting the phrasing a lot easier.” As for Costello: “It was a real thrill to cut ‘Crying Time’ with Wanda. It was done live and spontaneously, just the way all her best records sound. She’s certainly got the spark.”
As Roseanne Cash said before bringing Jackson onstage for her induction: “Wanda, you are now up there with your buddies, Carl, Elvis, Jerry Lee, and Johnny, and among so many others of your peers, and those who have followed you. You are, as Wendell always introduces you, ‘The first lady of rock ’n’ roll and the queen of rockabilly,’ and now—a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
With that, Jackson gave her heartfelt acceptance speech, then grabbing her pink guitar, kicked off an original, saying, “They weren’t writing any rockabilly songs for us girls to sing back then, so I wrote my own!” And the raucous “Mean Mean Man” still holds up. Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Ron Wood looked up at the Queen, boppin’ their heads in time to those rockabilly rhythms as Wanda Jackson joined their ranks.