Wanda Jackson: The Feisty Female in Fringe
Wanda Jackson did not always know she was going to make history, but after years of struggle, it seems she is finally going to get her happily ever after.
“My life, in retrospect, plays out like a Cinderella story, but I didn’t think I was a trailblazer at the time I was going through it,” Jackson said in an exclusive interview with Nightlife describing her first tours, early career advice from the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll (yes,that King), and how newfound fandom and recognition have helped her enjoy more success than she ever imagined.
Jackson headlines the Saturday in the Park Festival Saturday, August 29 at Turley Park. Celebrating a career that spans seven decades, the rock ‘n’ roll royalty holds several titles, including the Queen of Rockabilly and the First Lady of Rock ‘n’ Roll. But only recently has Jackson received the accolades she richly deserves.
It’s kind of like, ‘Ha, ha. You have to play me now,’” Jackson said jokingly. “You’re getting requests.”
Jackson was born October 20, 1937, to Tom and Nellie Jackson in Maud, Oklahoma. Her father was a musician who nurtured her budding love for music. He bought Wanda a guitar and encouraged her to play.
Jackson began her professional music career while still in high school. In 1956, she won a talent contest that led to her own radio program. Hank Thompson heard her on the local Oklahoma City radio station and invited her to perform with his band, the Brazos Valley Boys. That opportunity led to a few recordings on the band’s label, Capitol Records. Songs included “You Can’t Have My Love,” a duet with bandleader Billy Gray that reached number eight on the country charts. When she asked for her own record deal, however, a producer informed Jackson that “girls don’t sell records.”
After she graduated from high school, Jackson began a tour in July 1955 with an artist who had created a buzz in Memphis— Elvis Presley. The two budding musicians briefly dated, and Presley coached and encouraged Jackson to perform the new form of music, rock ‘n’ roll.
“I wasn’t sure I could do it. I was a country singer,” Jackson said. “But he kept telling me I could, and finally I believed him.”
Jackson credits much of her strength to the support she received from her parents, who helped her find herself as an artist. “My daddy traveled with me,” she said, helping to manage her. “And my mom made all my clothes. They were both very supportive of what I did. They would have done anything for me.”
Wanda’s was unlike the traditional clothing worn by other female singers of the day— she opted for fringe dresses, high heels, and long earrings, a look she has previously claimed put the glamour back into country music.
With a strong support system and a mentor in Presley, Jackson decided to give the new rowdy rockabilly sound a go. She not only liked what she heard but later explained how the ability to just rear back and sing helped distinguish her. She blended country music with fast-moving fifties-era rock ‘n’ roll, often daring to record the genres on opposite sides of a record. With the occasional twang of traditional country choruses and the be-bopping verses, the 1956 hybrid track “I Gotta Know” peaked at number fifteen.
Her inimitable vocal style and upbeat material helped Jackson create some of rock ‘n’ roll’s most influential music right at its birth. In the late fifties, she recorded and released several seminal rockabilly songs, including “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad,” “Mean, Mean Man,” “Fujiyama Mama,” and “Honey Bop.”
But the newfound musical identity came at a price, as both gender politics and societal presumptions about how women should behave began to affect Jackson’s reach on the listening audience. None of the above early rock songs became more than regional hits, with the exception of “Fujiama Mama’s” climb to number one in Japan, and many of them Jackson had to pen herself because the chances that anyone else would toss work her way were slim.
“I wouldn’t have the same problems at the live rock shows,” she said. “They were fine. I’d get out there and sing ‘Fujiama Mama’ and the crowd would love it. But the disc jockeys wouldn’t play me. America, it seems, just wasn’t ready for a feisty female in fringe.”
In 1960, Jackson scored a top-forty hit with the spunky “Let’s Have a Party,” and she was touring with her own band called the Party Timers. The band featured then relatively unknown entertainers— pianist Big Al Downing and guitarist and future Hee Haw host Roy Clark.
In 1963, Jackson recorded her final album with Capitol, Two Sides of Wanda, which featured both rock ‘n’ roll and country music. The album included a cover of the Jerry Lee Lewis song “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.’” It also earned a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
In country music, Jackson found momentum with top-ten songs “Right or Wrong” and “In the Middle of a Heartache.” With her attentions focused on country, Jackson netted two more top-twenty hits in “Tears Will Be the Chaser for You” and “The Box It Came In.”
In 1967, she dropped two albums, and over the next few years, her songs asserted a more fiery persona. The 1969 song “My Big Iron Skillet” threatened personal injury for spousal infidelity. She received her second Grammy nomination for “A Woman Lives for Love.” Jackson also became the second country female vocalist to have her own syndicated television show whenMusic Village aired from 1967 to 1968.
In the early seventies, Jackson accepted Christianity and started recording gospel songs and albums.
“I went back to country for awhile because they wouldn’t play [my rock songs],” she said. “And then I turned to gospel music for like eighteen years. Then one day I was talking to my family, and I just decided to give [rockabilly] another go.”
Artists who have cited Jackson’s classic fifties-era rock ‘n’ roll records as a major influence include Cyndi Lauper, Rosanne Cash, Pam Tillis, Jan Browne, and Rosie Flores. In 2009, Jackson collaborated with Jack White for The Party Ain’t Over. Released in 2011, the album received critical praise and charted on theBillboard Hot 200 LP chart.
In 2012, Jackson came out with her thirty-first studio album,Unfinished Business, produced by Americana singer/songwriter Justin Townes Earle as a throwback to her rockabilly and country roots. The album became the first of Jackson’s efforts in thirty-nine years to chart on the Billboard Hot Country list.
She was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence in 2009.
“It was wonderful to be there finally with so many people I’ve known and played with and toured with,” she said of her acceptance into those hallowed halls. “It feels nice to be there with them.”
Online streaming sites like Youtube and satellite radio have also expanded Jackson’s audience beyond generational lines.
And the irony that Jackson has outlived the sexism that tried to squash her early career is not lost on her.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Ha, ha. You have to play me now,’” Jackson said jokingly. “You’re getting requests.”
Jackson also said that while the music industry is far from perfect, the chances for more women to succeed and release their music have endless potential.
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” she said. “[Sexism] still exists out there, but now there are so many more opportunities for women in the music industry.”
Jackson continues an active touring schedule. Currently, she is finalizing details to record an album with the help of another rock ‘n’ roll legend she helped inspire: Joan Jett.
“She lives in New York, and I live in New York,” Jackson said. “We’ll have to work out the logistics, but I’m really excited to work with her.”
When asked if she knew she would continue to perform all these years, she said she knew of nothing else she wanted to do, and still holds true to something her father once told her.
“I’m happy. I really, really am,” Jackson said. “I knew even then. My daddy said if you find something you are passionate about, you are going to feel like you’ve never worked a day in your life.”