By Buster Fayte
With the release of Wanda Jackson’s new CD, The Party Ain’t Over, produced by Jack White, there’s been a lot of buzz about the her lately. So who is this Queen of Rockabilly and why is everyone making such a fuss over her?
Although among rockabilly fans Wanda will forever be known as the Queen of Rockabilly, she’s had a long and varied music career that included great country and gospel recordings. But it was the early rockabilly that turned everybody’s heads!
Wanda was born on October 20, 1937 in Maud, Oklahoma. Like so many of the kids that grew up in that era, she grew up listening to country and swing artists like Bob Wills, Tex Williams, and Spade Cooley. And like all of the rockabilly pioneers, this music had a profound impact on her formation as a musician.
When she was still in high school, she won a talent contest in Oklahoma City and as a prize was given a 15-minute daily radio show on a local station. It was popular enough that the station expanded it to a full 30 minutes. Eventually she caught the attention of country singer Hank Thompson who asked her to record with his band.
Even though she had a #8 country hit with You Can’t Have My Love, which she sang as a duet with Billy Gray from Thompson’s band, she was turned down for a contract by Captiol records who, as legend has it, told her that girls can’t sell records.That comment must have gone a long way to giving Jackson her trademark attitude!
She was signed instead to Decca records while she was still in high school. In the mid 50s she crossed paths with one Elvis Presley, who she credits along with her father for encouraging her to turn her talents toward rockabilly music. Jackson embraced the style and became arguably the most influential female rocker in those early days of rock and roll.
Unlike most other female artists of the time, she shed the corny cowgirl outfits and took to wearing sexy tight “pencil” dresses, dangly earrings, and high heels on stage. She radiated sexuality in her appearance and performance much the same way that Elvis did. She redefined what a woman performer looked like, acted like, sang like, and even wrote and played like as she wrote many of her own songs and played guitar–two tasks that not many women took on in those days.
Eventually Jackson did sign with Capitol and recorded for that label well into the 70s. She had a way with a song that no one had seen before and developed a trademark growl in her delivery that made listeners quickly realize that this was not just another “girl singer.” She turned out some amazing rockers during her rockabilly heyday including gems like, Let’s Have a Party, Riot in Cell Block #9, Fujiyama Mama, Hot Dog That Made Him Mad, Honey Bop, Mean Mean Man, and many more. Not only were these some of the best female rockabilly recordings ever made, they were some of the best rockabilly recordings ever made by anyone, period!
She’d also begun pairing a rocker on one side of her record with a country tune on the other and eventually morphed into country full time. She charted many times on the country charts and was nominated for two Grammy awards. In the 70s she turned to gospel music and recorded several fine records in that genre.
In the early 80s she began to ride the rockabilly revival wave and play the revival circuit. She’s been performing continually and still performs today. To listen to her sing today is to marvel at how good and strong her voice still sounds.
Wanda was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame with an Early Influencers award. Hopefully if you’re not familiar with Wanda’s music, you can now see what the fuss is all about!