Born Wanda Lavonne Jackson, 20 October 1937, Maud, Oklahoma
Singer, songwriter, guitarist. Nicknamed "Queen of Rockabilly".
Wanda Jackson is generally considered as the greatest female rock n roll singer of all time. Unfortunately, her commercial success in the 1950s was very limited. Her aggressive style and signature growl shocked a lot of listeners at the time.
Times were hard for Tom and Nellie Jackson when their only child, Wanda Lavonne, was born in 1937 in the small town of Maud, Oklahoma. Tom had been a fiddle player with local bands, but now he worked in a bakery and pumped gas at night to help make ends meet. In 1942 Tom took the family to Los Angeles where he went to work in munitions plants. The next year he bought Wanda her first guitar and taught her a few chords. At age nine she started taking piano lessons and also learned to read music. By 1949 the Jacksons were back in Oklahoma, living in Oklahoma City, where Tom found work as a used car salesman.
Wanda's musical career began in 1952 when she won a local talent contest and was given a daily show on KLPR Radio in Oklahoma City. Country star Hank Thompson heard her sing and invited her to tour with him and his Brazos Valley Boys. He also tried to land her a contract with the label he recorded for, Capitol, but Capitol wouldn't sign anyone under 18 then. Decca had no such rules and Wanda first recorded for that label in March 1954. Seven singles were released by Decca (1954-56), mostly country love songs, and the first one, "You Can't Have My Love" (a "duet" with Billy Gray, Thompson's bandleader) was a # 8 country hit. After finishing high school in 1955, she went on the road with a package tour that included Elvis Presley, who advised her to try her hand at rock n roll. Ken Nelson signed Wanda to Capitol in the spring of 1956. Usurped by the new rock n roll music, traditional country was in a state of flux, and Nelson encouraged Jackson to cut in both the country and rockabilly veins. She had a natural feeling for rock n roll and was marketed as a sort of female counter- part to Elvis. This she was in a musical sense, but she failed to have anywhere near the same success. Apparently she was too raunchy for a (mostly female) teenage audience. The public was simply not prepared for a young lady who sang and looked like Wanda did. She broke with tradition by casting aside her Western outfits and adopting a glitzy new look involving slinky dresses, high heels, long earrings and heavy make-up.
Wanda's early sessions were recorded at the Capitol Tower in Hollywood with such luminaries as Joe Maphis, Buck Owens, Skeets McDonald and Merrill Moore, all recording artists in their own right. Her first Capitol single, "I Gotta Know" (a split-tempo rocker), did well on the country charts (# 15), but it would be five years before she returned to those charts. The second 45 coupled "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad" (now considered a rockabilly classic) with the original version of "Silver Threads and Golden Needles". "Fuyijama Mama" (originally recorded by Annisteen Allen in 1954, also for Capitol) was an outstanding rocker and a big hit in Japan in 1958, despite (or because of?) its references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Wanda did a brief, successful tour there in early 1959.
Because they shared Jim Halsey as their manager, the Poe Kats became Wanda's backing band in early 1958. This mixed rock n roll band comprised Bobby Poe, Vernon Sandusky and Joe Brawley (all Caucasian) and Afro-American Big Al Downing on piano and vocals. The Poe Kats went on the road with Wanda for about a year and also recorded with her in the studio during four days of sessions in April 1958. Wanda recorded her first album, simply titled "Wanda Jackson" (Capitol T 1041), and two singles, including the great rocker "Mean Mean Man" (her own composition). The LP included her best known song, "Let's Have A Party", previously recorded by Elvis (as "Party") for his second film, "Loving You". At the time, she didn't think too much of it, it was just another album track. Two years later, a deejay in Des Moines, Iowa, started playing "Let's Have A Party" and got such a tremendous response that it was issued as a single. It reached # 38 on the Hot 100 in the autumn of 1960 (her first pop hit), charted also in several other countries and was followed by a reissue of "Mean Mean Man" (a # 40 hit in the UK). Wanda, who had considered going back to just country, milked the two R&R hits for all it was worth and Capitol released a second LP in 1960, "Rockin' With Wanda", containing her earlier rocking singles. Her third album, "There's A Party Goin' On", issued in January 1961, was also made up of (newly recorded) rock n roll material. By that time she'd formed a hot new band fronted by guitarist Roy Clark.
In 1961 (the year that she married Wendell Goodman, to whom she is still wed today) Wanda started recording in Nashville, though she continued to live in Oklahoma City, and veered again towards tamer country stuff. She had two Top 30 pop hits in that year, "Right Or Wrong" (# 29, also # 9 country) and "In the Middle Of A Heartache" (# 27, and # 6 country). Between 1961 and 1973 she recorded an awful lot of country songs for Capitol and had 16 Top 40 country hits during that period (but no Top 10 hits after 1961). She also wrote Buck Owens's # 8 country hit "(Let's Stop) Kickin' Our Hearts Around" (1962).
When her career waned in the mid-1970s, Wanda battled and conquered severe alcohol dependency and became a born-again Christian with a special interest in gospel music. The European rockabilly craze of the late 70s and early 80s brought renewed interest to the records Wanda had made in the days when she showed true maverick spirit by daring to out-rock the boys. "Rock and Roll Away Your Blues", recorded in Sweden with Swedish musicians (1984), was her first rockabilly recording in decades. In 1989, "Let's Have A Party" was featured in the movie "Dead Poets Society". She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, as an "early influence". In 2011 she released a new album, "The Party Ain't Over", on the Nonesuch label, a mix of rock n roll and country, but it was over-produced (by Jack White) and disappointing, though it was her first album to ever make the pop charts (# 58). Far more satisfying was "Unfinished Business" (released in October 2012, her thirty-first studio album) with a simpler country-tinged accompaniment. After 60 years (!) of performing, we haven't heard the last of Wanda Jackson yet.
Official website : http://www.wandajackson.com/main.html Interview (1996) : http://www.roctober.com/roctober/greatness/wanda.html
More info :
Discography / sessionography :
Acknowledgements : Rob Finnis, Colin Escott, Nick Tosches, Adri Sturm, Shaun Mather.
Dik, October 2013
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