The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

Today in Rock: Wanda Jackson is Born

Thursday, October 20: 9 a.m.
Wanda Jackson

The rockabilly field of the 1950s wasn’t exactly crowded with female performers, but Wanda Jackson didn’t let that stop her from making her mark. Born on October 20, 1937, she emerged from a small town in Oklahoma to become the first Queen of Rockabilly. With encouragement from Elvis Presley, whom she met while on a package tour in 1955, Jackson moved from country music to rock and roll. "I was just doing straight country, and that's all I had ever planned on doing. [Elvis] started talking to me about his kind of music – we didn't really have a name for it at that point," said Jackson during a 2009 Hall of Fame series interview with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Vice President of Education and Public Programs Lauren Onkey. "I said look, I love it of course, but you're a guy, you can sing it, and I just don't think I can do it. He just kept insisting that I could do it – he said, 'you got the voice.' He took me out to his home in Memphis, and we played records that afternoon. 

"He made me promise that somewhere along the way that I would try this kind of music," explained Jackson. "So, I promised him, and in 1956, I went from Decca Records to Capitol Records, and I thought well this might be a good time if I'm going to try this, because it was really big music by then. A friend of mine wrote a special song for me. It had a little country in it and rockabilly. It was called "I Gotta Know," so that was a good transition for me."

Jackson’s rockabilly recordings – including such red-hot sides as “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad,” “Rock Your Baby,” “Mean Mean Man,” “Honey Bop,” “Let’s Have a Party” and “Fujiyama Mama” – are among the greatest ever made, regardless of gender. "Record companies weren't sure how to market this," said Jackson in a 2011 interview with the Rock Hall. "Here, they had signed me as a country singer, and all of a sudden I'm doing this "new" kind of music – we called it –like Elvis does, because we didn't have the term rock and roll or rockabilly. I was always the only girl around. In the late '50s, "Fujiyama Mama" became among the first tracks to feature Jackson's signature "growl." 

"I was recording 'Fujiyama Mama,'" said Jackson. "I was just having a little trouble getting into it, and my daddy, who was my real mentor, came out into the studio and said, 'Wanda' – he was very soft-spoken – 'just rear back and sing that like you're singing it to a house full of people." The song reached Number One in Japan.

Jackson’s moment on the pop charts passed as quickly as it came, but the rockabilly songs she cut in the late '50s and early '60s were a groundbreaking influence on rock and roll. On top of being the Queen of Rockabilly, Jackson enjoyed a formidable presence on the country charts for 20 years – before, during and after her time as a rock and roll pioneer. She racked up 30 C&W hits from 1954 to 1974; ironically, many hardcore country fans are unaware of her involvement with and impact on rock and roll. "I've been in the music business for 56 years, and I've been recording and touring for about 54 years, so I've seen a lot of changes in just about every aspect of our business, and some aren't good in my thinking, but most of them are," said Jackson in 2011. "The music industry is very exciting, but it certainly was in my day, too, because I was working with the guy who changed the whole industry and turned it upside down, and that's Elvis Presley.

"Everything is totally different today, but I'm very proud of the women who have made strides to become heads of corporate places, to be engineers, songwriters," added Jackson. "I think our business is in very good hands, so long as the women are in there, because we need them." Jackson is still busy recording and performing, teaming up with Jack White of the White Stripes and the Racontours for this year's The Party Ain't Over. Jackson is also among the artists featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power exhibit, on display through February 2012.

Wanda Jackson performs "Mean Mean Man" at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions in 2009

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