The rockabilly field of the Fifties wasn’t exactly crowded with female performers, but Wanda Jackson didn’t let that stop her from making her mark.
She emerged from a small town in Oklahoma to become the first Queen of Rockabilly. Jackson started out her career singing with the likes of Hank Thompson and Red Foley, who hosted the Ozark Jubilee Barn Dance. Her first contract, arranged with Thompson’s assistance, was with Decca Records, and she had a country hit in 1954 with the duet “You Can’t Have My Love.”
With encouragement from Elvis Presley, who she met while on a package tour in 1955, Jackson moved in the direction of rock and roll. “You should be doing this kind of music,” he advised her. Her early singles for Capitol Records, to which she signed in 1956, typically consisted of a country song and a rock and roll number. Jackson’s rockabilly recordings – including such red-hot Fifties sides as “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad,” “Rock Your Baby,” “Mean Mean Man” and “Honey Bop” – are among the greatest ever made, regardless of gender. These rocking sides featured renowned country-music accompanists such as Buck Owens (rhythm guitar) and Ralph Mooney (pedal steel).
In 1957, Jackson gave the full-blown rockabilly treatment to a rhythm & blues number called “Fujiyama Mama.” Although it missed the U.S. charts, it became a hit in Japan. Jackson topped herself as a rock and roll singer with “Let’s Have a Party,” a song previously recorded as “Party” by Elvis Presley (for the film Lovin’ You) and the Collins Kids. By then, she’d recruited a hot rockabilly act, Bobby Poe and the Poe Cats, as her backup band. Unusually, for the time, it was an integrated band that included black pianist Big Al Downing.
On “Let’s Have a Party,” Jackson’s voice is as uninhibited and raw as that of any male Fifties rocker, and guitarist Vernon Sandusky matches her energy with his uninhibited licks. Recorded in 1958, the song wasn’t released as a single for two years – and only then when a deejay started playing the track after discovering it on her first album, Wanda Jackson. “Let’s Have a Party” became Jackson’s first Top 40 hit, reaching Number 37.
Jackson cut a striking visual image onstage in the conservative Fifties. “I was the first girl that I know of in country music to sing in a tight dress, more of a sexy type outfit: high heels and long earrings and silk fringe dresses,” she told Goldmine’s Jeff Tamarkin. “I designed those and was wearing them long before the go-go dancers were popular in the Sixties.”
Her flamboyance raised eyebrows in the conservative country world – especially on the Grand Ole Opry – but fit right in with the freewheeling spirit of rock and roll. Capitol had her record more rock and roll on the albums There’s a Party Goin’ On (1961) and Rockin’ With Wanda (1960). Her band, the Party Timers, included guitarist Roy Clark, a future legend in the country field. Jackson had two more Top 40 hits in 1961 – “Right Or Wrong” (Nuber 29) and “In the Middle of a Heartache” (Nuber 27) – but both betrayed more of a country than a rockabilly sound, and that’s ultimately the direction she pursued for much of the rest of her career.
Wanda Jackson’s moment on the pop charts passed as quickly as it came, but the rockabilly songs she cut in the late Fifties and early Sixties are highly valued by those in the know. On top of being the Queen of Rockabilly, for 20 years – before, during and after her time as a rock and roll pioneer – Jackson enjoyed a formidable presence on the country charts. She racked up 30 C&W hits between 1954 and 1974; ironically, many hardcore country fans are unaware of her involvement with and impact on rock and roll.
In the long run, Jackson felt more at home with country music than rock and roll, though it had more to do with the lifestyles than the music. “At the time, I got thrown into the rock and roll scene and I didn’t understand these people,” she told Goldmine’s Jeff Tamarkin in 1987. “I was just country folk, you know?”
In 1971, Jackson became a born-again Christian, and throughout the Seventies she recorded gospel as well as country music. Jackson has returned to rock and roll from time to time, too, in recent decades. Rock ‘n’ Roll Away Your Blues was released in the mid-1980s.
In 2003, Jackson released Heart Trouble, which featured guest appearances by Elvis Costello, the Cramps and Rosie Flores. Then, in 2009, she returned to her roots once again, issuing I Remember Elvis, a tribute to her old friend and touring partner. In 2011, Jackson worked with Jack White on the album The Party Ain’t Over. It was her first album ever to make the pop charts, reaching Number 58. And in 2012, Jackson released her 31st studio album, Unfinished Business. It was produced by Justin Townes Earle.