Wanda Jackson Biography

Singer (1937–)
Singer Wanda Jackson's hit songs climbed both the country and rock charts in the 1950s and 1960s, earning her the "Queen of Rockabilly" title.


Born in Oklahoma in 1937, singer Wanda Jackson began performing while still in high school and had signed with Capitol Records by the time she was 20. Her hit songs, including 1959's "Let's Have a Party," climbed both the country and rock charts, earning her the "Queen of Rockabilly" title. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.

Early Life

Singer. Wanda Lavonne Jackson was born on October 20, 1937, in Maud, Oklahoma, a small town on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, and lived there until her family moved to Bakersfield, California, to escape the poverty created by the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Her father was a musician who noticed that the young Jackson showed an interest in music, so he bought her a guitar when she was six years old. She also attended country music concerts with her father and sang in her church's gospel choir. When she was 12 the family relocated back to Oklahoma, and later as a high school student Jackson won a talent show. The prize was her own radio program.

It was through this radio exposure that Jackson was discovered by country star Hank Thompson, who invited her to sing with his band, the Brazos Valley Boys. She began performing with them on weekends. In 1954, she recorded the single "You Can't Have My Love," with one of the men from the band, andthe song hit No. 8 on the country charts. Thompson tried to get her signed with Capitol Records, but Ken Nelson, a Capitol producer, said "Girls don't sell records," so Jackson signed with Decca instead, recording a large batch of songs for the label before graduating high school.

In 1955, soon after graduation, Jackson joined the Ozark Jubilee tour that featured many up-and-coming acts, including Elvis Presley. The two briefly dated and Presley told her to try singing rockabilly, an early version of rock and roll whose name comes from a blend of "rock" and "hillbilly." The sound was shaped by rhythm and blues, country, and swing. "In 1956, at Elvis's insistence, I started singing rock 'n' roll songs. He had made me promise that I would try to sing some rockabilly, so I did. There were four or five years that I recorded rockabilly music… Once I sang it, I realized I love rock 'n' roll, and I can sing it. Elvis was right."

Rock and Roll Hits

A year later, Jackson finally signed with Capitol and recorded "I Gotta Know," which proved that she really could sing rock and roll like the best of the boys. The song reached No. 15 on the charts and her popularity began to take off. Of course, Presley's own popularity took off too. Jackson says about her friend: "I was excited for him. And, of course, I was 17 and 18 years old, so I was a fan of his, as well as a friend. And I was thrilled to death at his success."

Unlike most other female acts of the time, Jackson wore short skirts, hoop earrings, and high heels—all outfits her mother designed. The female equivalent of Presley's leather suits and pelvic thrusting, she was the first woman to bring sex appeal to the rock and roll stage. Of her outfits, she told NPR, "I've never been able to wear a full skirt; haven't to this day. And the cowboy hats and those little clubby boots. And I just didn't like it. I didn't feel like that was me, because I was a big fan of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, and I wanted to look like them." She was so sexy, in fact, that she was not even allowed onstage at the Grand Ole Opry until she covered her shoulders.

For the next six years, through the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, Jackson put out both rock and country singles, refusing to work in just one genre and finding considerable success. She insisted on using only the highest-quality session musicians; their polished sound, combined with her gravelly and wild voice, produced some of the best rock of her time.

The songs that Wanda Jackson recorded and performed during this period—such as "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad," "Mean, Mean Man," and "Fujiyama Mama"—pushed the envelope in other ways as well. Her lyrics were ahead of their time, featuring sexually suggestive innuendo and depictions of strong women who did not put up with controlling men. More than anything, her songs conveyed pure, unadulterated good times. "Fujiyama Mama," a huge hit in both the United States and namesake Japan, contains the lyrics: "Well you can talk about me, say that I'm mean/ I'll blow your head off, baby, with nitroglycerine!"

Her most famous song was 1959's "Let's Have a Party," which combined her wild energy, sex appeal, and rebellious spirit. Presley had sung the tune a year earlier in a film, and Capitol considered it a filler track for Jackson's first album, but she made the song all her own. Jackson rocked out harder than the King himself, and "Let's Have a Party" remains her biggest hit to this day.

Country Hits

By the turn of the 1960s, Jackson was headlining her own tours backed by a band she named The Party Timers and releasing country hits that climbed the charts as well. Hoping to profit from her popularity in the early 1960s, Capitol released compilation albums of her earlier hits from the 1950s such as Rockin' With Wanda and There's a Party Goin' On. However, her rock albums did not bring in as much money as her country records, so she released Right or Wrong, Love Me Forever, and Wonderful Wanda, three country albums that sold by the millions.

In 1961, Wanda Jackson married IBM computer programmer Wendell Goodman, and they had two children and raised their family in Oklahoma City.

In 1963, Jackson's album Two Sides of Wanda, which included songs like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," "Honey Don't," "Rip It Up," and "Searchin,'" combined rockabilly and country sounds to win a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

Unfortunately, her image as a sexually liberated and independent rock star was too far ahead of her time and her rock and roll career dwindled. She slowly embraced country full-time and went on to release dozens of country hits through the late 1960s. She even had her own television show, Music Village, from 1965 to 1967. She recorded singles in German that became huge hits abroad, later becoming an album Made in Germany (1968) and headlined a show in Las Vegas as well.

In the early 1970s, Wanda and her husband began regularly attending church and became evangelical Christians, causing her to retreat even further from rock music and from the bad-girl image she had created in the 1950s and '60s. She recorded a gospel album with Capitol, but later left the label because it was largely uninterested in producing more of her religious music. Instead, she set up church tours across the country.

Rockabilly Revival

The early 1980s witnessed a substantial rockabilly revival and Jackson was invited to play some of her old hits in Europe. She toured heavily throughout the decade. She inspired many female country and rock acts who followed her, such as Rosie Flores, with whom she did a tour in 1995. It was her first full American tour since the early 1970s. In 2001, Jackson played at the Rockabilly Festival in Jackson, Tennessee, and in 2003 released Heart Trouble, which included guest performances by greats like Elvis Costello. In 2009, the 72-year-old was approached by Jack White of the White Stripes to record a cover album. One of the tracks he selected for her was a racy hit about infidelity by Amy Winehouse called "You Know I'm No Good." She told an interviewer, "At first, I said, 'He's gotta be kidding. He wants me to record this? I don't think it'll be very believable." She agreed to do it, even performing the song on Letterman alongside White in 2011. The well-received resulting album, The Party Ain't Over, proved that Wanda Jackson still wasn't ready to give up her title as the Queen of Rockabilly.

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