Wanda Jackson has inspired generations of musicians, including Joan Jett and Jack White.
The annals of popular music teem with ersatz nobility: self-proclaimed dukes, kings and princes. But no one deserves her title more than Wanda Jackson, Queen of Rockabilly.
Although she had only one US rock & roll hit—1960’s “Let’s Have a Party”—Jackson’s seminal rockabilly singles are prized by aficionados. Fans of her straight-talking, hard-rocking stage persona include Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Jack Black. Female artists as diverse as Adele, Pam Tillis and Cyndi Lauper have acknowledged her as an inspiration and a pioneer in a field that has often been unwelcoming to women.
At 76, Jackson is still on the road and making new fans. She brings her extensive catalog of rockabilly, country and gospel tunes to the Blank Club on August 15.
Although Jackson wasn’t born with a guitar in her hand, it didn’t take long for her to pick one up. “I think I got it when I was six,” the country and rockabilly singer/songwriter says of the her first six string. “But I didn’t really learn much till I was seven.”
It may have been inevitable that she start playing. Jackson’s musical roots run deep. On the phone from her home in Oklahoma City she recalls her early introduction to the country-swing dance bands of her 1940s childhood. “I used to go to the dances with mother and daddy,” Jackson says. “Almost every weekend. By the time I was six or seven, I’d heard all of the great western swing bands. … I loved the girls in the band most of all, because they’d dress all flashy in their Western outfits. And they’d yodel. In my young mind, I’d think, ‘If I’m going to be a girl singer, I got to learn to yodel.’”
Jackson never got into yodeling, but she did rise quickly in Oklahoma’s country scene. After winning a talent contest at age 15, Jackson had a radio show, a record contract and was making television appearances all before graduating from high school in 1955.
That’s the year she started touring, and, as fate would have it, was paired with a certain young man from Tupelo, whose hybrid black-hillbilly sound and provocative stage moves were starting to send shock waves across the nation.
“Elvis convinced me I needed to be singing this new kind of music,” Jackson says, recalling that she was apprehensive of the King’s advice at first. “I didn’t think I could, but he convinced me that I could.”
Like Elvis, Jackson recognized the sea change going on; she embodied it too. In stiletto heels and stage clothes sewn by her mother—tight skirts with silk fringe, sweetheart necklines, and spaghetti straps—Jackson projected a western-meets-night-club look that was both sexy and tough. Her small frame, however, dwarfed behind an acoustic guitar, exaggerated her girlishness. The disjunctions of Jackson’s image encapsulated the moment: No one knew exactly what this rock & roll was yet, but it was dangerous and unprecedented. And it belonged indisputably to teenagers.
Even with the look, the sound and the imprimatur of the King of Rock & Roll, Jackson struggled with the business end of music.
“The first time we tried [to get a record deal],” she remembers, “the executives said, ‘She sings fine, but girls just don’t sell records.’”
It would not be the last time someone laid a paternalistic mansplanation on Jackson about what “girls” could and could not do. It was discouraging.
“I couldn’t get airplay,” she says. “The whole nation was in an uproar about rock & roll music. They were giving Elvis a hard time, all the other guys too, so they sure weren’t going to accept an 18-year-old girl in a shimmery dress singing these songs—and singing them just as well as the guys.”
With resistance from DJs and no hits, Jackson was about to give up on rock when “Let’s Have a Party”—a filler song from an album recorded three years earlier—broke the Top 40.
“It was the last song on on my first album,” Jackson says. “Everything else was stone country, but we needed another song. I’d been opening my shows with it, so I thought we’ll just throw it in.’”
And yet, while Jackson’s star was rising, American rock itself was facing a steep decline. “[When the Beatles hit,] I couldn’t get a session,” she says. “I couldn’t get a record. You just had to fight to get something released.” All these years later, the frustration is still palpable in the singer’s voice, as she recounts the many obstacles she faced in her early career.
“I just couldn’t make it,” she laments. “I was losing my country fans, so I had to just”—she lets the thought trail off.
Jackson returned to country music, where she went on to have 32 hits.
She didn’t come back to rockabilly until a Scandinavian tour in 1985. A generation had grown up entirely within rock & roll and the music didn’t have the old biases: “On my first show, they kept hollering ‘Mean, Mean Man!’” (one of her rockabilly tunes from the late ’50s).
It had been so long since she’d sung the tune that she’d forgotten the lyrics. A fan brought them to her hotel the next day and Jackson started rocking again. She still fondly remembers the request today: “I was accepted. And it was great!”
Looking back on her life in music, Jackson is especially proud that her struggles have helped other female artists get the rewards so long denied her. “The artists who thrill me the most are the girls who tell me what an influence I had on them,” she says. “It showed them, hey, girls can do this kind of music.”
Asked whether she thought she paved the way for iconic female punk rocker Joan Jett—whose black hair and tough-girl style mirrored Jackson’s in many ways—Jackson replies: “Yeah, I talked to Joan not long ago. She said, ‘You definitely influenced my style.’ I thought, ‘Well, you kinda took my style and ran with it, is what you did!’”
Wanda Jackson plays the Blank Club on Aug. 15. More info.