Singer Wanda Jackson exploded the notion that early rock-n-roll was a male-dominated genre through such formidable 1950s rockabilly singles as "Let's Have a Party, "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad" and "Fujiyama Mama," and continued to prove that women could rock as hard as men for the next half-century. Jackson's voice was her secret weapon, capable of crooning the sweetest, tear-jerking country ballad on one side of a 45 and then burning up the studio with a full-throated rockabilly roar on the other. Jackson moved exclusively into country music in the mid-1960s, though the fire in songs like "This Gun Don't Care" remained white-hot until the 1970s, when she took up Christianity and gospel music. Her rockabilly sides enjoyed a revival in the 1980s that brought her back to recording rock music a decade later; the new millennium found her collaborating with Jack White and Elvis Costello on several popular albums while finally earning her spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Throughout it all, Wanda Jackson's indomitable voice retained its sass and spirit, which in turn underscored her status as one of early rock-n-roll's most memorable and colorful performers.
Born Wanda Lavonne Jackson on Oct. 20, 1937 in Maud, OK, she was the daughter of Tom Robert Jackson, a former musician who quit the business during the Depression, and his wife, Vera. In 1941, Jackson moved with her family to California, where she began playing guitar and piano with the encouragement and instruction of her father. He also took her to see such legendary country and western performers as Bob Wills and Spade Cooley in concert, which left lasting impressions. Jackson's own singing career took off soon after they returned to Oklahoma City in 1948; there, she won a local talent contest, which earned her a 15-minute daily radio show on KLPR. By the time Jackson was in high school, the show had been upped to a 30-minute slot, which in 1954 caught the attention of country vocalist Hank Thompson. He soon invited her to perform with his band, the Brazos Valley Boys, as well as record a few singles for their label, Capitol Records, including "You Can't Have My Love," a duet with Thompson's bandleader, Billy Gray, that reached No. 8 on the country singles chart. Jackson was refused her own contract with Capitol, which sent her to Decca Records.
After completing high school, Jackson became a popular performer on the country music variety series "Ozark Jubilee" (ABC-TV, 1955-1960) while also performing live dates. She frequently shared double bills with a young Elvis Presley, who was credited, along with her father, with encouraging Jackson to sing rockabilly. She immediately captured listeners' attention with her fiery, supremely confident and undeniably alluring vocals on such high-octane rockers as the Top 20 country single "I Gotta Know" and "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad," both released in 1956 by Capitol, which had reversed its decision on Jackson that same year. Jackson divided her attention between country and rock-n-roll throughout the 1960s, often on the same disc, but her rockabilly material easily outshined her other songs. Regional hit singles such as "Mean, Mean Man," "Fujiyama Mama" - a No. 1 hit in Japan - and "Honey Bop" preceded her first genuine Billboard 100 hit, the hot-bopping "Let's Have a Party" in 1960. Its success allowed Jackson to move from opening act to headliner with her own band, the Party Timers, which featured such ace musicians as piano player Big Al Downing and a young guitarist named Roy Clark.
Jackson's subsequent singles found purchase on both the country and pop charts, including the Top 40 hits "Right or Wrong," "In the Middle of a Heartache" and "If I Cried Every Time You Hurt Me." A 1963 cover of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" also netted her a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Performance. But by 1965, rockabilly had been usurped by rock-n-roll and the polished countrypolitan sound from Nashville, and Jackson chose the latter as her primary showcase. She retained the grit and strength of her early singles in such tough-talking tunes as 1966's "This Gun Don't Care," but the majority of her recorded output lay in aching ballads like the Top 20 country hits "The Box It Came In" and "Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine," both from 1966. She became a fixture on the Las Vegas nightclub scene while maintaining a strong fanbase in Germany, where she had scored a No. 1 hit with the German-language tune "Santo Domingo." Jackson even enjoyed her own television show, "Music Village," which aired in syndication from 1967-68.
But by 1972, the hits had dried up for Jackson. At the encouragement of her husband and manager, Wendell Goodman, who had bucked music tradition by giving up his career at IBM to support his spouse, she converted to Christianity. Jackson soon turned to recording gospel for Capitol and later Myrrh and Word Records throughout the 1970s. A decade later, her rockabilly sides were enjoying a considerable revival in Europe, where she soon became a fixture at country and retro-minded festivals. She paid tribute to her early work with Rockabilly Fever (1984), which paved the way for her comeback in the United States. Female country artists such as Roseanne Cash and Pam Tillis cited Jackson as a major influence, while Jann Browne and Rosie Flores recorded duets with her on albums in 1987 and 1995, respectively. Flores also mounted a joint tour with Jackson, which marked her first stateside live dates since the 1970s.
In 2003, Jackson released Heart Trouble (2003), her first studio album since 1987. The record featured such high-profile admirers as Elvis Costello, Dave Alvin, and the Cramps on new versions of her classic songs as well as covers. With her voice and spirit still in fine form, Jackson continued her reign as rockabilly's once and future queen with her 2009 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That same year, she released The Party Ain't Over, a collaboration with Jack White that featured her incendiary covers of songs by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good." The record gave her the highest album chart placement of her career by reaching No. 58 on the Billboard chart, while making her the oldest female vocalist in music history to chart. The following year, she was honored with the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for performance. High-profile television appearances, including a tribute to Winehouse on "VH1 Divas Live 2011" preceded the release of her 31st studio album, the country-driven Unfinished Business, in 2012.
By Paul Gaita