“As far as I know, I was the first woman to do the growlin’ and the hollerin’ and stuff like that. That’s what the guys were doin’ and I liked it. I think the reason I didn’t think about it being unladylike is because I’ve always been very feminine. I didn’t want to look vulgar; I wanted to look sexy. I wanted to look like a lady, but I wanted to cause a little stir, too.”
–Wanda Jackson, Finding Her Voice: The Illustrated History of Women in Country Music, p. 235
Wanda Jackson recently earned induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honor looooong overdue. Of course, this presupposes that the RnR HoF is a meaningful institution, a debatable assertion at best. However, if you’re gonna bother having a RnR HoF, folks like Wanda Jackson should be in it, even if it’s only as an “early influence.”
She was a force of women’s liberation and racial equality, a raven-haired goddess of stir-causing, girl-next-door sexuality, and most importantly, the first woman to flat-out rock ‘n’ roll. Wanda was a singular, spangled figure in the 1950s and early ’60s, cutting a sexy swath through the worlds of country music and rock ‘n’ roll like her contemporaries (and tour brethren) Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and one-time boyfriend/rockabilly muse, Elvis Presley (pictured right). She worked extensively with guitar badass, Joe Maphis, provided an early platform for future country greats and fellow Hee Hawers, Buck Owens and Roy Clark, and even employed black pianist, Big Al Downing, at a time when integrated bands, especially in country music, were met with widespread hostility. But beyond the sociopolitics and musicology know this, Wanda Jackson liked to party.
Backed by Big Al Downing and Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps, Wanda cuts loose on this 1958 recording that became her signature song. Ironically, the song didn’t become a hit for two years. As the story goes, in 1960, a Des Moines disc jockey discovered the track on her self-titled 1958 debut LP, and he began playing it. That created a buzz, Capitol Records (Wanda’s label) caught up to said buzz, and they released it as a single that summer. After six years in the business, Wanda Jackson finally had her first Top 40 single.
“She was an atomic bomb in lipstick. She was the queen of rockabilly. I like to think of rockabilly as country music with the beat of the big bands. Here Wanda has a foot in both worlds, switching back and forth between straight country and rockabilly, helped out more than a little by Joe Maphis, whose guitar solo sends this song into the stratosphere.”
—Bob Dylan, from his Artist’s Choice CD liner notes
Four years before “Party” hit, Wanda scored a country hit with “I Gotta Know,” a song that, as Bob correctly notes, veers deftly between country and rockabilly. Bob is also correct in calling Wanda, “The Queen of Rockabilly.” That is certainly no insult. However, I can’t help but think that lumping all of her classic early work under the rockabilly umbrella also serves to ghettoize her musical contributions, encasing them in circa-1950s amber. Songs like “Let’s Have A Party” and “I Gotta Know” — let alone other tracks, like “Fujiyama Mama” and “Mean Mean Man” — are as rock ‘n’ roll as anything Elvis, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis were doing at the time and should rightly be viewed in such light.
I suppose this is what irks me about the RnR HoF’s backhanded induction of Wanda, not on the main stage, as it were, but on the side stage, as an “early influence.” She was the first woman to legitimately play rock ‘n’ roll, bringing both style and a sense of anarchy to her music comparable to any contemporary male. Case in point:
A recent documentary film about Wanda Jackson is called, The Sweet Lady With The Nasty Voice, and you don’t get much nastier and lowdown than Wanda growling “There’s a RIIIOOT goin’ on!” That, my friends, is balls. Hall of Fame-sized balls. Jackson’s singing obviously makes the song, but I love how the drums are doubled to give the song extra punch, the piano is being played like a drum (probably to be heard), and the backup singers do their best Raelettes impression. And as usual, there’s more great guitar work. If you ever put together a prison-themed playlist, this will fit nicely between “Jailhouse Rock” and Thin Lizzy‘s “Jailbreak.” You can thank me later.
As for the doc, it doesn’t seem to be available on DVD, but here’s a clip from YouTube (via the Smithsonian Channel):
By 1961, Wanda was moving back toward country music. However, a track she cut the previous year is noteworthy for what it unwittingly foretold.
This Paul Anka tune was the last song Buddy Holly would see chart, released a month before his fateful plane flight in February 1959. What’s interesting about Wanda’s reading is that she omits the pizzicato string section that made Holly’s version so revolutionary, replacing them with an arrangement that anticipates the British Invasion, still 3-4 years away. If Holly was bridging rock ‘n’ roll and pop, Jackson was bridging rockabilly with what would later come to be known as rock. The guitar solo in particular (1:24-1:43) sounds like it comes straight outta the Keith Richards/George Harrison playbook.
Wanda spent the next decade recording straight country music, with mere hints of her rock ‘n’ roll past. In the early 1970s, she and husband/manager, Wendell Goodman, converted to Christianity, with Jackson forsaking country in favor of gospel. Not surprisingly, she all but disappeared from even the fringe of the mainstream radar. Then, in the 1980s, a rockabilly revival hit Europe and Wanda was rediscovered. A similar revival hit here in the states, although it encompassed not just rockabilly, but all manner of hard, rootsy, non-Nashville country. Rosie Flores led the Wanda revival, releasing her self-titled debut in 1987 with its cover of “I Gotta Know.” In 1995, Rosie cut Rockabilly Filly, an entire album of rockabilly songs, including a couple tracks with Wanda (her idol). (Flores also recorded with Wanda’s contemporary, and fellow rockabilly/rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, Janis Martin.).
Rosie Flores & Wanda Jackson – His Rockin’ Little Angel
Rockabilly Filly, 1995
Rosie Flores & Wanda Jackson – His Rockin’ Little Angel
“I was innovative in my time. But, in retrospect, I was just bein’ me. I do different interviews now and they talk about how I was quite — what’s the word for the new feminist movement? — yeah, ‘liberated.’ Well, I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s just it.”
–Wanda Jackson, Finding Her Voice, p. 234
I think Wanda Jackson is of a piece with her immediate and equally pioneering female forebears, Rose Maddox and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, two women who more than held their own against the men of their day and presaged the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll. Unfortunately, this comparison is all too apt in another important respect. Neither Maddox nor Tharpe are in the RnR HoF in any capacity, let alone as “early influences,” and Maddox, like Jackson, isn’t in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Consider bullshit called.
The bottom line is that Wanda Jackson isn’t great because she’s been allowed to join a “little boy’s club,” as Elvis Costello once referred to the RnR HoF. She’s great because she combined formidable talent, with style, spirit, and sass, and did so on her terms. I leave with a clip that, for me, sums up her unique greatness. Shot at Town Hall Party in 1958, she covers Elvis’ #1 hit from that year, “Hard-Headed Woman.” However, her arrangement is totally unique, both musically and visually. She has the great Joe Maphis tearing up his double-necked Mosrite guitar, which was the first of its kind and had to look to the audience like some sort of Martian homing device. She has a trumpet player, somewhat in the vein of Bob Wills’ old Texas Playboys, whose western swing was Wanda’s first musical inspiration. There’s a piano player, sort of a poor-man’s Jerry Lee Lewis, pounding away. And apparently, Mamie Van Doren is playing fiddle, though she sits out this tune. Just a great, fun, feisty recording, like much of Wanda’s best work.
Wanda Jackson – Hard-Headed Woman
“A hard-headed woman is a thorn in the side of a man.” Ain’t that the truth.