Born: October 20, 1937
Wanda Lavonne Jackson was born in Maud, Oklahoma, in 1937, and spent her childhood in Oklahoma and California. She recalls that her father, himself an amateur musician, gave her her first guitar when she was about six and then later—when she showed a love for pop music and the “girl singers” of the time—he provided her with a piano and lessons. Her first public performances were for a program on KLPR AM radio out of Oklahoma City, where local disc jockey “Cousin” Jay Davis would showcase local talent. She then had her own fifteen-minute show on the station. When KLPR launched a television station, she had a show there as well.
At age fourteen, Jackson began establishing herself as a country singer, performing with Hank Thompson and Merl Lindsay. “I felt like I was going to country music college,” she writes in her autobiography, “but my professors were the Oklahoma Night Riders and Brazos Valley Boys.” Thompson helped her record a demo record and a deal with Decca Records, where her first release, a duet with Thompson’s bandleader Billy Gray—recorded at Thompson’s house—performed well on the country charts. She was soon recording in Nashville and appeared at the Grand Ole Opry, where she was rebuked for trying to wear a sleeveless dress onstage. “I decided that night that the Grand Ole Opry scene was not for me,” she writes.
Jackson began to turn from more traditional country to the emerging rock and roll scene in 1955. She first met Elvis Presley at a radio appearance at KTOC in 1955, and the two had a brief relationship. “Over the years,” she writes, I’ve been asked about Elvis Presley more than any other topic you could imagine.…there have been times I’ve wanted to scream ‘There’s a lot more to Wanda Jackson than my experiences with Elvis Presley!’” But the importance Presley did have in her career was in encouraging her to experiment with the burgeoning genre of rock and roll.
When she graduated from high school, her father became her manager and road chaperone, and Jackson began working toward becoming a professional singer. She appeared with Presley on a package tour arranged by talent agent Bob Neal, and worked a number of other one-nighters and tours as well as becoming a regular on the ABC television program Ozark Jubilee. In 1956, believing that she needed more support from her record label, she signed with Capitol Records. Jackson wanted to record rockabilly, but had reservations about abandoning her country audiences. One of her earliest sides for Capitol, “I Gotta Know,” written by family friend Thelma Blackmon, had country ballad choruses but rockabilly verses. “[That song] would be a natural segue,” writes Jackson, “I had already jumped into the male-dominated world of country, so it was only natural to take the plunge into rock and roll, too.” Her records increasingly featured the signature growl that eventually earned her the moniker “the nice lady with the nasty voice.”
Jackson recorded a number of rockabilly sides between 1956 and 1960, although none of them brought the commercial success she was seeking—at least in the United States. “Fujiyama Mama,” an R&B cover record which had lyrics about atomic power that specifically mentioned the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, surprised her by becoming a sensation in Japan in 1958. The song also provided new material for the Japanese women who were beginning to record rock and roll at around that time. Jackson toured Japan, where she performed at clubs and military bases and was treated like a superstar.
She did find some pop chart success in the United States the early 1960s beginning with a cover of “Let’s Have a Party” (first recorded by Presley) that reached #37 on Billboard’s Hot 100. She married, and her husband Wendall Goodman became her manager and road companion until his death in 2017. They had two children. From the mid-1960s, Jackson’s career had its ups and downs, but she never left the business. As both a recording artist and a live performer, she increasingly turned back toward country, and in the 1970s, began to add gospel music to her catalog.
Jackson began performing rockabilly again as the genre found new audiences in the 1980s and 1990s. She appeared on second-generation rockabilly Rosie Flores’s 1995 album Rockabilly Filly. Since then, she’s recorded a number of new rockabilly albums, including Heart Trouble (2003), The Party Ain’t Over (2011, produced by Jack White), and Unfinished Business (2012, produced by Justin Townes Earle). Jackson was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence in 2009. She continues to perform and tour well into her 80s.
“I Gotta Know” / “Half As Good A Girl.” Capitol F3485 (1956).
“Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad” / “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” Capitol F3575 (1956).
“Baby Loves Him” / “Cryin’ Thru the Night.” Capitol F3637 (1957).
“Let Me Explain” / “Don’a Wan’a.” Capitol F3683 (1957).
“Cool Love” / “Did You Miss Me?” Capitol F3764 (1957).
“Fujiyama Mama” / “No Wedding Bells for Joe.” Capitol F3843 (1957).
Wanda Jackson. Capitol 1-1041 (1958).
“Honey Bop” / “Just a Queen for a Day.” Capitol F3941 (1958).
“Mean Mean Man” / “(Every Time They Play) Our Song.” Capitol F4026 (1958).
“Rock Your Baby” / “Sinful Heart.” Capitol F4081 (1958).
“Savin’ My Love” / “You’ve Turned to a Stranger.” Capitol F4142 (1959).
“You’re the One for Me” / “A Date with Jerry.” Capitol F4207 (1959).
“Let’s Have a Party” / “Cool Love.” Capitol 4397 (1960).
David Sanjek, “Can a Fujiyama Mama Be the Female Elvis? The Wild, Wild Women of Rockabilly,” in Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender, edited by Sheila Whiteley (New York: Routledge, 1997).
Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K Oermann, Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800–2000 (Nashville, TN: The Country Music Foundation Press / Vanderbilt University Press, 2003)
Beth Harrington, The Women of Rockabilly: Welcome to the Club (M2k, 2004), DVD.
Wanda Jackson with Scott B. Bomar, Every Night Is Saturday Night: A Country Girl’s Journey to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (BMG, 2017).
Interview with the author, July 2018.