Wanda Lavonne Jackson had success in the mid-1950s and 60s as one of the first popular female rockabilly singers and a pioneering rock and roll artist. She is known to many as the Queen (or First Lady) of Rockabilly.
Jackson mixed country music with fast-moving rockabilly, often recording them on opposite sides of a record. As rockabilly declined in popularity in the mid-1960s, she moved to a successful career in mainstream country music with a string of hits between 1966 and 1973, including "Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine," "A Woman Lives for Love" and "Fancy Satin Pillows."
She has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity among rockabilly revivalists in Europe, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence on April 4, 2009.
Supposedly, Presley persuaded Jackson to stray from her country roots and try her hand at rock'n'roll. "I didn't think I could do it. I just thought this was a man's thing," Jackson says. "But after Elvis's encouragement I talked to my producer and he decided to let me sing rockabilly. I was the first girl to do it."
Jackson's raucous voice, riotous performances, and pioneering look–short, tight fringe dresses and long sparkly earrings in an age when demure, button-down shirt-dresses were the norm–won her a place in the boys' club and a die-hard international fan base, including Bob Dylan - (who once described her as "an atomic bomb in lipstick." It also earned her a few nicknames. "In France they called me Hurricane Wanda," Jackson says. "When I'd come to tour there they'd say ‘Hurricane Wanda has hit the West Coast!'"
At 72 years old, Jackson is still rocking, mixing rockabilly with country and gospel tunes at her live performances. Last year, she began working with Jack White on a handful of new recordings. The first single, released last month, included a cover of Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good," which Jackson hadn't heard before White presented an arrangement to her to sing. "I was a little leery at first, but now I really love it. I listen to it at least once a day."
"Rcording with Jack was a very good experience, but he did stretch me a whole lot," said Jackson. "And he said I came through like gangbusters."
Wanda Jackson was born in Maud, Oklahoma in 1937, but has lived much of her life in Oklahoma City. Her father, a musician, moved the family to California during the 1940s in hopes of a better life. Two years later, he bought Jackson a guitar and encouraged her to play. He also took her to see performances by Spade Cooley, Tex Williams and Bob Wills, which left a lasting impression.
In 1948, when she was 11, the family moved back to Oklahoma. In 1956, she won a talent contest which led to her own radio program, soon extended by 30 minutes.
Jackson began her professional career while still attending Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City after being discovered by Hank Thompson in 1954, who heard her singing on local station KLPR-AM and invited her to perform with his band, the Brazos Valley Boys.
She recorded a few songs on their label, Capitol Records, including "You Can't Have My Love," a duet with Thompson's bandleader, Billy Gray. The song was released as a single in 1954 and reached No. 8 on the country chart. Jackson asked Capitol to sign her, but was turned down because "Girls don't sell records." Instead, she signed with Decca Records.
After graduating from high school, Jackson began to tour with her father as manager and chaperon. She often shared the bill with Elvis Presley. She was a cast member of ABC-TV's Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Missouri from 1955–1960, and in 1956 she signed with Capitol, recording a number of singles mixing country with rock and roll. "I Gotta Know," released in 1956, peaked at No. 15.
During the 1950s, Jackson's stage outfits were often designed by her mother. Unlike traditional clothing worn by female country music singers of the time, she wore fringe dresses, high heels and long earrings; and has claimed she was the first female to put "glamor into country music."
She continued to record more rockabilly singles through the decade with producer Ken Nelson. Jackson insisted that Nelson make her records sound like those of label mates Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps. Nelson brought in many experienced and popular session players, including rock and roll pianist Merill Moore and the then unknown Buck Owens. With a unique vocal style and upbeat material, Jackson created some of the most influential rock and roll music of the time.
In the late 1950s, Jackson recorded and released a number of rockabilly songs, including "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad," "Mean, Mean Man," "Fujiyama Mama" (which hit No. 1 in Japan) and "Honey Bop." The songs, however, were only regional hits. She did tour Japan in 1959.
Also in 1959, Jackson had a Top 40 pop hit with "Let's Have A Party," a song Presley had cut a year earlier. She was headlining concerts with her own band, which she dubbed The Party Timers. Prominently featured were pianist Big Al Downing and guitarist Roy Clark, virtually unknown at the time. Her country music career also began to take off with the self-penned "Right Or Wrong," a No. 9 hit, and "In The Middle Of A Heartache," which peaked at No. 6. Both songs also enjoyed top 40 pop success.
The unexpected success of her records led Capitol to release a number of albums composed of her 1950s material, including 1960's Rockin' with Wanda and There's a Party Goin' On, which included "Tongue Tied" and "Riot in the Cell Block #9." Her 1961 and 1962 albums, Right or Wrong and Wonderful Wanda, featured her two top ten country hits from 1961. In 1963,
Jackson recorded a final album titled Two Sides of Wanda, which included both rock and roll and country music, including a cover of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." The album earned Jackson her first Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
In 1965, Jackson made the move to country music as rockabilly declined in popularity, and had a string of Top 40 hits during the next ten years. In 1966, she released two singles that peaked in the country top 20, "Tears Will Be The Chaser For Your Wine" and "The Box It Came In."
In 1967, she recorded two albums, and released a string of singles during the next few years that often asserted a fiery and violent persona, including 1969's "My Big Iron Skillet," a top 20 hit which threatened death or assault for cheating on a spouse.
In 1970 and 1971, she had her final top 20 country hits with "A Woman Lives For Love" (her second Grammy nomination) and "Fancy Satin Pillows."
Jackson became a premier attraction in Las Vegas. She followed Kitty Wells lead as only the second country female vocalist to have her own syndicated television show, Music Village, from 1967–68.
In the early 1970s, at her children's request, she began recording gospel songs and albums, including 1972's Praise the Lord on Capitol. After Capitol dropped her, she recorded a number of albums for small religious labels and set up evangelical church tours with her husband across the country. Jackson wanted to record a mix of country and gospel music for her albums; however, religious labels were not interested.
In 2003, Jackson released her first studio album since the 1980s, Heart Trouble on CMH Records. The 16-track album included guest appearances by Elvis Costello, The Cramps and Rosie Flores.
In 2005, singer Amy LaVere portrayed a young Jackson in the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line.
In 2009, it was announced that Jackson would start work on new recordings with Jack White. The resulting album, The Party Ain't Over, was released on January 25, 2011. It included a cover of the Bob Dylan rockabilly song, "Thunder on the Mountain."
She was nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 but was not elected. In September 2008, she was nominated for a second time; and was inducted on April 4, 2009 as an Early Influence. She was the first addition to the category in nine years.
In 2006 Alfred Publishing acknowledged her influence on young musicians by publishing The Best of Wanda Jackson: Let's Have a Party, a songbook with music and lyrics to thirteen songs associated with Jackson. It was the first songbook ever published on Jackson.