Life Is Still `A Party’ For Rockabilly Queen

It took Wanda Jackson a long time to get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but now that she’s there, the 71-year-old Queen of Rockabilly and her uninhibited voice are busier than ever.
“My name is bigger than it’s ever been before,” she said in her Oklahoma City home during a recent break from touring. “My crowds are bigger. I’m just floored by all this.”

Selling records and filling venues haven’t been a problem for the chameleonic musician with the trademark growl. Her career began 50 years ago with country, then moved to rock ‘n’ roll, to gospel and back. But she says her April 4 induction into the hall as given her some newfound popularity. Since then her engagements have included a two-week stint in Europe and a fundraiser for the Woody Guthrie folk festival.

Terry Stewart, the CEO of the Rock Hall, said Jackson, who was inducted in the early influence category, was unique in music.

“There are a number of others of more obscure fame who sang in that vein,” including Janis Martin, who died earlier this year, Stewart said by telephone from Ohio. “There were girl singers in the area of rhythm and blues that have been inducted, like Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker.

“Wanda was certainly a stand alone in what she did.”

What she did was help spawn rockabilly, a combination of the terms rock n’ roll and hillbilly. Musically, it’s an uptempo blend of blues, country and western swing that emerged during the 1950s when rock and roll was in its infancy.

She was 14 when she won a chance to perform on an Oklahoma radio station in 1952. Country singer Hank Thompson tuned in and was so impressed, he invited her to sing with him and his band and helped her get her first music contract with Decca Records when she was in high school.

Later, when she switched to Capitol Records, she was booked with an up-and-coming singer named Elvis Presley.

“Oklahoma City wasn’t playing his records yet. My cousins down in Texas, I corresponded with them and told them I was working with this guy I’d never heard of, Elvis Presley,” Jackson said. “They said he’s the best singer in the world, sexiest, best-looking guy. Just wait. After I met him I knew what they were talking about.”

Presley encouraged her to try rock ‘n’ roll and the pair worked together from 1955 to 1957.

“He gave me his ring that I wore around my neck, we became boyfriend and girlfriend for a little while there,” Jackson said.

Jackson’s career and persona transformed from a country darling in long-sleeved shirts, a hat and cowboy boots to rock ‘n’ roll singer decked out in formfitting, fringed dresses and skirts her mother made for her.

Her “Let’s Have a Party” peaked at No. 37 in 1960. Jackson’s “Fujiyama Mama,” about a woman who compares herself to a volcano and “Rock Your Baby” proliferated the new sound, but it didn’t translate into big record sales.

“I got to where I’d put a rock song on one side and a country on the other side of my releases to keep my country audiences with the country song but try to gain a foothold in rock and roll,” she said.

Country music won out. Jackson had 30 hits over 20 years and received two Grammy Award nominations for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Female.


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