Wanda Jackson

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Wanda Jackson
Wanda Jackson is singing onstage in 2014.
Wanda Jackson, 2014.
Wanda LaVonne Jackson

(1937-10-20) October 20, 1937 (age 83)[1]
  • Singer
  • songwriter
Years active1954–present
Wendell Goodman
(m. 1961)
Musical career
  • Vocals
  • guitar
  • piano
Associated acts

Wanda Lavonne Jackson (born October 20, 1937) is a retired American singer, songwriter, pianist and guitarist who had success in the mid-1950s and 1960s as one of the first popular female rockabilly singers, and a pioneering rock-and-roll artist.[2] She is known to many as the "Queen of Rockabilly" or the "First Lady of Rockabilly".[3]

Jackson mixed country music with fast-moving rockabilly, often recording them on opposite sides of a record.[4] As rockabilly declined in popularity in the 1960s, she moved to a successful career in mainstream country music with a string of hits between 1961 and 1973, including "Right or Wrong", "Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine", "A Woman Lives for Love" and "Fancy Satin Pillows".

She had a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s among rockabilly revivalists in Europe and younger Americana fans. In 2009, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the category Early Influence.[5][6]

On March 27, 2019, Jackson announced her official retirement from performing.[7]

Early life[edit]

Jackson was the only child born to parents Tom and Nellie Jackson in Maud, Oklahoma.[8] Her father worked multiple jobs, including a gas station attendant and delivery truck driver. He also played music in a local band alongside his brother.[9] Because of limited opportunities, the family moved to Los Angeles, California in 1941.[2][10] Jackson often sang alongside her parents at home. Fearful of her daughter's safety while in separate rooms, Nellie Jackson often had her daughter sing while she was out of sight to ensure her daughter was accounted for.[11] In Los Angeles, Jackson was introduced to western swing music.[12] She enjoyed hearing music by popular western acts like Bob Wills and Rose Maddox.[13] At age six, her father introduced Jackson to the guitar. She also took guitar lessons and was soon skillful enough to play it alongside her father.[12]

In the mid 1940s, the family relocated to Bakersfield, California where Tom Jackson took a job as a barber. In Bakersfield she was known by her friends and family as LaVonne. She also took piano lessons and continued to play the guitar.[14] It was during this period that she began having trouble with academics. Jackson recalled the experience in her book: "All I wanted to do was sing and play music, and it was impossible for me to sit still," she recounted.[15] When Jackson was nine, the family moved back to their home state, this time living in Oklahoma City.[2] Her father found employment as a taxi cab driver and her mother worked on an air force base. While in the fifth grade, she started going by her first name, Wanda.[14]

In Oklahoma City, Jackson sang in the local baptist church and engaged in more performance opportunities.[2][12] She auditioned for the local radio station, KPLR, after being peer-pressured by friends. She was featured on program, which impressed the station's disc jockey, who encouraged to audition for a second KPLR contest.[16] Jackson won the second contest at KPLR, which allotted Jackson her own 15-minute radio segment.[2] On the show, Jackson performed a set of country songs and recalled having little understanding of how to host a radio show. "I was flying by the seat of my pants, but it didn't scare me to get out on a limb and try something brand new. I liked it," she explained in her biography.[17]

Now a teenager, Jackson attended Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City[18] and continued her radio show.[19] She also dated fellow student, Leonard Sipes, who would later go by the name Tommy Collins.[20] In 1952, Jackson was heard on the air by country singer and local resident, Hank Thompson.[2] The singer invited Jackson to perform with him at the Trianon Ballroom in Oklahoma City. On Thompson's show, Jackson sang "Blue Yodel No. 6" backed by his band the Brazos Valley Boys. The performance led to a regular gig singing alongside Merl Lindsay's country band.[21] Jackson was always performing and at times, neglected her social life. "[Wanda] never had time for dates, nothing like that. Just that guitar – that's all she thought about," a high school friend recalled.[12]


1953–1955: Country beginnings[edit]

Jackson also continued working with Hank Thompson. In 1953, she appeared with him regularly on his local television program and on a similar program for 30 minutes hosted by KPLR. Thompson also recorded Jackson on several demonstration recordings in hopes they would be heard by major record labels. Thompson was also attempting to get his bandmember, Billy Gray, a recording contract and had the pair sing several duets.[22] Jackson was supposed to be signed by Thompson's label, Capitol Records, but was rejected by producer Ken Nelson. "Girls don't sell records!" he told Thompson.[23] In her book, Jackson recalled hearing Nelson's statement: "I recognize that Ken wasn't being sexist, so much as he was thinking about business. But it still gave me a little nudge to prove him wrong!"[24]

Jackson was known for her spaghetti strap dresses, designed by her mother.

Instead Thompson contacted Paul Cohen of Decca Records, who was interested in signing Jackson and Billy Gray.[22] In 1954, while still high school, Jackson signed with the label.[25] In March 1954, the Jackson family traveled to Hollywood, California where she recorded her first Decca sessions backed by Thompson's band. She cut several solo sides, along with the Billy Gray duet, "You Can't Have My Love". Jackson did not like the song, but Thompson encouraged her to record the track and she ultimately succumb.[26] It was soon released as Jackson's debut single on Decca and became a major hit, climbing to the number eight spot on the Billboard Hot Country and Western Sides chart.[27] Upon Decca's encouragement, Jackson and Gray recorded a second duet, titled "If You Don't Somebody Else Will". Released as a single, the song was not a commercial success due to a competing version by Jimmy & Johnny that reached the charts.[28][27]

Instead of touring, Jackson decided to finish high school and started her senior year in fall 1954. She was part of her high school's band and acted in the school's musical, Anything Goes.[29] In March 1955, she returned to the recording studio, this time working with Paul Cohen at the Decca studio in Nashville, Tennessee. Jackson also did her first performance at the Grand Ole Opry while in town.[30] For the performance, her mother made a dress fitted with spaghetti straps and a sweetheart neckline. However, Ernest Tubb (the show's host that evening) informed Jackson that it was unacceptable for her to wear the outfit and she instead covered it with a fringe jacket. Additionally, Jackson recalled hearing fellow Opry members making negative comments about her while she was onstage.[31] "I decided that night that the Grand Ole Opry scene was not for me," she recounted.[32]

In 1955, Jackson graduated from Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City and began touring. Jackson's father quit his job to become her full-time manager and he hired Bob Neal to book her engagements. Jackson's first concert dates included up-and-coming performer, Elvis Presley.[33] Together, the pair worked multiple shows alongside several other country performers in the United States that year. Jackson's father chaperoned her during the shows and drove her from one date to the next.[34][35] Presley also encouraged her to perform rock and roll music. He played her several R&B records and informed her of rock's growing popularity.[36] Jackson also joined the cast of the Ozark Jubilee in 1955.[37]

1956–1960: The rock and roll years[edit]

In 1956, Decca Records released Jackson from her contract. With Hank Thompson's help,[38] she secured a new contract with Capitol Records the same year.[2] At her first Capitol recording session, Jackson cut two country songs and one rock and roll selection. The rock song, "I Gotta Know", incorporated both country and rock elements. According to Jackson, the song's mixture of rock allowed her to get acquainted with the genre.[39] Released as a single in 1956, "I Gotta Know" became Jackson's second commercially-successful release, peaking at number 15 on the Billboard country and western sides chart.[27] Jackson continued recording rock and roll music under her Capitol contract and was given full permission to do so by producer Ken Nelson. Jackson also composed several of her Capitol recordings, including "Baby Loves Him", "Cool Love" and "Mean Mean Man".[40] She continued recording country music as well, often putting each style on either side of a single release.[2][23]

Jackson onstage, 1958.

Writers and critics have remarked positively about Jackson's 50's recordings and noted its take on women's sexuality. Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann described songs like "Baby Loves Him" as "rockabilly classics". In addition, they commented that Jackson's rock records were "sexually aggressive" and demonstrated "almost frightening savagery".[36] Bruce Eder added that Jackson's material was at times "astonishingly raucous and even raunchy".[41] Meanwhile Kurt Wolff found that Jackson's rock material also mixed with traditional country elements, which added to her musical individuality: "Jackson mixed straight country material and hot-to-the-core rockabilly numbers almost right from the beginning...Songs like 'Fujiyama Mama' and 'Mean Mean Man' were hard and fast, giving her plenty of reason to shimmy around in her glamourous fringe dresses".[42]

In 1957, Jackson began working under a new booking agent, who arranged several tours in 1957 and 1958. Fellow performers included Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.[43] With her new management, Jackson was making more money, sometimes as much as $500 per gig.[44] Meanwhile, her follow-up singles proved unsuccessful in the United States. According to Jackson, Capitol was unsure how to market her. "Capitol was still trying to figure out what to do with me, but they maintained faith that I could have strong potential in the teen market," she recalled in 2017.[45] To promote her material, the label chose to release Jackson's eponymous debut album in 1958. The record mixed both rock and country selections.[46] Included were her covers of the rock songs "Money Honey" and "Long Tall Sally". Also included were the country songs "Heartbreak Ahead" and "Making Believe".[46][47] Produced by Ken Nelson, it was released on Capitol in July 1958 with six tracks on either side of the record.[48]

Also in 1958, Jackson saw success with the rock and roll single, "Fujiyama Mama".[2] Ken Nelson was reluctant to release the song, with its references to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.[49] Yet, the disc found commercial appeal with Japanese fans, reaching number one on the nation's music chart.[50] The song's success led Jackson to a Japanese tour in 1959. She played venues in major cities including Tokyo and Okinawa.[51] Upon her return to America, Jackson played in Las Vegas with Bob Wills and did additional concerts with her newly-formed touring band.[52] At different points, the band lineup included Roy Clark and black pianist Big Al Downing.[36][53] She recalled touring alongside Downing, who was sometimes denied entrance into venues because of his race. In response, Jackson would refuse to work a show unless Downing performed with her. "Look, he's part of our band. If he's not welcome, then none of us are," she once told a club owner.[54]

In 1960, Jackson's cover of "Let's Have a Party" was discovered by an Iowa disc jockey, which led to an increased interest in it by radio listeners.[36] Upon the insistence of Capitol Records, "Let's Have a Party" was issued as a single the same year.[55] By July 1960, the single had reached number 37 on the Billboard pop music chart, becoming her first American rock and roll hit.[56][36] It also found commercial success in Australia and the United Kingdom.[57][58] The success of "Let's Have a Party" led to Jackson to re-name her band "The Party Timers"[2] and prompted her label to release the compilation, Rockin' with Wanda (1960). The album included her previously-recorded rock songs from the 1950s. It was reviewed positively by AllMusic, which gave it a four and a half start rating.[59] It later led to the release of her second studio album titled There's a Party Goin' On, which included more rock and roll material.[60] Richie Unterberger of AllMusic described the LP was a "pretty solid and energetic set" despite not having "most of Wanda's best rockabilly sides".[61]

1965–1979: Country, gospel, and foreign language hits[edit]

Her country music career also began to take off with the self-penned "Right or Wrong", a number 9 hit, and "In the Middle of a Heartache", which peaked at number 6. Both records also had Top 40 success.[2] In 1963, Jackson recorded another album, Two Sides of Wanda, which included both rock and roll and country music, including a cover of Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On".[62] The album earned Jackson her first Grammy nomination, for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

By 1965, Jackson was focusing more exclusively on traditional 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".[2]

Wanda Jackson, 1970.

In early 1965, Jackson was invited by the German distribution partner of Capitol Records, Electrola, to record in German. Jackson's German-language debut single, "Santo Domingo" (backed with "Morgen, ja morgen"), recorded at Electrola's studios in Cologne, peaked at number 5 on the official German charts and at number 1 on the charts of Germany's most influential teen magazine, Bravo. In the first months following the chart success of Santo Domingo, Jackson also re-recorded some of her German songs in Dutch and Japanese. The success of Santo Domingo prompted the recording of eight further German-language singles until 1968, which were also released on an album, Made in Germany. Her last German single was recorded in 1970.

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.[53] 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 was a premier attraction in Las Vegas. She followed Kitty Wells's lead as only the second country female vocalist to have her own syndicated television show, Music Village, from 1967 to 1968.[2]

In the early 1970s, at her children's request, Jackson and her husband began to regularly attend church and became Christians.[53] She began recording gospel songs and albums, including Praise the Lord for Capitol in 1972.[4] After Capitol dropped her, she recorded a number of albums for small religious labels and set up evangelical church tours across the country with her husband. Jackson wanted to record a mix of country and gospel music for her albums; however, religious labels were not interested.[62]

1980–1999: Return to rockabilly[edit]

In the early 1980s, Jackson was invited to Europe to play and record rockabilly material when revivalists sought her out.[2] She regularly toured Scandinavia, England, and Germany during the decade. Now embracing her rock-and-roll history, Jackson released the album Rockabilly Fever in 1984 (later issued by Rounder Records as Rock N' Roll Your Blues Away in 1986), her first secular album in a decade and her first recording of rock music in over twenty years.

Cyndi Lauper acknowledged Jackson's classic rockabilly records were a major influence and inspiration for her during this period, and Jackson's fans also included a new generation of country music female vocalists, among them Rosanne Cash, Pam Tillis, Jann Browne and Rosie Flores.[2] Jackson recorded a duet with Browne on a 1987 album by Browne, and in 1995 she sang two duets with Flores on her 1995 album, Rockabilly Filly, and then embarked on a United States tour with her, her first American tour since the 1970s.[4]


She played at the Rockabilly Festival in Jackson, Tennessee, in 2001 with The Cadillac Angels.[63] Jackson, then in her early 60s, continued touring.[64] She again played Jackson's International Rockabilly Hall of Fame show in August 2013, a show which also featured new inductee Terry Manning.

Jackson released her first studio album since 1987, Heart Trouble (2003) on CMH Records. The sixteen-track album included guest appearances by Elvis Costello, the Cramps and Rosie Flores.[65] The singer Amy LaVere portrayed a young Jackson in the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line (2005).

Jackson was interviewed about the origins of rockabilly in the award-winning Canadian documentary Rockabilly 514 (2008), directed by Patricia Chica and Mike Wafer.

She returned to England on October 28, 2008, for an appearance at the London Rock 'n' Roll Festival with Jerry Lee Lewis and Linda Gail Lewis at the London Forum.[66]

In 2009, she teamed up with Jack White to record The Party Ain't Over. The album, released in 2011, marked Jackson's first charting on the Billboard Hot 200 LP chart, peaking at number 58.[3][67] The album also broke Mae West's long-standing record for being the oldest female vocalist to make the chart with her 1966 album Way Out West. Jackson was 73, being a year older than West, at the time. To promote The Party Ain't Over, she performed with White on both the Late Show with David Letterman and Conan.

Wanda's song "Funnel of Love" appeared in Guy Ritchie's film RocknRolla in 2008 and was included on the film's soundtrack. An episode of the HBO program Entourage in 2010 featured the same song as the music to the ending credits.

Jackson appeared on the BBC's Hootenanny at the end of 2010, performing her version of "Let's Have a Party" and a cover of the Amy Winehouse song "You Know I'm No Good" with Jools Holland and his orchestra. The following year, after Winehouse's death, she took part in an Amy Winehouse tribute performance with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings at the VH1 Divas Live 2011.

Jackson released her thirty-first studio album Unfinished Business in 2012 for Sugar Hill Records. The album goes back to her rockabilly and country roots and was produced by Americana singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle. The album became Jackson's first in 39 years to make the Billboard Hot Country LP chart.[68]

Following the announcement of her retirement, Jackson revealed in an interview with Rolling Stone that a previously undisclosed stroke that occurred in August 2018 was partially to blame for the decision. She did, however, reiterate that she is in the process of recording a new album produced by Joan Jett which she hopes to complete in 2019.[69] Her final album, Encore, was officially announced on June 28, 2021 and will be released by Big Machine Records on August 20, 2021.[70]

Personal life[edit]

In 1955, Jackson briefly dated Elvis Presley while on tour with him.[53][71] She married former IBM programmer Wendell Goodman in 1961, who served as her manager. He died on May 21, 2017. The couple had two children. As of the 2000s she lives in Oklahoma City.

Awards and recognition[edit]

At the 7th Annual Grammy Awards in 1964, Jackson was nominated in the category of Best Country & Western Vocal Performance – Female for her album Two Sides of Wanda. At the 13th Annual Grammy Awards in 1970, she was nominated in the Best Country Vocal Performance, Female category for the song "A Woman Lives for Love".[72]

Jackson is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, The International Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Music and Oklahoma Country Music halls of fame, as well as the International Gospel and the German Music halls of fame.

Jackson ranked number 35 on CMT's 2002 special, "The 40 Greatest Women of Country Music".

She is a recipient of a 2005 National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States' highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.[73]

She was nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 but was not elected.[74] In September 2008, she was nominated for a second time[75] and was inducted on April 4, 2009 as an Early Influence.[6] 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.[76] It was the first songbook ever published on Jackson.

In 2009, Oklahoma City named an alley for her in the Bricktown entertainment district. "Wanda Jackson Way" was officially christened with a live performance by Jackson in her "Way" on September 30, 2009. Besides this street in Oklahoma City, the city of Maud, Oklahoma, where she was born, has named one of its streets, Wanda Jackson Boulevard.

On September 9, 2010, she was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance at the Americana Music Honors & Awards by Jack White on behalf of the Americana Music Association.

In 2013, she was inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Music Association (IRRMA) Hall of Fame in the category "Women Who Rock".[77]

In 2016, Jackson received the "Founder of the Sound" award at the Ameripolitan Music Awards.



Jackson's autobiography titled Every Night is Saturday Night: A Country Girl's Journey to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was published in 2017.[78] Co-written by Jackson and Scott Bomar, it was published by BMG Music and features a foreword by Elvis Costello. The launch was honoured by an official party, signing and performance at the Grammy Museum[79] and a celebratory event at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.



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External links[edit]