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Wanda Jackson: rockabilly makes music her way

By Jon Johnson, December 2002

In the mid-'50s, country music was under siege from a new competitor called rock 'n' roll. Teenagers who could have been counted on to listen to country records just five years earlier were now in the thrall of the new style.

And country music was on the ropes. Sales were down, concert bookings had fallen through the floor, and some of the top names in the business, including Ernest Tubb, were seriously contemplating retirement.

While older performers decided they'd rather fight than switch, younger artists such as George Jones and Wynn Stewart decided to hedge their bets and cut rock 'n' roll sides, sometimes under pseudonyms.

Others, however, cannily played both ends against the middle. Elvis Presley's five remarkable Sun singles, for instance, all followed a similar blueprint: A rocker on the a-side, and something for the country audience on the b-side. And his infamous Opry appearance aside, it was an approach which bore fruit, with some of Presley's greatest support in the late '50s coming from country radio.

One of the most remarkable performers to follow in Presley's wake was Wanda Jackson, an Oklahoman whose records never approached Presley's in terms of sales, but have proven incredibly influential since their release.

Jackson looked and sounded like no one else in rock 'n' roll or country. Uncommonly photogenic, she was a photographer's dream; easily cast in Capitol publicity photos as either the classic girl-next-door or as a Lana Turner-esque glamour queen, depending on the need.

It was the voice that got one's attention, though; a sexy, speaker-shredding growl on "Let's Have a Party," or the mischievousness heard on "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad."

Trace the origins of female rock 'n' roll singers back from Courtney Love to Joan Jett to Janis Joplin, and at the root of them all, you'll find Wanda Jackson.

As part of a series also including the reissue of the first two Gene Vincent albums, Jackson's first two albums - 1958's "Wanda Jackson" and 1960's "Rockin' With Wanda!" - have recently been re-released (with a half-dozen bonus tracks apiece) by Capitol Records, for whom she recorded between 1956 and 1972. This is the first time any of her original Capitol albums have been available domestically in decades.

"I'm very excited about it," says Jackson in a telephone interview from her home in Oklahoma City. "I can't believe all the product out there on me that's available. For so long now, I just had to either produce my own or just sell them at my concerts. Which I'll continue to do, but it's nice to have some on the shelf."

Born in 1937 in Maud, Okla., Wanda Lavonne Jackson began singing in church as a child and cites Charline Arthur as a major influence on her as a young singer.

"She was my hero," says Jackson. "In fact, I used one of her songs ('Heartbreak Ahead') for my demonstration record that Hank Thompson sent to Decca. I worked with her at the Big 'D' Jamboree. I thought she was such a cute, feisty thing, and I loved her singing. She and Rose Maddox were about the only ones I had to pattern myself after."

Jackson's father, a barber, had been a country musician himself before starting his family. As a result, he and his wife regularly encouraged their daughter when she began showing signs of musical aptitude as a child. After winning a high school talent show at the age of 15, Jackson was given a 15-minute radio show on Oklahoma City's KLPR where she came to the attention of Hank Thompson, then one of the top country artists in the nation.

Thompson was impressed enough by Jackson's talent to offer her a weekend slot with his band. Thompson also tried to convince his label, Capitol Records, to sign her, though the label declined due to Jackson's young age.

Signing with Decca Records in 1954, the teenaged Jackson cut a string of country records on which she was sometimes backed by Thompson's Brazos Valley Boys, including "You Can't Have My Love," a top 10 duet with Thompson sideman Billy Gray.

Following her graduation from high school in 1955, Jackson was free to spend more time performing, playing regularly on Missouri's Ozark Jubilee and touring with a young singer from Memphis named Elvis Presley.

"To me, he was the first one who gave (rock 'n' roll) national recognition," says Jackson. "When Elvis came along, that was the catalyst that made it take off. I was working with Elvis in '55, '56 and early '57, so I was seeing what was happening. But I thought, 'Well, it's just because he's a good-looking guy.'"

"We became really good friends, and we dated what we could on the road in those days. He took me to his home, and he'd play records for me. He kept saying, 'You need to be doing this new music.' I said, 'I really like it when you sing it, but I don't think I can do it because I'm a country singer.' He said, 'No, I know you can do it. You've got a voice, and you've got enthusiasm. You can do it.'"

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