Wanda Jackson: rockabilly makes music her way

By Jon Johnson, December 2002

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"And so when I signed with Capitol about '56 I decided, 'Well, I'll try what Elvis said. 'So I tried it, and I loved singing it, but it just took a while for me to get a hit.'"

Indeed. Wanda Jackson recorded a string of now-classic rock 'n' roll records for Capitol (who finally signed her in 1956) during the latter half of the '50s - "Rock Your Baby," "Honey Bop," "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad," "Mean Mean Man," as well as occasional covers of numbers popularized by other artists like "Money Honey" and "Long Tall Sally."

Interestingly, Jackson's early Capitol recordings included performances by a couple of musicians who would enjoy success in their own right later on. Buck Owens played rhythm ' guitar on a number of Jackson's sessions, a favor which Jackson later returned by writing a top 10 hit for Owens - 1962's "Kickin' Our Hearts Around."

Also heard on "Let's Have a Party" and other early cuts was Big Al Downing, an African-American piano player who cut one of the very few rockabilly records to be recorded by a non-caucasian, 1958's "Down on the Farm." In the late '70s and early '80s, Downing scored several hit country singles of his own and today lives in central Massachusetts.

Jackson says that audiences in the '50s sometimes had difficulty accepting Downing's presence on the bandstand.

"It was very hard on Al," says Jackson. "He would have to be snuck into most of the clubs. He couldn't get out and mix. He wasn't allowed to use the restrooms. He says in the documentary (2002's "Welcome to the Club," which features interviews with both Jackson and Downing) that it was hard on him, but because he loved the music, he put up with it."

"What began to happen was that the band would take a break, and Al would stay up there and sit by the piano. Then I noticed that people would start migrating up to him, 10 or 12 people talking to him. So, it made it worthwhile for him."

Surprisingly, the kind of national success enjoyed by the likes of Presley, Bill Haley and her labelmate Gene Vincent eluded Jackson until 1960 when "Let's Have a Party" - released two years earlier - entered the top 40. Ironically, by this time Jackson had given up recording rock 'n' roll and had moved back to recording straight country material.

"(Rock 'n' roll) wasn't happening for me. In person, I would do these songs, and people loved them. But the DJs weren't playing them. And I had to do something to stay on the charts or at least stay on the air."

Jackson's return to rock 'n' roll following the unexpected success of "Let's Have a Party" was relatively short-lived. Although "Fujiyama Mama" was also a major hit in Japan the following year, Jackson decided to stick with country music for the remainder of her time with Capitol, racking up a total of 18 top 40 hits on the country charts between 1954 and 1972.

After Jackson and her husband/manager became born-again Christians in 1971, she began recording a string of gospel albums for Christian labels Myrrh and Word, though her rediscovery by European rockabilly fans in the early '80s made her a favorite on the international rockabilly circuit for nearly two decades.

Still, Jackson's career in America remained focused on gospel music until she appeared (along with Janis Martin) on Rosie Flores' 1995 album "Rockabilly Filly." What began as a handful of American dates with Flores turned into a 5-week tour; Jackson's first U.S. appearances as a rock 'n' roller in more than 30 years.

"I told Rosie I'd help her any way I could, and all these people kept calling her. So she kept calling me: 'Hey, they want us to play here...' Finally it just got out of her control. She had to hire an agent to handle it."

Jackson, a born-again Christian for nearly a quarter-century by this time, hadn't performed in bars and nightclubs in decades.

"In Europe, I was playing concerts, and they're just nicer places. All of these venues were clubs, so I had to make a decision. Wendell (Jackson's husband) and I prayed about it. I was so excited about what was happening and decided to try it, and I've been having the time of my life ever since."

Perhaps the best news for fans is that Jackson recently signed a new record contract with CMH Records. Although the label is better known for bluegrass recordings, Jackson says that the label has given her carte blanche to record whatever she want with the album out sometime during the spring.

"Their real forte is bluegrass. And when they first contacted me that's what they wanted me to do, and I got excited about that because I love bluegrass. Then they changed their minds, so now it'd be down to a showcase. They really don't care (what I do). I can do original things, I can cover my old stuff, I can do things I've always wanted to record but never had a chance. And once you open up an area like that it takes a while to narrow down material. I'm just listening to songs and trying them out at this point. I still want rockabilly to be the main thing."

Over the past 7 years, Jackson has continued appearing at American rockabilly festivals and in nightclubs, happy to be traveling closer to home after nearly 20 years of flying overseas several times a year. Jackson says that her health is good, she genuinely enjoys meeting and talking with young people, and she looks forward to future performances, including a couple of Europeans trips per year.

"Now because of my stature in rockabilly music I've got the ear of all these young people," says Jackson. "I see God's hand in that."