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1. Paying Dues in Hank Thompson’s Brazos Valley Boys
Wanda wasn’t a boy, but while she was still attending Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City, Hank Thompson heard Wanda performing on her own radio show she had on KLPR-AM. She was awarded the show for winning a talent contest. Hank Thompson was so impressed, he recruited her to sing in his Brazos Valley Boys band. Eventually she went on to record a duet with Billy Gray—the bandleader of the Brazos Valley Boys—called “You Can’t Have My Love”. The song was released in 1954, and went to #8 on the country chart. Wanda Jackson was well on her way to making a wide impact on the music world.
2. Proving The Boys At Capitol Records Wrong
After the success of her duet with Brazos Valley Boys’ bandleader Billy Gray on the song “You Can’t Handle My Love” on Decca Records, Wanda asked Capitol Records if she could sign with them as a solo artist. That’s when Capitol producer Ken Nelson uttered the immortal words, “Girls don’t sell records,” emboldening Wanda Jackson even more to make a career in music. Rival label Decca Records was happy to have Wanda, and she went on to prove old Ken Nelson wrong many times over. After Wanda started having success, Capitol eventually did sign her.
Fighting the male establishment became a theme of both Wanda’s music and career, and her feistiness and tenacity finally won her much respect from many of her male counterparts, including a very big one . . .
3. Breaking Up with Elvis
After signing with Decca Records, Wanda Jackson went on tour opening for Elvis Presley. This is when Wanda became the female nexus between the country and rock & roll worlds. Elvis encouraged Wanda to develop a rockabilly sound and to push herself creatively, and she did. Wanda began writing her own songs and putting her own personal stamp on the music world. And then their professional relationship went further. “It wasn’t traditional dating,” Wanda explains. “My dad liked Elvis a lot, and it was okay with him that I could hang out a little bit with Elvis after a show.” Eventually Elvis asked Wanda Jackson to “be his girl” in early 1956, but Wanda, always the strong, spirited, independent woman, said no. When asked if Elvis was a good kisser, Wanda once said, “No, I was the good kisser.”
4. Being The First Woman To Record Rock & Roll
Wanda Jackson, despite being known as the “Queen of Rockabilly”, openly criticizes them term “rockabilly” herself. Her website to this day proclaims her more simply the “Queen of Rock.” What’s for sure is that Wanda was one of the very first, if not the first females to knowingly record rock & roll songs. Though other females like Rose Maddox certainly can claim an early stake in the rock game, Wanda, working right beside “The King” Elvis Presley, was knowingly mixing the emerging styles of country and rock & roll, many times on the same record, and sometimes in the same song.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the song “I Gotta Know.” The song starts off sounding like a syrupy, slow country ballad, and then shockingly launches into a boogie woogie beat, and then reverts back. “I Gotta Know” is Wanda proving her prowess with both styles. The song also shows off Wanda’s strong womanhood with which she approached many of her songs.
5. The Growl
According to Wanda, her father and manager Tom Jackson told her during an early studio session, “Wanda, rear back and sing that thing like it should be done!” As soon as Wanda did this “the growl was just there.” It has gone on to become Wanda’s signature, and just as significant and influential of a contribution to both country and rock & roll music as anything else Wanda is known for.
6. Having A #1 Hit …. in JAPAN!
Wanda Jackson recorded “Fujiyama Mama” on September 17th, 1957, and released it to the public to some concerns about the insensitivity of the lyrical content. A mere 10 years removed from the controversial nuclear bombings of Japan by the United States, and here Wanda was using the incident as hyperbole about an angry woman, with sexual undertones nonetheless. So what happened with the single? It blew up … in Japan! Jackson became an international superstar from the song, and briefly toured Japan in 1959.
“Fujiyama Mama” wasn’t Wanda’s only dalliance in international success. She also released a handful of singles in Germany between 1965 and 1970, including songs like “Komm Heim, Mein Wandersmann” and “Wer an Das Meer Sein Herz Verliert”. Her courting of international markets would prove to be savvy, as later in her career and even today Wanda Jackson enjoys great international recognition and acclaim.
7. Growing Old Gracefully
So many female music performers and actors feel the pressure to stay forever young, succumbing to procedure after procedure until their visage is almost a caricature of their former selves. But not Wanda. She’s grown old with gracefulness and dignity, never trying to be younger than she is, or trying to be anything she’s not.
8. Recording Albums with Jack White and Justin Townes Earle
When Wanda wanted to make a comeback record, she took a play out of Loretta Lynn’s playbook and recruited rocker and world-class record producer Jack White to work with. The result was 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over which presented Wanda Jackson to a brand new generation of fans and revived her career domestically and abroad.
When Wanda wanted to keep the party going, she worked with another young, rising star in Justin Townes Earle in 2012’s Unfinished Business. Where Jack White went in a more flashy direction, Justin Townes Earle took a more songwriter, tasteful approach. Both albums were critical successes, and stand right beside all of Wanda’s other works as career accomplishments.
9. Recording Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good”
When Jack White was producing Wanda Jackson’s comeback album The Party Ain’t Over, he needed a bullet, and decided that Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” would be a good fit. Wanda initially refused to record the song because of some questionable content in the lyrics, so Jack White rewrote some parts, and wala, The Queen of Rock was covering Amy Winehouse, adding her custom growl to the popular composition.
The Party Ain’t Over was released in January of 2011. Less than six months later, Amy Winehouse died of a drug overdose. Wanda continued to perform the song in tribute to the troubled British songwriter.
10. Being Herself, Always
As a pretty young woman with a unique voice, surrounded by all the temptations of the music world and many different directions she could go, Wanda Jackson simply followed her heart, and stayed true to herself throughout her career, and does up to today. She loved country music and rock & roll equally, and shared her time with both, approaching both genres with respect, appreciation, and knowledge for their roots, knowing where to keep the line between the two. Though she was always sexy, she never sexualized herself simply as image to make up for musical shortcomings. And though she did her time in L.A. and Nashville, Wanda never truly left her roots in good old Oklahoma, and still lives there today.