10 Badass Wanda Jackson Moments
Up until this point Saving Country Music’s “10 Badass Moments” series has only featured men. But can women be badasses as well? Well if you look at the life and times of one Wanda Jackson, the answer would most certainly be “yes”. Whether it’s from a country or a rock & roll perspective, Wanda Jackson had a significant impact on both, and certainly deserves to be considered a badass right beside her male counterparts. Here’s 10 reasons why….
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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.
March 18, 2014 @ 12:05 pm
What an awesome life this woman had led.
March 18, 2014 @ 12:24 pm
Thanks so much for posting. She is so awesome. Wanda is one of the best.
March 18, 2014 @ 12:53 pm
Now we need one on Jessi Colter.
March 18, 2014 @ 12:53 pm
Wow! I haven’t thought of Wanda in a long time. Thanks for the post, Trigger!
I saw Wanda live when I was 13 years old at a County Fair in Arizona. This was in the ’60’s and she was the first “Star” I had ever seen in person. I was a drummer in a little country band at the time, and I thought “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!”. Her show was great, although I really only remember pieces of it. The one thing I do remember was her singing “Right Or Wrong”. (Side note: She had a black eye…she never said how she got it…)
Those were the days, boy! When country was country. The ladies of true country will never be forgotten.
March 18, 2014 @ 2:14 pm
That one picture of Elvis slumped in the chair shirtless and with a pouty face reminds me a lot of Justin Beiber for some reason (not in a good way I mean).
March 18, 2014 @ 2:54 pm
Such a cool lady. Great piece, Trig! 😀
March 18, 2014 @ 9:48 pm
I love the sonic contrast in “I Gotta Know”.
I had never previously realized how great of a twang Wanda Jackson had (and maybe still has). The ability to use both twang and growl in such a masterful manner shows the true extent of her vocal talent.
March 19, 2014 @ 6:58 am
I remember reading a story George Jones book about her going over to Northern Ireland to play a concert after Jones got drunk and backed out because he was admittedly scared of everything going down there. I think she even got on stage and a few choice words for what was going on there. It was awhile ago when I read that, so if anybody can remember in detail help me out because it was a badass moment.
March 20, 2014 @ 6:26 am
Pretty is an understatement”¦
thanks, fun read about an interesting person.
March 20, 2014 @ 6:29 am
Will never forget seeing her at Muddy Roots a couple years back!
June 2, 2014 @ 1:34 pm
Yes! One of my favorites of all time! Glad to see a woman finally get on the badass list. Truly a pioneer.
Now we need Linda Ronstadt… the story of her tossing her Grammy into the back of a rental and forgetting it gives me a HUGE grin every time because is speaks exactly to how silly awards shows are. And then there is her refusal to attend the R&R Hall Of Fame to induct somebody so she herself could get inducted.
Also, Dottie West. That girl took the male dominated industry head on.
July 28, 2014 @ 9:56 am
Nice story on Wanda, but it could have used an accuracy check. Wanda was on Decca 1st and that’s where she did the duet with Billy Gray, as well as many solos. Ken Nelson was her Producer on Capitol after she left Decca, so that story is all screwed up.
July 28, 2014 @ 10:37 am
Thanks for the heads up. You have to understand with some of these stories, the information is being sourced from multiple places, and I try my best to be accurate. Sometimes the information changes, and certain stories are refuted or validated over time. I spent way too much time for a Monday morning going back and researching this story, and yes, “You Can’t Handle My Love” was released on Decca, not Capitol. Aside from that though, I believe the portrayal of the story is accurate. But I was not personally there myself at all points of the story witnessing the events myself, so I am still at the mercy of other sources to tell the story as accurately as I can.
Thanks again for the clarification.
July 28, 2014 @ 10:26 am
Lucky enough to see her in a local pub and at a festival up here in the great white north (Canada) in the last few years. Still a great and gracious performer.
By the way it’s “voila”, not sure where “wala” came from, sounds like a Canadian town though.
July 28, 2014 @ 2:06 pm
Wala as in “Wala!” like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It’s a colloquialism, not a misappropriation.
July 28, 2014 @ 1:56 pm
“Wala”? Oh lord…
July 28, 2014 @ 2:06 pm
A second comment on this?
September 7, 2014 @ 1:41 am
Voila! It’s french gald dangit! Not that I didn’t spell that way for years until somebody said, “It’s no Walla Walla Washington, it’s French stupid.”
October 14, 2017 @ 5:37 pm
Here’s an eleventh reason why Wanda Jackson is a badass. She had a black piano player in her backup band back when it was still unusual in country music…the legendary Big Al Downing (who cut some great rockabilly, country and soul recordings himself). That’s his piano on “Let’s Have A Party.”