Friday, October 20, 2006

Happy Birthday Wanda Jackson

Described by Nick Tosches as “simply and without contest the greatest menstruating rock ‘n’ roll singer whom the world has ever known” (Unsung Heroes Of Rock ‘N’ Roll) Wanda Jackson, The Queen of Rockabilly, was born on 20 October 1937 in Maud, Oklahoma.

Those who saw Wanda at The Luminaire last month can testify that she is still a great rock ‘n’ roll/rockabilly singer. Remarkably, just a month shy of 69, Wanda Jackson was still capable of those feral whoops and guttural yelps that typify her finest work.

But then Wanda Jackson has always been a remarkable woman.

In 1953, whilst still a schoolgirl, Wanda had her own radio show; in spring the following year Hank Thompson (of Humpty Dumpty Heart fame) heard it and invited her to tour with him and his Brazo Valley Boys. With Hanks patronage she was signed first to Decca, for whom she recorded from 1954 to 1956, then to Capitol.

In 1955 Wanda toured with Elvis Presley. Wanda, like everyone and everything else, was changed by Presley.

"Elvis had been talking to me about trying to sing this new rock 'n' roll or rockabilly - I don't think we even had a name for it yet - and I didn't think that I could. I told him, no, I'm just a country singer but it seemed like he knew something I didn't know. He said: 'you can do this, I know you can and you need to!' So... we were working in Memphis and one afternoon he picked me, took me to their house, the one on Audubon, the small house. And we went there and we played records all afternoon, we sang and he was trying to give me the feel for this, the way he sang songs. I was impressed that he just really seemed to care about my career" (Wanda Jackson I Remember Elvis)

Her first record for Capitol, I Gotta Know, prevaricates between country waltz and rockabilly dynamite. It is, I think, a fascinating audio snapshot of a time before rock ‘n’ roll became such a knowable thing. It prickles with mistrust and intrigue. A then unknown Buck Owens played rhythm guitar on it.

From 1956 to 1961 Wanda cut some of the finest rockabilly music you could wish to hear and, in 1957, toured with the racially mixed band Bobby Poe and the Poe Kats who featured Big Al Downing on piano.

‘“Bobby and I would do solo spots,” Downing told Bill Millar, “warming up the audience before Wanda came on. Frankly, there wasn’t as much prejudice as you’d expect even though I’d stand beside her and sing with her. She liked my playing and would introduce me to the audience, which helped.”’ (from Roadkill On The Three-Chord Highway Colin Escott)

It was with the Poe Kats, in 1958, that Wanda recorded the album for Ken Nelson that included Lets Have A Party which eventually became a surprise Top 40 hit in August 1960, by which time Wanda was playing Vegas lounges.

In 1961 she released the self penned country song Right Or Wrong (the flipside Funnel Of Love is now a live favourite amongst Wanda’s fans) followed by In The Middle Of A Heartache for which Wanda wrote the lyrics. Both are appealing Patsy Cline-ish numbers and both dented the Top 30.

In October that year Wanda married Wendell Goodman, who also became her manager in 1970. They became born again Christians in 1972 and Wanda wished to become a country gospel singer. Capitol were less enamoured of the idea and Wanda was released from her contract. She then pursued her vocation as a singer and Christian on small specialist labels such as Word and Myrrh.

With Capitol from 1961 to 1973 Wanda was a regular on the country charts. Although these tracks tend to lack the coruscating urgency of Wanda’s rockabilly sides they amply demonstrate the breadth of her talent as she adapted to changes in country fashions. It is these tracks which make up the Ace CD The Very Best Of The Country Years and it was the promotion of said CD which saw Wanda rockin’ up a storm at a packed Luminaire. Watch some of it here, courtesy of Richard Gibson .

Further reading here and here.


huskermould said...

Fer a fella who just started blogging in august, you got yourself a fine lot of information. Keep up the good work....

Testify said...

Welcome huskermould and thank you for the kind words of encouragement.

Larry said...

I became a big fan of Wanda's while she was with Decca. She never recorded more pure country music than she did there.

Her very first release on Decca was a top ten hit. A duet with Billy Gray, of Hank Thompson's band, and co-written by Gray and Thompson, with two others, "You Can't Have My Love" got to #8 on the chart. Similar to her first hit on Capitol, "I Gotta Know", "You Can't Have My Love" was a mixed tempo recording, half sung by Wanda and half narrated by Billy Gray. The flip side, "Lovin' Country Style" was a more traditional country song that got a great deal of air play, just not enough to make the 30 position charts of the day.

When "You Can't Have My Love" entered the top ten, Wanda was only sixteen years old. The follow-up, with one side written by Wanda and the other by Tommy Collins failed to chart.

Both sides of her third release for Decca was recorded at Hank Thompson's home in Oklahoma City. It was a cover of the Jimmy & Johnny hit on Chess (#3/1954), "If You Don't Somebody Else Will". I don't know who covered it first, but Wanda's version, another duet with Billy Gray, lost out to the original and to a cover version by Ray Price (#8/1954).

Her next release should have been a big hit. Both sides were beautiful country songs, sung with great feeling and featuring Jerry Byrd on steel and Chet Atkins on guitar. "Nobody's Darling But Mine" had been first recorded by Jimmie Davis in 1934 with Dobro and guitar. Written by Bill Nettles who sold it to Davis, it always carried Jimmie Davis as songwriter. Tex Ritter also recorded it, also for Decca, in 1935. He used a harmonica backing on his record.

In 1937, Davis made a new recording for Decca and this time it made it to the top twenty on the pop chart (there were no country charts until 1944). Before Wanda's version, it had been recorded by the Andrews Sisters in 1950 (again for Decca), Patti Page (as an album track), and recordings had been made by Bob Wills (transcription) and Wilf Carter. While I thought Wanda's version was special, perhaps the song was too well known by then to have a big hit on it in 1955. It would, however, become a hit for Johnny Sea in 1960 (#13).

The flip side of Jackson's record, "Tears At The Grand Ole Opry", written by Wanda and Howard Vokes, was just as good. Perhaps there was some resistance at radio stations around the country at playing a record promoting the Opry? Regardless, it sold pretty well (I still have my 45) and got some radio exposure, but not enough to chart.

Her next release were two more of the songs recorded at the March, 1955 session with Byrd and Atkins. "Don't Do The Things He'd Do" was written by Wanda and "It's The Same World (Wherever You Go)" is by Thelma Blackmon. I don't recall hearing them at the time.

Her last session for Decca was in December, 1955. The Autry Inman song, "I Cried Again", backed by "Wasted" from Wanda and Tom Jackson, became her next to last release on Decca. The last one was a Joe Carson song, "Heart You Could Have Had" and another from Thelma Blackmon, "I'd Rather Have A Broken Heart".

It's impossible to know just why she didn't have more success on Decca. Female country singers were a rarity in the '50s and Decca already had Kitty Wells and Goldie Hill. Perhaps they weren't capable of promoting three girl singers at the same time, or perhaps radio resisted playing too many female artists in the same hour.

Wanda was too good a singer to be ignored for long. Just as she had done with Decca, her first release for Capitol was a top twenty hit. Thelma Blackmon's "I Gotta Know" with it's catchy tempo changes got to #15. The flip side, "Half As Good A Girl" by Jack Rhodes, was the jewel that got played the most at my house. My 45 shows the results of at least a couple hundred spins on my turntable. Buck Owens on rhythm guitar was mentioned in the article. Also on her first single for Capitol was Ralph Mooney on steel, Joe Maphis and Lewis Talley on guitar, and Jelly Sanders on fiddle.

The same group of backing musicians are on her follow-up single, "Hot Dog That Made Him Mad" b/w "Silver Threads And Golden Needles". (Indeed, we find the same line-up on her first rockabilly effort "Honey Bop".) Most likely both sides would have charted if the chart had today's 100 positions rather than listing only the top 30.

I look at her fling with rockabilly as a brief distraction. Many country artists were seduced by the rock and roll craze. Wanda was one of the more successful at it. But when 1961's "Right Or Wrong" returned her to the top ten for the first time in seven years, I think she knew that's where her real future was. Like Jean Shepard, Wanda Jackson has at least as much claim to belong in the Country Hall of Fame as Brenda Lee does. It would be nice if they would make it while they are alive.

Larry Davis

Anonymous said...

a great lady came to belgium .
Television resume of concert Wanda Jackson in Belgium 2006

Keep up the good work and thank you .

Testify said...

Larry,I would like to thank you for your considered reply, frankly I'm humbled by the sheer depth of your knowledge.
I too am a fan of her Decca recordings and was thrilled whilst at the Luminaire show to get my Stetson label reissue of her Lovin' Country Style album signed. It features many of the tracks you mention, though not the Billy Gray duet. Couldn't really find a way to feature the Decca sides in the depth they deserved in the article, so thanks for providing this important footnote.

I also make no mention of Fujiyama Mama, which hit big in Japan, chiefly because it is widely mentioned elsewhere on the net (see the further reading link)

Thanks too anonymous, interesting interview you havethere on YouTube.

Whilst Larry may feel her fling with rockabilly was a brief distraction Wanda herself says in that interview Rock'n'Roll represents the real Wanda Jackson. What is certain hearing her sing is that Wanda Jackson represents real rock'n'roll.

Do drop by again.