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.