Wanda Jean Jackson was born in 1937 in Maud, Oklahoma. Her father taught her to play the piano and guitar. After winning a talent contest the teenager was given her own radio program in Oklahoma City (a 15-minute daily show on KLPR). Hank Thompson took her to tour with his band the Brazos Valley Boys and together she performed country-tinged gospel. Jackson got her first recording contract in 1954 which became a national hit.
In 1955 Wanda joined a touring company where she met Elvis Presley and the King gave her some advice to change her style from honky tonk country /gospel to rock 'n' roll . She must have listened because her next set of singles had a rocker on one side, and a honky-tonk country track on the other. Wanda had her own distinctive voice and performed in a variety of styles, from traditional light folksy to country with high yodels to throaty, suggestive ballads. Wanda reckons she was the first female country artist to be glamorous on stage and the stunning raven haired beauty wore tight skirts, spaghetti straps, red lipstick and dangling earrings. She broke the mould of cowboy hats and boots, full skirts and other paraphernalia.
When she rock’n’rolled her stage performances were packed with attitude, aggressive guitar, and belting vocals. Her “enfant terrible” show girl performances belied a well behaved, young lady who was chaperoned by her father behind the scenes. Her onstage moves were more wicked than her look and her music, simmered with sex. In I Gotta Know, she toys between rock-a-billy and country style.
Once she changed her base to Los Angeles she adopted a different persona, gone was Miss Innocent and Wanda Jackson became a wild, child and sexy rebel who could compete with the most lascivious rockers of the era. This was reflected in her music as her popularity as a recording artist continued. "Honey Bop" and "Hot Dog That Made Him Mad" were both credible Rock’n’Roll hits and her renditions of Heard headed woman and Long Tall Sally would equally rival Presley and Little Richard’s versions.
It was Fujiyama Mama in 1958 however that gave her the biggest hit. The song contained lyrics referring to the World War II bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; ironically, the song became a #1 hit in Japan and stayed there for six months. Wanda toured the country for seven weeks in 1959. She recorded Lets have a party in 1958 but it was not released until 1960 when it made the charts.
Popular music tastes were changing and Wanda, reverted to her country roots. The allure of the road was wearing off and Wanda longed to settle down and get married. This was difficult because she was never in the one place long enough. In 1961 she abandoned rock and roll and Los Angeles, and joined the ranks of Nashville's country singers with excellent renditions of "Right or Wrong" and "In The Middle Of a Heartache".
In 1965 she topped the German charts with "Santa Domingo," sung in German and a year later was back in the US charts with "The Box It Came In" and "Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine."
By the early 70s Wanda Jackson married and had children. She became a born-again Christian, battled alcoholism but continued to sing and record. For the rest of the decade she concentrated on performing gospel in churches and Church Sponsored Events. In 1984 she made a brief return to Rock 'N' Roll retro and completed a National tour. She continues to perform in and outside of the US (mainly Europe) and release albums. Her popularity is sustained by a new generation of rockabilly fans. Throughout her career Wanda Jackson achieved great and continuing success outside American and is remarkably popular throughout Europe, Asia, and Australia, but has never found the same level of fame in her native country, until now perhaps.
Worth a listen:
I Gotta Know
In the middle of a heartache
Lets have a party
Right or Wrong
The box it came in
The Brazos Valley Boys
You can’t have my love