Happy Birthday, Wanda Jackson
October 20, 1937: Wanda Lavonne Jackson is born in Maud, Oklahoma, almost smack in the middle of the pot of the Panhandle State. From the time she was a little black-haired girl, her musician father encouraged her to sing and then to play. He took her to hear Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys at their mothership in Tulsa, Cain’s Ballroom. He bought her a guitar. When she was a teenager, Wanda began singing on the radio, where Hank Thompson heard her and brought her on stage with his Brazos Valley Boys. Jackson was 17 when “You Can’t Have My Love,” recorded thanks to Thompson, broke the coutry chart Top Ten.
By the time she was 19, Jackson was the opening act for Elvis Presley. Although her father traveled with the tour as a chaperon, she dated Elvis at the time. Presley advised her to swing away from country and into rock and roll, rockabilly, and the kind of music in tune with what he was playing at the time. Jackson gave up her cowboy hats and fringed shirts, although she kept Presley’s ring (and still has it today). She wore stunning tight dresses and favored orange: you can see why.
In 1960, her single of the earlier Elvis hit “Let’s Have a Party” made it into the Top 40, and Jackson toured the world. Her guitar player, Roy Clark, and session player Buck Owens met through working with Jackson. She was nominated for her first GRAMMY in 1963, in the wake of Two Sides of Wanda — those sides being country Wanda and rocker Wanda; her fans had no problem with Wanda Going Electric. In the late 60s she had her own television show, Music Village, and performed songs she’d written herself along with her standards and new songs. “Big Iron Skillet” is one that will still raise an eyebrow; have a listen, if you’re not familiar with it:
Jackson’s career quietened in the 1970s. She recorded gospel and other Christian music, and toured less, raising her two children with Wendell Goodman, her husband from 1961 until his death in 2017. Jackson started up her rockabilly sound again in the 1980s, and hasn’t turned it off since. Younger musicians adore her, from the powerful influence of her songs and performance, to working with her today. Here’s Jackson with Jack White, and their collaborations are fantastic.
Neko Case spearheaded Hard Headed Woman: A Celebration of Wanda Jackson. Case covers Jackson’s version of Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” and Laura Cantrell a gorgeous “Wasted.” Jackson’s 2012 album “Unfinished Business” was produced by Justin Townes Earle.
Her version, with White, of Bob Dylan’s “Thunder On The Mountain” is sheer danceable joy.
Jackson continues to tour, and if you can get to Cain’s Ballroom to hear her on her home turf, I promise you one of the finest combinations of venue and artist you’ll ever know. Stay tuned for news at WandaJackson.com — and wish the lady happy birthday, today, by getting out of your seats and dancing while she sings.