Wanda Jackson – Queen of Rockabilly
(Be sure to also view the podcast related to this story, found in the "related" section at end of article)
Beautiful Maud native Wanda Jackson continues to sing with power and passion in a career that is approaching two-thirds of a century. Like tens of thousands of other Oklahomans, Jackson and her family moved to California in the 1940s. Her musician father Tom hoped for better prospects and located the Jacksons in Bakersfield, which was becoming a virtual Oklahoma colony. The area strongly supported country and western artists of the day, including Bob Wills and Spade Cooley, both nationally renowned vocalists who had strong Oklahoma connections. Hearing them as a girl left an indelible impression on Jackson. So did the guitar her father bought her from a pawn shop when she was seven and taught her to play.
Wanda’s mother Nellie designed her show outfits, helping her to “put glamour into country music.”
Four years later, in 1948, as the American economy at long last got past the Great Depression, her father moved the family back to Oklahoma. They lived in the blue collar southside of Oklahoma City, south of the North Canadian River. Jackson’s rare and brilliant natural vocal power, pitch, and control landed her on the community’s dominant country station, KLPR. This in turn got her heard by Hank Thompson, then living in OKC. His band the Brazos Valley Boys was named the top Country Western band for fourteen straight years by Billboard magazine.
Wanda and Elvis, while dating when young, and still friends much later.
While still attending Capitol Hill High School, one of the greatest athletic powerhouses in the southwest, Jackson began recording songs with Thompson and his band on Capitol Records, one of the industry’s elite labels. Her duet You Can’t Have My Love with his bandleader Billy Gray reached number eight on the country music charts during her junior year at Capitol Hill.
Wanda at the top of her game, kicking it on TV with Hard Headed Woman in 1958.
Following her high school graduation the next year, Jackson began touring. Her father served as her manager and chaperon. She frequently shared the same playbill as Elvis Presley. The two became good friends and dated for a while. Presley suggested she sing rockabilly, a new and original American blend of country, pop, rock and roll, and rhythm and blues. Presley, Johnny Cash, and Buddy Holly spearheaded its rise.
Jackson told journalist Dick Pryor:
I didn’t think I could do it. But Elvis said, "I think you can." We were in Memphis one time, singing that night. That afternoon, he took me to his home, played records, got a guitar and sang, and kind of started giving me the idea of how you could take a song and (do it in your own style) and make it rockabilly. He just wanted to stretch me and have me be more than what I thought I was. I’ve loved him for that ever since.
In concert, 1950s.
Country Music Glamour
She became the foremost female rockabilly vocal pioneer. Meanwhile, managing to succeed at country, rockabilly, and rock-and-roll alike, these varied genres broadened her appeal and reach, and contributed to the success of one another.
While Tom Jackson was managing Wanda, her mother Nellie designed many of her outfits. She created a more glamorous style for her daughter than what was then prevalent among female country and western vocalists. It included fringed dresses, long ear rings, and high heels. Jackson said these outfits were the first for a female singer to “put glamour into country music.”
In Japan in 1959 for Fujiyama Mama, which hit number one in that country.
Through the rest of the ‘50s, Jackson recorded influential, genre-shaping rock and roll songs, as well as rockabilly hits with her lilting, upbeat voice. The latter included I Gotta Know, which hit number fifteen in 1956, and Fujiyama Mama, where she first unleashed her famous “growl,” and which raced to number one in Japan in 1958. She also co-starred for five years on ABC-TV’s Ozark Jubilee show.
Album cover released in Japan.
Jackson gained the sobriquet “The Queen of Rockabilly” in the 1960s. Thirty of her country songs charted, several in the top ten, stretching through the years 1954-1974. She also had a string of Top 40 rock hits. She was twice nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Female.
Wanda and her husband Wendell’s 1971 Christian conversions “made all the difference.”
By the 1980s, she had won a large European following. So rich was her treasury of song and musical innovation, that new waves of fans, and TV, radio, recording, and film influence arose, continuing to the present. As late as 2012, her album Unfinished Business landed her on the Billboard Country Chart—after a hiatus of thirty-nine years!
Wanda in mid-late 1980s.
On the personal front, Jackson married Wendell Goodman in 1961 and remained wed to him for fifty-six years, until his 2017 death. They had two daughters, whose influence led to a momentous 1971 event. Jackson recalled to Pryor:
Our marriage was in trouble. One weekend when Wendell and I were in town, our daughters made us promise to be in church that Sunday….God just spoke to us at the end of that service. We publicly went forward and dedicated the rest of our lives to Christ. That made all the difference. The wall between us just dissolved. Because all of a sudden, when both parties want to please God and not themselves or somebody else, then it just takes that load off of you.
Still going strong…in Belgium!
This resulted not only in a fresh approach to life for Wanda and Wendell, but a series of gospel recordings by this one of a kind Oklahoma musical trailblazer and legend. She remains elegant, lovely, and devout, the essence of Southern grace. And, in the words of an admiring Bob Dylan, “A hurricane with lips.”
Want to get to know this remarkable woman better? Here is the link to Dick Pryor’s hour-long interview with her. CLICK HERE