Happy Birthday, Wanda Jackson, the Rockabilly Queen

A pioneer. One of the few women in that original “class”. Rockabilly was a boys’ game. She changed that game. She looked around in 1954/55, and thought, “Hey. All these songs are written by boys. Dear me. What should I do? Oh, I know. Write songs from a girl’s POV.”

She wore fringed dresses, which shimmered in the light when she moved. She was a teenager when she started out, and her mother would travel with her to shows as a chaperone. Her mom made those dresses. I saw one on display at Graceland!

Wanda credits Elvis with encouraging her to “try out” the new style of music. Wanda always assumed she’d be a country singer. He pushed her to try out new rhythms. And here we are today. She’s (finally) in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She talks about him during every show.

“Elvis had been talking to me about trying to sing this new rock and roll or rockabilly – I don’t think we even had a name for it yet – and I didn’t think 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.'”

When she told that story the first time I saw her play, she said, “And now I’m in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So I always pay tribute to Elvis every show.”

She also covers his songs. On the Jack White album, she covered a lesser-known but gorgeous Elvis song, “Like a Baby”. In 2006, she came out with an album called I Remember Elvis, and it was all covers. Wanda has been married for over half a century, but she is not afraid to Kiss and Tell.

Here she is in action, 1958. I love the humor of her “girlish” introduction: “This is one of the most beautiful love songs ever written.” And then …

Wanda Jackson is still alive. She’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She is revered by people like Bruce Springsteen, Joan Jett, Jack White … When Adele first hit it big and went on tour, she had Wanda Jackson open for her. In 2011, Jack Black – after his huge success producing Loretta Lynn’s album Van Lear Rose, moved on to another Female Legend, and produced Wanda’s album, titling it, perfectly, The Party Ain’t Over. That album gave Jackson her first Billboard Top 100 hit in her entire lengthy career. (Here’s an article about a show Jack White and Jackson did in Los Angeles – I mainly link to it because of the clips included of the two of them performing together.)

I love Jack and Wanda performing “Heartbreak Hotel” at a show in Williamsburg. This clip disappears from YouTube periodically and then someone re-uploads it. So watch it while you have the chance. I LOVE Jack White and I LOVE how he loves her, and supports her up there. The band sounds phenomenal.

Here the two are on Letterman!

The support/promotion/cheerleading of people like Jack White and Adele have brought her to younger generations who have embraced her. Her shows are always all ages, teenagers to Boomers. This fills my bitter heart with happiness!

When Jim Jarmusch chose to open Only Lovers Life Alive with this Wanda Jackson needle drop, I swooned. This is one of her best.

I’ve seen Wanda Jackson play twice – and I’m so glad I did, because I believe she’s retired now. She is in her 80s after all. So I got to see her right at the end. The first time I saw her was at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, a tiny little venue, where she was right there among us.

When I saw Wanda Jackson at Maxwell’s, she spoke very warmly of Amy Winehouse, and with some sadness too: “I had hoped very much to meet her.” Here she is performing “You Know I’m No Good.”

This was a song Jack White had to push Wanda to do. She thought it wasn’t age-appropriate. There were some battles like this along the way which Wanda won, but in this one she “lost” and we are lucky she did. It’s fascinating listening to her sing that phenomenal song, connecting up the continuum between herself and someone like Winehouse.

I was a wreck at the Maxwell’s show. A storied club, yes, but tiny, with no backstage. After her set, she stood off to the side, behind a tiny curtain, as we applauded and urged her to come on for an encore. But the thing was: we could still see her, she was right THERE. Waiting until the right moment when she could take the four steps to center stage and sing a couple more. It was so PURE, so RAW.

It made me think of her history: starting out at church picnics and county fairs, local dances, where there were no bells, whistles. No lights dimmed for you. You had to get up on the stage and command attention with your voice, persona, your performance. You had no outside help. It was all on YOU, to get the audience’s attention and to KEEP the audience’s attention.

And so here she was, 60, 70 years later, huddled on the corner of a stage, with a crowd – maybe 200 of us – ages 20 to 70 – screaming her name, until she gracefully emerged again, as THOUGH she had been hidden from view, to take us on out with 3 or 4 more songs.

Such a PRO.

The second time I saw Wanda was at some huge hall in New Jersey, can’t remember where. It was a benefit event, organized by a good friend of mine. I worked the door with him. Joan Jett walked in. There were some pretty overwhelming moments at that show – the main one being standing next to Joan Jett during the show, and at one point – as she does every show – Wanda played Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light”. Everyone sang along. Including Joan Jett. So it was like the entire history of 20th century popular music was there in that room. It was wild.

Here’s a picture from that night.

In 2019, my nephew and I went to go see the “Play It Loud” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, an outstanding show filled with famous guitars – famous guitars made famous by the famous geniuses who played them. (There were other instruments, too – Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano, for example – but it was mainly about guitars). Everyone’s was there. Chuck Berry’s hung at the entrance. Elvis. Bo Diddley. Eddie van Halen. Buddy Holly. Muddy Waters. Prince. And Wanda’s. Wanda’s guitar was behind glass right next to Buddy Holly’s.

I was so happy to see that she was right where she belonged. In the Pantheon.

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1 Response to Happy Birthday, Wanda Jackson, the Rockabilly Queen

  1. Bill Wolfe says:

    Love that clip of “Hard Headed Woman.” The double-necked guitar! The piano player who, when he needs more volume, just beats the hell out of his keys! And, most of all, Wanda!! I’m glad that the Go-Go’s, who performed Wanda’s signature tune, “Let’s Have a Party,” many times in concert in the early 1980s, will be joining her in the Hall of Fame.

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