Happy Birthday to Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly

Here’s a post I wrote awhile back after seeing the great and legendary Wanda Jackson play a show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. She was 74 years old. She opened for Adele at the age of 73. LEGEND.

The Queen of Rockabilly and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Wanda Jackson, age 74, played Maxwell’s in Hoboken and Jen, Charlie and I were there. I assumed it would be an older crowd mostly, with a couple of rockabilly types mixed in. I thought for sure I would be one of the youngest ones there. But the club was packed – and the age range was 60-something to 20-something, the majority being 20-somethings, which warmed my heart no end. Wanda Jackson got her start in the mid-50s, and here she still is today. I imagine the fact that there were so many young people in the audience had something to do with Jack White producing her last album.

Maxwell’s is a small joint, no seats, a true rock club (reminds me of Lounge Ax in Chicago a bit, may it rest in peace). We scored a spot over to the side. People were pouring in.

The Saddle Tones opened for her, and they were awesome. People were dancing. You could feel the excitement. Wanda!! A legend!

After The Saddletones, Wanda’s band took the stage. It’s a small stage. These were some burly big men. There’s no backstage area, so I wasn’t sure where she would appear from, but then there she was, being led through the crowd up to the stage. She is so tiny (as my friend Caitlin would say: “Minz”. She’s so minz.) The excited crowd parted to let her come through, and then she was helped up onto the stage. She looked fantastic and we all just exploded at our first full sight of her. She was wearing a red fringed blazer. She must have a closet full of fringe.

One of her fringed dresses was on display in an exhibit at Graceland when I visited in 2013.

Her hair was jet-black, and swooped up high. She wore sparkly dangling diamond earrings, and a sparkly necklace, bracelet and rings. She sparkled all over like a damn disco ball. Her fingers are long and tapering and she uses them brilliantly in all of her gestures, which were simple and eloquent.

She started off by saying, in that raspy lived-in voice, “We are going to go on a musical journey tonight.”

And I flashed 50 years into our future, suddenly, and I wondered who, of our young stars today, will still be going at age 74, playing small clubs, and touring constantly, who can command a room swiftly and suddenly with a simple statement like, “We are going to go on a musical journey tonight”? Who will still be standing? Who loves it that much, is basically the question. It’s an open question, that’s the best part about it.

There is something so hot about seeing a minz old lady backed by these giant guys, all of whom are in their 30s and 40s. It gives such a sense of history, of celebration, of continuity. These guys were poker-faced geniuses, and they were playing for the coolest lady in the world, and the sound they gave her … the giant rocking sound … was worthy of her.

It was the end of Elvis Week, and that seemed rather perfect since, of course, Wanda and Elvis dated (here’s Wanda telling the story), and they started out together.

Wanda Jackson, Elvis Presley, 1955

I hoped she might say something about him, and she did, but it far surpassed what I had hoped. I had thought she might reference Elvis Week, say she knew him, and then move on, but no, it was much much better than that.

She said:

“The first person I toured with was Elvis. We dated. Went to the movies, dinner. I was a country singer then, but Elvis encouraged me to try rock, although we didn’t really have a word for it. He pushed me, ‘Wanda, you’ll be great, do it, do it…’ So I did. He is one of the reasons I am standing here today, so at every show I do, anywhere, I always pay tribute to the King.”

I looked over at Charlie, and he looked back, nodding, like, “I know.”

After her beautiful words of tribute to Elvis, she went even further, and sang ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. (Here’s a clip of Wanda and Jack White performing “Heartbreak Hotel” live.)

It’s one of those songs that is so much a part of our cultural landscape that I absorbed it by osmosis as a child. But to hear it live. To hear its movements, its change-ups, its boozy burlesque open, its grinding-sex guitar blasts … when Elvis would rotate his shoulder for his live audiences and the girls would go wild… to hear it live made it sound like a whole other song. Wanda Jackson rocked it out, and on the line “cry there in the gloom”, she mimed tears falling down her cheek with her beautiful sparkly-ringed tapering fingers. It’s difficult to explain why something so simple and perhaps even cliche works. It’s because it is comes from a truthful and expressive place.

I looked around at the club at one point during ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and the entire place was in a ZONE with the song, swaying and grinding, singing along in unison, arms pumping in the air. I got goosebumps.

She sang many of her old hits, treating us to some of her yodeling (off the charts!). She talked about how she started writing her own stuff, because she was really out there on her own back then, a woman singing this type of music. The Boys weren’t writing stuff for her. There weren’t any songs from the girl’s point of view, so she went ahead and wrote them.

Here she is performing on television in 1958, singing “Hard Headed Woman.”

I think my favorite anecdote she told at the Maxwell’s show was one involving Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen has talked often about Wanda, and how much he loves her and how inspired he has been by her career. Jackson said:

“I was playing in Asbury Park and I look out and there’s Bruce Springsteen and his wife. I was playing in a bowling alley. There wasn’t even a real stage. But there they were.”

If you are not moved by that moment, if you don’t get why Jen and I held hands with tears in our eyes picturing Springsteen and his wife going out to a bowling alley to see Wanda Jackson the legend … then I certainly can’t (and won’t) explain it to you. You’re on your own.

She spoke about how she invited Jesus into her heart in 1971. She spoke in a simple and beautiful way about how every day she thanks the Lord that it happened: “Wherever I sing in this world, I want the world to know that I thank the Lord for that day, when I Saw the Light.”

And then, of course, she sang Hank Williams’ ‘I Saw the Light’, which she also recorded. It starts slow and churchy, and then explodes.

Jackson talked about how Jack White came into her life, wanting to produce a new album (as he had done with Loretta Lynn to monumental success).

Wanda Jackson and Jack White

Jackson said she had some hesitation about him but he said, “Wanda, I don’t want to change you. I want you to do your thing, but I just want you to have new fresh material.” She was IN from that moment forward. (She laughed, “And so far, it has been my most successful album. It actually cracked the Top 100.”) They worked together on the lineup. He suggested songs, he talked with her about what she wanted to do, he was very prepared. He was also flexible. For example, one song he brought to her she loved but she also felt that some of the lyrics were not “age-appropriate” for her. Jack White could have tried to twist her arm, he could have forced her into something she did not feel comfortable with, but instead, he sat down, took out a pencil, and edited out the lines she felt embarrassed about. I love him for that.

Jack White suggested Amy Winehouse’s “I’m No Good”, which Jackson did record. Jackson spoke to us of her sadness when she heard of Winehouse’s death: “I had hoped to meet her.” She performed “I’m No Good” at Maxwell’s, and listen to that growl, man.

Jack White also asked her in one of their preliminary conversations, “What is a song you have always wanted to cover but never did?” She thought a bit and said it was a song Elvis did that she had always loved, called “Like a Baby”. So Jack White was like, “Okay, let’s do that one.”

We didn’t want her to leave the stage at the end of the night, and there was this strangely touching moment, piercing even, when she had “exited” after her last song – only there was nowhere for her to go, because there was no backstage, so she just huddled over to the side of the stage, in full view, as her band kept playing and we all screamed for an encore. There she was, huge smile on her face, and of course, she waited as we whipped ourselves into a frenzy (and we could SEE her, we knew she was coming back because she hadn’t gone anywhere), until finally she knew when the time was right and she came back on and sang”Let’s Have a Party”, and nearly blew the top of the roof off. But it was the vision of her, a “minz” 74 year old woman with a black swoopy pompadour, red fringe shimmying jacket, and sparkling jewelry reflecting and refracting the light, a legend, a Hall of Famer, huddled over to the side of a tiny stage in a small club in Hoboken New Jersey … that nearly did me in completely. Because it was how she started in her career, too. Playing at school fairs and gymnasiums and picnics, where there would be no big celebratory opening, no backstage, you just walked up there with your guitar and started. You either had star quality or you didn’t. You couldn’t rely on a light show or a big fanfare to pump up the crowd. You had to be GOOD and you had to grab them and not let them go.

And there she was at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, 74 years young and 50 years into her career, but loving every second of it. Not caring that there was no backstage, not caring that we could still see her as we screamed for an encore … not caring at all, because she knows that what is important is not the trappings of success, but the immediate energy ricocheting around that particular room of 100 people.

She was responsible for that energy. She nurtured it and fed off of it.She created it.

That’s a rock star.


My nephew and I went to the “Play It Loud” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, and it was a thrill to see Wanda Jackson’s guitar on display. Look at that BRANDING.

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10 Responses to Happy Birthday to Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly

  1. Kevin Wolf says:

    Oh, to see Wanda Jackson live …

  2. Dale McNeill says:

    I’ve seen Wanda Jackson three times in New York City, each time before her album with Jack White. I’m 51. While there might have been one or two people at these shows who were my age, each was packed–standing only clubs absolutely packed–with 20-somethings. Her appeal crosses generations! Thanks for the review and the links.

  3. bybee says:

    My friend from Halifax was utterly scornful of one of our coworkers from Oklahoma because he had not a clue about who Wanda Jackson is. Luckily, I was able to garner the opposite response. My parents had a couple of Wanda Jackson albums: Right or Wrong and Two Sides of Wanda (love the double meaning). They played Two Sides of Wanda often. The tracks that impressed me the most were “Searchin'” and “Honey Don’t”. Actually, I’ve never heard a version of “Honey Don’t” that pleased me as much as Wanda’s.

    Another friend of mine wanted to see the Buddy Holly memorial at Clear Lake, Iowa. I went with him. The biggest (maybe the first?) plaque there was from Wanda Jackson, Oklahoma City, who expressed warm, loving thoughts about Holly and his music. I was glad I knew who she was (my friend didn’t) and very impressed with her gesture.

    If Wanda Jackson comes to Kansas City and I’m on the right side of the globe, I’m going!

  4. Mitchell Fain says:

    extraordinary writing Sheila..stunning. ” then I certainly can’t (and won’t) explain it to you. You’re on your own.” YES!!!

  5. Tom Pritchard says:

    Check out her version of “Pick me up on your way down” on YouTube.

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