In a few weeks Wanda Jackson will learn if she’s among next year’s inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. For New York author and rock journalist Holly George-Warren, coproducer of a forthcoming tribute CD to Jackson, that’s not a moment too soon. In 2001 she visited the hall to give a reading from her new illustrated children’s book, Shake, Rattle & Roll: The Founders of Rock & Roll, for an audience of inner-city fifth graders. The kids didn’t know who Jackson was and hadn’t heard her music, but George-Warren says that when she cued up the singer’s 1960 hit “Let’s Have a Party” they “totally went nuts–they were up dancing, jumping around.”
It’s a scene that’s repeated itself time and time again during George-Warren’s readings. “At the end I do a little American Bandstand-style vote to see who the kids’ favorites are,” she says, “and Wanda is always right up there with Elvis and Little Richard.”
It’s not just schoolchildren who think Jackson belongs alongside Presley and Penniman. George-Warren and Rob Miller, co-owner of the local Bloodshot label, have spent the past two years putting together the compilation Hard-Headed Woman: A Celebration of Wanda Jackson, which aims to draw attention to her rich and varied discography, enormous musical influence, and pioneering role as a female rock ‘n’ roller. Bloodshot will formally release the record on October 26, but it’ll get an unofficial launch party this week when Jackson headlines Martyrs’ on September 23 as part of the second annual Estrojam festival (see Fairs & Festivals). She’ll be backed by a band featuring Jimmy Sutton, Kelly Hogan, and Nora O’Connor, all of whom have contributed to the CD.
The 66-year-old Jackson started performing in 1954, but in the past few years her career has taken a sudden upswing. “I’ve never had so much attention in my life,” she says. “I’m probably bigger now than I was in the 50s.” For a woman once known as the “female Elvis”–in ’55 and ’56 she toured with the King, proving herself his equal onstage, and even dated him briefly–the recognition is long overdue.
Jackson was born in Maud, Oklahoma, in 1937, and her father, an amateur country singer, put a guitar in her hands before she could walk. By age 15 she was singing on her own radio show in Oklahoma City, where country star Hank Thompson discovered her. By the time she graduated from high school she’d had a hit with Thompson’s bandleader, Bill Gray, and landed a contract with Decca Records. “But I didn’t try my hand at rockabilly until Elvis talked me into it and I got the nerve to do it,” she says. “I realized no one was writing that type of song for women.”
In 1956 Jackson signed with Capitol, where she’d stay for 16 years; on her early singles for the label she growls and grinds as outrageously as any of the era’s celebrated rockabilly wild men–Charlie Feathers, Billy Lee Riley, Ronnie Self. She also wrote much of her own material, picked her own sidemen, ran her own sessions, and even designed her own dresses. “I had no idea I was gonna be a trailblazer back in ’56,” she says, “but I guess I was.”
In the 60s Jackson moved into country music, charting both on her own and with Buck Owens. After several years as a top draw in Las Vegas, in 1971 she became a born-again Christian–as did her husband and manager, Wendell Goodman. She spent the better part of the decade celebrating her newfound faith as a gospel singer, recording a string of spiritual albums and becoming a star in that genre as well–in fact, she’s already in the International Gospel Music Hall of Fame. When she returned to rockabilly in the early 80s, she toured primarily in Europe and Asia, where she still attracted huge crowds thanks to international hits like “Fujiyama Mama” (1957) and a German version of “Santo Domingo” (1965).
George-Warren and Miller both discovered Jackson through her records. In 1979 George-Warren, then a fledgling rock writer, found a vinyl reissue of the 1960 album Rockin’ With Wanda “and just fell in love.” Miller was working as a campus radio DJ at the University of Michigan in 1987 when he stumbled across a stack of Jackson’s old LPs.
“Not knowing anything about her and hearing something like ‘Fujiyama Mama’–it seemed like it came from outer space,” he says. “You can only imagine how it must’ve sounded in the mid-50s. The significance of the whole gender thing with Wanda didn’t even strike me until much later. The music itself was so incredible.”
For many years Jackson’s reputation was tended principally by rockabilly fetishists and devoted collectors. But then Texas roots revivalist Rosie Flores, who’d convinced Jackson to sing with her for a couple songs on the 1995 album Rockabilly Filly, took the erstwhile First Lady of Rockabilly on tour–her first secular shows in the States since the 70s. Jackson got such a warm reception that she made a full-time return to the road. Meanwhile the Ace and Bear Family labels reissued much of her early material, and in 2003 she released both a concert album, The Wanda Jackson Show: Live and Still Kickin’ (DCN), and a new studio collection, Heart Trouble (CMH), with contributions from the likes of Elvis Costello, Dave Alvin, and the Cramps. “Wanda, along with some other really influential women, are finally getting their due,” says George-Warren. “But that’s endemic to the whole boys’-club aspect of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s only in the past few years that rock historians have gone back and reexamined that.”
Miller and George-Warren hatched the idea for Hard-Headed Woman in 2002, when they participated in a panel discussion on Jackson’s music at South by Southwest. The pair rounded up 22 roots acts–among them Canadian country belter Carolyn Mark, Dutch group the Ranch Girls, and a host of Chicagoans, including Hogan, O’Connor, Sutton, and Robbie Fulks–to contribute tracks covering almost all of Jackson’s long career: her first Decca numbers, her classic rockabilly cuts for Capitol, her country tearjerkers, even her late-period gospel songs.
“People tend to limit her influence to those really raucous early tracks, but we wanted to cover a broader spectrum of what she did,” says Miller. “I liken her to the Velvet Underground–she’s one of those performers that people in music, people in the know, always reference,” he adds. “But the general populace doesn’t have any idea about the kind of influence she’s had on the history of music.”
Last week Jackson got word that her name is on this year’s final ballot for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in early November the results will be announced. Among the 14 other artists in the running are U2, the Sex Pistols, and Patti Smith; on average five or six make it in each year. Though she’s enshrined in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the German Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, in addition to her gospel honor, Jackson says this would be “the big one.”
“Who knows? I’ve always said I’d never get in during my lifetime,” she says. “But I have a dress I’ve saved to wear to the ceremony, just in case.”