In my last post I presented a few of my favorite songs by Elvis Presley, the King of Rock "N" Roll. I announced that I would be naming in today's post the one artist who has all the right stuff to snatch the crown away from Elvis. To help you guess who that might be I offered a multiple choice.
AND IN THIS
AND STILETTO HEELS...
STANDING FIVE FEET, ONE INCH...
WEIGHING 105 POUNDS...
FROM OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA...
THE QUEEN OF ROCKABILLY...
THE FIRST LADY OF ROCK 'N' ROLL...
THE SWEET LADY
WITH THE NASTY VOICE...
For 50 years I was under the mistaken impression that the top 40 hit "Let's Have a Party" was all there was to know about Wanda Jackson.
"Let's Have a Party" - Wanda Jackson
(from 1958 album Wanda Jackson,
single charted in October 1960, highest
chart position #37)
How wrong can a guy be? "Let's Have a Party"
is just the tip of the iceberg...a very big iceberg!
I recently watched a documentary on Wanda Jackson's life and career entitled The Sweet Lady With the Nasty Voice and it opened my eyes and ears to her amazing talent. Simply put, Wanda Jackson is the biggest blind spot that
I ever had - the greatest artist of the 20th century that
I somehow overlooked!
Wanda was only a child when she made up her mind to become a singer. Wanda's father encouraged her by purchasing a guitar for her in an Oklahoma City pawn shop. Wanda was still in her mid teens in 1954 when she was discovered by country & western star Hank Thompson and invited to perform with his band. Wanda toured and started making records, establishing herself as a traditional country music artist. She dressed the part, wearing Dale Evans style western attire including boots and a cowgirl hat. Wanda didn't feel comfortable with that look and soon made drastic changes in her appearance and singing style.
Wanda began to show off her petite but curvaceous figure with low-cut, form-fitting dresses made by her seamstress mother. She threw away the rule book, put a growl in her voice, and started rocking hard, coming across like a female version of Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis. It wasn't ladylike. No other women were doing it. At the time other female vocalists were dishing out safe, middle-of-the-road pop pablum like "How Much is That Doggie in the Window."
Wanda Jackson turned the music world upside down, becoming the first woman to sing rockabilly and rock & roll, covering male songs and making them very much her own, paving the way for female rockers of the future like Janis Joplin, Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett.
"Riot in Cell Block Number Nine"
- Wanda Jackson (1961, uncharted)
Hearing Wanda sing is thrilling enough, but to realize the full extent of her greatness you have to see her perform. In this clip from a 1958 broadcast of the country music TV and radio show Town Hall Party, the spunky spitfire punches out one of her greatest and best known songs, an original composition entitled "Mean, Mean Man."
"Mean Mean Man" - Wanda Jackson
(live 1958 performance on Town Hall Party,
1958 single uncharted USA, #40 UK
Singers and musicians who appeared on Town Hall Party also performed on the syndicated music program Ranch Party. Both shows are noteworthy for bringing country artists, rockabilly artists and rock & rollers together in harmony on the same stage. Here's Wanda singing one of the cutest and cleverest girl power anthems that you'll ever hear, "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad!"
"Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad!"
- Wanda Jackson (live on Ranch Party,
1956 single uncharted)
Wanda Jackson dated Elvis for a short period of time. The King took her under his wing and taught her how to rock the country and roll the blues to produce a new and exciting style of music called rockabilly. Before Elvis could say "don't be cruel," the little lady with the powerful pipes was teaching him a thing or two about rockin'...about charismatic stage performance...and about sex appeal!
Wanda was a spark plug, a real live wire. She loved to shock audiences. During that same Town Hall Party broadcast Wanda playfully conned the audience with an intro that suggested she was about to sing a tender love ballad. Wanda then proceeded to destroy with a killer cover of Elvis Presley's "Hard Headed Woman," a performance that made old Swivel Hips himself sit up and take notice and left no doubt that a star was born!
"Hard Headed Woman" - Wanda Jackson
(live 1958 performance on Town Hall Party)
Watch, listen and learn as Wanda delights the Ranch Party audience once again with a blistering performance of her 1957 song "Cool Love." It's way too cool for old school!
"Cool Love" - Wanda Jackson (live on
Ranch Party, 1957 single uncharted)
Wanda Jackson loved "Be-Bop-A-Lula," the top 10 single recorded by rockabilly star and Capitol Records label-mate Gene Vincent. Determined to produce a similar sound, Wanda put the rock in rockabilly with "Honey Bop."
"Honey Bop" - Wanda Jackson
Even when Wanda dials it back and replaces the growl in her voice with a purr the results make the male of the species squirm with delight! Listen for the similarities to the vocal style of Jerry Lee Lewis as Wanda sings "Savin' My Love."
"Savin' My Love" - Wanda Jackson
Wanda goes even deeper on "You Don't Know Baby," a smoldering ballad that gives me fever every time I hear it!
"You Don't Know Baby" - Wanda Jackson
(from 1962 album Wonderful Wanda)
The All Music Guide calls Rockin' With Wanda "absolutely the best collection of Wanda Jackson's rockabilly recordings" and "the leading candidate for the best female rock & roll album of the 1950s." I'm not about to argue. "Rock Your Baby," one of Wanda's career best, is included on the 1960 album and here's Wanda performing the song around the time that it was released as a single two years earlier.
"Rock Your Baby" - Wanda Jackson
(live 1958 performance on Town Hall Party,
1958 single uncharted)
Incredibly, only a couple of Wanda Jackson's rockabilly classics saw any action at all on the domestic pop chart or even the country chart. (Go figure!) When one of her songs did chart it was almost always something safe and traditional like "Right or Wrong" (#9 country, #29 pop). Wake up America! The far more interesting song is the killer bee on the flip side, the dark and dreamlike "Funnel of Love."
"Funnel of Love" - Wanda Jackson (1961,
uncharted B side of "Right or Wrong")
As is often the case it took fans in other countries to point out what Americans were missing. Wanda's "Fujiyama Mama" did nothing stateside but rocketed to #1 in Japan. Folks, when it comes to flat out rockin' this is as good as it gets!
"Fujiyama Mama" - Wanda Jackson (1957,
uncharted USA, #1 in Japan)
Today Wanda Jackson's still rocking, still giving concerts and her voice still sounds as great as it did in the 50s. Wanda's the real deal, a pioneer, the first woman to harness the true spirit of rock and roll. Wanda's got pizzazz, spunk, heart and soul. Along with Elvis Presley, Wanda Jackson is one of the greatest and most exciting performers of the 20th century.
doesn't just sing
a song. She plays
with it, toys with it,
chews it up, spits it
out, and owns it.
You can hear her
smiling as she sings.
You can tell that her
eyes are twinkling.
Wanda exudes the
kind of confidence that comes to those
few who have mastered their chosen craft.