Pensacola, Florida
Saturday December 16th 2017

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All Hail The Rockabilly Queen

By Shelby Nalepa

Born in 1937 in Maud, Oklahoma, pioneering rock and roll artist Wanda Jackson started out as a country music singer with a guitar.

“My dad was a homegrown type,” Jackson said. “He taught himself guitar and started teaching me when I was about 6. My interest in music is from my father’s side of the family.”

When she was 14, Jackson won a local talent contest that landed her a 15‐minute daily show on the OKC radio station, KLPR. She would rush over after school every day with her guitar to sing and play to fill her 15-minute slot. KLPR noticed Jackson’s knack for entertaining and quickly upped her show to 30 minutes. This afternoon radio show lasted through Jackson’s high school years and led to her discovery.

“There were hardly any women in the field, and the ones that were around were pop singers or singers in Western swing bands,” Jackson said.

In 1952, Kitty Wells had a number one song, which Jackson said caused a shift in record companies starting to take women seriously who wanted to sing on their own.

“I signed with Decca Records in ‘54, and in ‘56 I went with Capitol Records,” she said. “I was singing straight country, blues, pop and maybe some religious. Back then radio stations didn’t specialize in music. Their programming was a little bit of everything. They could have a Top 10 pop show for a couple of hours, and then it would be country music for an hour.”

“I was about the third female to start recording to have any success after Kitty Wells and Jean Shepard,” she said. “Before any of us, there was Patsy Montana who was a yodeler. She had a million sales in one of her songs. I learned how to yodel, but I never yodeled on my recordings.”

In 1955, Jackson graduated from Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City. Soon after, she hit the road with her father Tom as her chaperone and manager. Jackson’s mother Nellie designed and hand-made all of her stage outfits.

“That’s when I had a little success,” she said. “It just so happened that my booking agent also worked for Elvis Presley.”

Jackson was placed on the bill with Presley, and the two hit it off, even briefly dating.

“He talked me into trying a new kind of music called rockabilly,” she said. “Jerry Lee Lewis was already playing rockabilly and before long all of us were recording rock and roll.”

Jackson said that she recorded a lot of rock and roll after Presley talked her into it, but she had to cover songs until she began writing her own.

“I think rock and country are first cousins, or at least kissing cousins,” she said. “They kind of overlap at times.”

In 1956 is when Jackson said she started recording songs other than country. Her career danced the delicate line between country and rockabilly. She would manage this by cutting one song in each style and placing them on either sides of a single. This increased her relevance and popularity in both genres.

“I would put out a country record with rock and roll on the other side,” she said. “I still wanted to record it and give it a chance.”

Jackson’s main success was in 1960 with a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Let’s Have a Party.”

“Now there’s a new generation of rockabilly fans that are requesting all my old songs,” she said. “I’ve had more success in the latter years of my career.”

In 2009, White Stripes member and producer Jack White approached Jackson asking to produce a record. The two teamed up to release “The Party Ain’t Over” in 2011.

At 79 years old, Jackson said that as long as she can draw crowds and her health is good, she will continue to tour.

“The last couple years were pretty rough,” she said. “I had some operations, and in May of this year my husband passed away. He was the wind beneath my wings, and he booked my shows and traveled with me for a long time. We were married for 55 years. Right now I’m in transition mode.”

Jackson said that her granddaughter, who works in the music industry in Nashville now travels with her while touring.

“I couldn’t hold up the schedule I used to keep,” she said. “I’ve toured the world a few times and I still love it. I have full houses, so things are going real good in my career right now.”

As for the biggest moment in Jackson’s career, she said that there have been many but the one that stands out is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.

As for which genre she enjoys singing more, Jackson said she can’t decide.

“I don’t know, I just enjoy singing and entertaining,” she said. “My shows are mostly rockabilly, but I sing rock and roll, country and gospel too.”

Jackson’s autobiography “Every Night is Saturday Night: A Country Girl’s Journey to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” will be released in November.

Over the past few years, she has been working on a new record with her producer Joan Jett. The record is set to release later this year under Jett’s NYC-based label, Blackheart Records.

WANDA JACKSON
WHAT: Wanda Jackson with Nik Flagstar & His Dirty Mangy Dogs
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4
WHERE: Vinyl Music Hall, 2 S. Palafox
COST: $25—$30
DETAILS: vinylmusichall.com