I hope you aren’t tired of articles about Elvis-connected people who were recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, because there is one more. Elvis had a lot to do with Wanda Jackson becoming the first queen of rock and roll, as the Hall website calls her. Like many other Wanda Jackson fans, I believe this Hall of Fame recognition was long overdue. Her cause has been championed for years by Bruce Springsteen and a number of other notable rockers.
Unfortunately, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame decided to induct her into the “Early Influences” category, rather than as a “Performer.” How stupid! As the first queen of rock and roll, she was one hell of a performer.
Let’s look at the story of Wanda Jackson. In 1955, she was an seventeen-year-old aspiring country singer, with some minor hits to her credit and a half-hour radio show on KLPR in Oklahoma City. In July, she was booked on one of those packaged touring country music shows that were popular in the fifties. It was here that she met a young male singer from Memphis who had a new sound and a controversial stage presentation. His name was Elvis Presley, and they became fast friends. Wanda and Elvis performed in other touring shows in August and October, 1955, and again in early 1956.
Elvis and Wanda dated a bit, but her dad was her manager on the road, so things never got hot and heavy between the young singers. In an interview in Rolling Stone magazine, she said, “Our dating amounted to what we could do on the road. If we got in town early, we might take in a matinee movie. Then, after the shows, we could go places with his band — and my dad, of course… It was very important, a girl’s reputation, in those days. There were things you could and couldn’t do, and my daddy made sure I never crossed the line.”
Elvis urged Wanda Jackson to branch out and try rockabilly music. He said, “It’s the next big thing, and you need to be singing it.” She took his advice and decided to try her hand in this wild new world of rockabilly. “He broke my train of thought and made me realize I could stretch myself.”
Her first step in this direction was recording a rockabilly song on Capitol Records titled “I Gotta Know.” Although it received much airplay on country music stations and even reached the Top 10, she was actually making her move into rock and roll. After that, Capitol played it safe by releasing 45s with a fiery rockabilly number on one side and a country song on the other.
The rockabilly songs are what made her mark in music history. As Rolling Stone said, “Her songs were full of vinegar. She sang them all with gravel-throated gusto.” The Smithsonian Institution would later refer to her as the sweet lady with the nasty voice. The Rock Hall website says, “Jackson’s rockabilly recordings – including such red-hot fifties sides as “Hot Dog,” “That Made Him Mad,” “Rock Your Baby,” Mean Mean Man,” and “Honey Bop” – are among the greatest ever made.”
However, at the time, these songs did not have great commercial success, and full rockabilly stardom eluded her. “I was ahead of my time,” Jackson has said. “They were only beginning to accept men doing what was thought of as being this very wild and rebellious music; they sure weren’t going to accept a young lady singing this! It then took me until 1960 to get a hit.”
That hit was “Let’s Have A Party,” which Elvis fans know he originally recorded for the movie Loving You in 1957. Jackson liked the song and recorded it in 1958 for her self-titled first album. She was backed by one of the tightest rockabilly bands there has ever been: Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps. The song went unnoticed for two years.
Wanda's First Album Wanda and Gene Vincent
In 1960, a Des Moines disc jockey discovered the song and started using it as the theme song for his radio show. Soon, it was getting airplay everywhere, and it went on to be a Top 40 hit. However, by this time Wanda had given up on rock and roll and had gone back to her country music roots. Her next two releases were “Right or Wrong” and “In The Middle of a Heartache.” Both barely made it into the rock and roll Top 40, but they achieved Top 10 success on the country charts.
Wanda Jackson went on to have great success in other countries. Her novelty song “Fujiyama Mama” became her first number one hit – in Japan. Europe embraced rockabilly music in the sixties, and Wanda recorded an album in German in 1965 which lead to another foreign number one ranking with the song “Santo Domingo”. Later, she recorded and toured as a gospel music artist, performing mainly in American Baptist churches. In the mid-80s, she returned to her rockabilly and country songs on several European tours.
Since 1995, Wanda Jackson has had a full schedule of touring in this country. In 2007, she recorded an album in tribute to her old friend titled I Remember Elvis. “[Elvis] has been a big part of my life. I worked with him and loved him very much for the person that he was, so it only seemed right that I should do a special tribute to him. I chose the songs he was singing when I was working with him in the fifties, and that gave it purpose. At the end of the CD, I also tell stories about my remembrances of the first time I met him, the first night I worked with him, and the last time I saw him.”
So, after she chalked up nearly fifty-five years as a performer, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally recognized Wanda Jackson. In spite of calling her “The First Queen of Rock and Roll,” and declaring her rockabilly recordings are among the greatest ever made, the Hall did not induct her as a “Performer” like Elvis, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins Buddy Holly, and all her other contemporaries in the late-50s and early-60s. What were they thinking when they put her in the “Early Influences” category. She joined the ranks of great artists like Billy Holliday, Jelly Roll Morton, Mahalia Jackson, and T-Bone Walker, so she is in good company. But, these folks performed in the 30s and 40s. They really were early influences.
It is true that Wanda Jackson has been a big influence on the music of this country. But, she was out there on stage with the best of them in the early days of rock and roll, including Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, all recognized as “Performers” by the Hall of Fame, not “Early Influences.” For my money, Wanda Jackson was, and is, a great performer. Check her out on this video of “Let’s Have A Party.”
Now that I’ve had my rant, I’m going to forget about this category thing and just regale in the fact that Wanda Jackson is finally in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’ll bet her friend Elvis is happy about it, too.
© 2009 Philip R Arnold, Original Elvis Blogmeister All Rights Reserved www.ElvisBlog.net