An Appreciation of Singer-Guitarist Wanda Jackson, Who Performs at the Rock Hall on July 21

click to enlarge Wanda Jackson (left) with writer Holly George-Warren. - Courtesy of Holly George-Warren
Courtesy of Holly George-Warren
Wanda Jackson (left) with writer Holly George-Warren.
Women have had a huge impact on country music and to celebrate their contribution, the Rock Hall will host a full day of interviews and performances on Saturday, July 21. A 2009 Inductee, singer-guitarist Wanda Jackson will participate in a Hall of Fame series interview with author Holly Gleason, Rock Hall Director of Artist & VIP Relations Shelby Morrison and former Creem editor Deborah Sprague.

Gleason is the editor of Women Walk the Line, a collection of essays about women in country music that the University of Texas Press published earlier this year. Jackson will also perform on the PNC Main Stage. The event runs from 3 to 10 p.m.; consult the Rock Hall website for more details.

In this excerpt from Women Walk the Line, award-winning author and editor, book packager, producer and music consultant Holly George-Warren, a frequent contributor to Rock Hall publications and programs, writes about Jackson’s remarkable legacy. We’ve reprinted a portion of the essay here:

In 1985, Wanda began performing rockabilly in Scandinavia, Germany, and England to ecstatic audiences. A decade later, Texas-born, L.A.-based Rosie Flores, a talented guitarist/singer-songwriter and mover/shaker in the roots-rock scene that included Dwight Yoakam, the Blasters, and Los Lobos, sought out Wanda to sing on her Rockabilly Filly album. Thank you, Rosie Flores, because that’s how I finally got to see Wanda Jackson in the flesh, at New York’s Bottom Line in early 1996.

Wanda hit the stage that night in a bright white pantsuit shimmering with her trademark fringe. By then, I’d viewed bootleg videocassettes of her TV appearances in the fifties on Ranch Party, shaking her skintight go-go dresses while she played guitar and sang. At the Bottom Line, Wanda, then sixty and gorgeous with a big black bouffant ’do, still had that irresistible charisma as she growled “Rock your Baby,” “Hard-Headed Woman,” “Hot Dog!,” “Fujiyama Mama,” “Honey Bop!” and, of course, “Party.” Jumping up and down and bopping along, I hung on to every word she sang. So many years after my initial obsession, there she was — looking and sounding amazing! I was hoarse by night’s end from screaming, but that didn’t stop me from rushing backstage to ask her to autograph my copy of Rockin’ with Wanda, which she signed with the prophetic “Let’s rock on Forever!” I met the wonderful [husband and manager] Wendell [Goodman], and told them both about Trouble Girls, a book on the history of women in rock & roll that I was overseeing as editorial director of Rolling Stone Press. Of course, Wanda was included. I was producing a concert for the book’s 1997 publication, featuring such legends as Ruth Brown and Ronnie Spector. Would Wanda consider performing too?

She was in!

Fast-forward to the following November, and my husband, Robert, led the New York Party-timers backing Wanda at the Manhattan club Tramps. It was a night I’ll never forget: Wanda representing rockabilly and country, alongside her aforementioned peers from girl groups, R&B, early rock & roll (Goldie & the Gingerbreads), and punk (Bush Tetras), and such singer- songwriters as Lucinda Williams, Victoria Williams, and Dar Williams. It seemed almost like a dream, watching sexy Wanda singing “right or wrong” directly to Robert onstage. She was flirting with my husband! That night, Wanda cast her spell on all the guys in the band; they were smitten with her and would accompany her several times over the next few years. Those musical assignations were magical, including one that took place at yet another book publication party, for a kids’ book I wrote called Shake, Rattle, and Roll: The Founders of Rock and Roll, which featured Wanda.

Two months after the Tramps concert, I gave birth to our son, Jack, and guess who sent a beautiful flower arrangement? At seven weeks, Jack got to meet Wanda in person at her SXSW gig in Austin, and she’s remained a presence in our lives ever since. During one of my first trips alone after becoming a mom, I spent a few days at Wanda and Wendell’s home in Oklahoma City while researching a biography of Gene Autry. I was missing Jack and Robert, and Wanda commiserated, telling me how hard it was for her being away from her young son and daughter when she was playing her Las Vegas residency. Though her parents looked after their children back home, Wanda and Wendell eventually left Vegas to spend more time with them.

Of course, at her house, Wanda did everything she could to entertain me. She set up a tape player with a cassette of her dear friend Norma Jean (Porter Wagoner’s early singing partner) by my bed in my lovely guest suite. She showed me her china cabinet filled with mementos from her many trips to Japan, let me strum her original girlhood guitar, and allowed me to thumb through the pages of her scrapbooks. We drove around town in her red convertible (with the top down, of course) while she sang along to a tape of her music. She took me to her favorite wine bar, and we spent an afternoon at the memorial for the victims of the Oklahoma City terrorist attack. There, she charmed a guard who approached us when we strolled through an area with a sign saying “do not walk on grass.” After a few words with Wanda, rather than reprimand us, he took a photo of us together by one of the monuments. Wanda just has that way with people: when she breaks the rules, she’s so sweet about it that you can’t help but let her have her way. I guess that’s what it took to knock down the doors to the boys’ club back in the 1950s.

Since then, I’ve interviewed her numerous times for books, articles, liner notes, and for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame oral history program. Robert wrote her a fabulous song (“I Wore Elvis’ Ring”) that she cut on the 2006 album I Remember Elvis, plus he and the Partytimers backed her for a 2003 live album, recorded in New York and titled Still Alive and Kickin’. Our little circle of Wanda fans has exploded big-time: Elvis Costello, the Cramps, Dave Alvin, and Justin Townes Earle are among the admirers who have recorded with her on Heart Trouble and Unfinished Business. A range of wonderful artists (among them Rosie Flores, Neko Case, Kelly Hogan, Kristi Rose, Jesse Dayton, and Robbie Fulks) contributed to the Hard Headed Woman tribute album I coproduced for Bloodshot. Adele personally chose Wanda to open her first big-time U.S. tour. On his radio show, Bob Dylan called her “an atomic fireball of a lady.” Over the past twenty years, I’ve seen her perform in more than a dozen states in venues running the gamut from a punk club in Tulsa to the venerable Public Hall in Cleveland, and at gigs ranging from a steamy day in Tennessee at Bonnaroo to Late Night With David Letterman, backed by Jack White and his band (who joined her on the acclaimed album The Party Ain’t Over). Most exciting of all, I got to see Wanda inducted by Rosanne Cash into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in April 2009. I was honored to write an essay for the evening’s program, which said, in part:

In 1958, when a gutsy, guitar-playing gal from Oklahoma belted out “Let’s Have a Party,” a mandate for new music, she was the rare woman among the rockabilly cats mixing up rhythm & blues and country & western, creating primal rock & roll in the process. Wanda Jackson wasn’t afraid to step outside the prim confines of a woman’s place in pop — sonically, lyrically, and aesthetically. She snarled, using a “nasty” voice to sing sassy lyrics, when “girl singers” were supposed to sound pretty and look pretty. Instead of going the cowgirl, country lass, or prom queen route, the gorgeous brunette dressed in befringed cocktail dresses that shimmied and shook as she cut the rug onstage. With her unique bluesy yelps and raucous growls, sensual and energized stage presence, and catchy, rhythmic repertoire, Jackson helped change the face of popular music. Today, 55 years after recording her first single, in 1954, Jackson is still rockin’ on stages around the world.

These words hold true today . . .
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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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