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Elvis Presley was the King, but there are others who claim that crown as well, including (with some legitimacy) Little Richard. But there is only one Queen of Rock 'n' Roll, and her name is Wanda Jackson.
So revered is Wanda, in fact, that she's the subject of a tribute CD, Hard-Headed Woman, which was released last October on Chicago's Bloodshot label. The disc is a kind of all-star homage to Jackson -- but all-star, in this case, means that a handful of some of the most interesting alt-honk, alt-swing, alt-whatever musicians on the eclectic fringes of small-case americana have come forward to give the woman and her music their due.
Neko Case teams with Tucson's Calexico and the Valley's own pedal steel virtuoso Jon Rauhouse to cover "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man." North Carolina's Trailer Bride turns a scary Jackson classic, "Fujiyama Mama," into a far less exuberant, and even deadlier, threat. Pocket rocket Wayne Hancock tackles one, and Missouri's critically lauded Bottle Rockets grab ahold of another. Rosie Flores (more on her later), Laura Cantrell, and Kristi Rose (ex-Midnight Walkers) jump in. It doesn't get any hipper. But then, Wanda Jackson deserves nothing less.
If Wanda Jackson hadn't existed, the world would have had to invent her. And as the decades recede, the elements that made Jackson what she is seem almost like the stuff of myth.
In the early 1950s, times were changing rapidly, and there was a rumbling underfoot, as though an invisible mystery train was passing through the nation, 16 coaches long. Country kids were swinging their guitars and pounding their pianos, and as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and the rest of the Fellowship of Sun was dawning, the decade needed a smart and sexy teenage girl who could strum and wail, who could cover Elvis songs like "Let's Have a Party" or Chuck Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" and not look foolish.
Of course, Jackson wasn't the only female kickin' up a fuss back then. There was Lorrie Collins and Janis Martin and Brenda Lee and Rose Maddox. They all stomped and stood their ground against the rockabilly fraternity, but no one stood as tall as Wanda or worked it as well.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Wanda Jackson story is that she did not arrive by way of the deep South, as did so many of the duck-assed hepcats. Wanda's musical legacy came instead from slightly twangier points north and west of the Mississippi, out of the Dust Bowl diaspora. She was born in 1937 in Maud, Oklahoma, which is about an hour southeast of Oklahoma City, west of Bowlegs and east of Slaughterville. Route 66 was just a short hop to the north.
"My daddy had a small band of his own, and he was a fiddle player and singer," says Jackson. "He loved Jimmie Rodgers, and the band did all the hits, whatever was on the radio.
"He and mother met at one of the dances that he was playin' at. Then the Depression came along, and then I came along. We moved to L.A. and Bakersfield for about three or four years, then we moved back.
"But my daddy and I sang together, listened to the Grand Ole Opry together, and then when I began touring, he traveled with me and got to live that dream kind of vicariously through me and my career. I was always grateful for that."
Jackson was discovered by country swing star Hank Thompson in 1954, while still in high school. From that point, everything started moving fast -- she recorded for Decca, was shopped by RCA, and settled in at Capitol Records.
Throughout the '60s, Wanda stayed busy and did well -- she may have downshifted from that time in the '50s when she briefly toured with Elvis, but she sure didn't lose much speed. And Wanda became an even bigger star in Europe and Japan because rockabilly never went out of fashion in those markets. She kept swinging, though she'd move back and forth from country to rockabilly -- sometimes on either side of the same single.
"I had to make sure I didn't lose whatever play I had, which is why I did that," says Jackson. "In the '50s and '60s, people just thought I was a rebel, and it kind of pushed me into a corner. Once in a while, they had to recognize me because of popularity, but nobody really did much of anything for me. Even Capitol Records. I always say I made it in spite of all of that.
"But you know, I was working package shows with some of the teenage idols, but even though I was a teenager myself, I had never worked to the bubblegum set. I sang for adult audiences. The teenyboppers weren't friendly like the country music people. So I was tickled when Capitol said, 'Let's go more in a country direction.' That was fine for me."
Jackson was married in '61 to Wendell Goodman, who continues to manage her career. But they ascribe their longevity to their religion, which became Jackson's primary focus through the '70s. Her music took a strong religious turn, and she and Wendell would barnstorm Southern Baptist churches around the country. Jackson's name would bring them in, and she would perform with recorded background, while Wendell would testify.