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The Long Way Around - Feature from Issue #48 Nov-Dec 2003

Wanda Jackson

She's about a moverWith a powerful voice and a steadfast determination, Wanda Jackson has left an indelible mark on rock 'n' roll

Wanda Jackson is in trouble with the law. It was only a matter of time until the gal who’s always done things her own way, going against the rules if necessary, got nabbed. But wait — the cop is smiling…he’s now posing for a picture with Wanda…he’s walking away waving…

This little incident, which occurred recently in her hometown, on the grounds of the Oklahoma City National Memorial, symbolizes Wanda Jackson’s M.O. in life. She was hardly committing a felony on this bright September day, though she did disregard the rules by hopping over a wire fence with a sign warning, “DO NOT WALK ON GRASS.” But she and a companion had to get a closer look at the metal sculpted chairs commemorating victims of the 1995 bombing attack. Jackson’s sweet, charming demeanor quickly melted the menacing stance of the state trooper on duty. As a fan once wrote in the 1950s, “Wanda Jackson has a really nasty voice, but in person, she’s actually very nice.”

You have to be tough to knock down (or jump over) barriers, after all. And it takes a spectacularly loud voice and a vivid appearance to get noticed when you’re trying to make a place for yourself in a boys’ club like 1950s country music, much less early rock ‘n’ roll. That’s exactly what Jackson did, though it took decades for her to get the acclaim and recognition she deserved for pioneering a raucous style that sounds as fresh today as it did when she cut her first rockabilly records in 1956.

“I’ve been busier this year than I have any year in my entire career,” the vivacious, raven-haired Jackson exclaims, just after performing at September’s Americana Music Association conference in Nashville. She’d already been on a Japanese tour and four trans-Atlantic jaunts, plus U.S. dates nearly every weekend, with a London gig the following week. The Wanda Jackson Show: Live And Still Kickin’, recorded at a New York City club in December 2002, came out in March; in October, she released her first studio album in fifteen years, Heart Trouble, featuring such guests as Elvis Costello, the Cramps, Dave Alvin and Rosie Flores. And a Wanda Jackson tribute album is coming on Bloodshot Records early next year.

Jackson has already been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and there’s a movement afoot to get her on the ballot for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2002, she was the topic of a PBS documentary (Welcome to the Club), a panel at Austin’s South By Southwest conference, and an NPR spotlight. A 1958 performance clip of a shimmying Jackson emoting “Mean Mean Man” constantly attracts a bevy of Country Music Hall of Fame visitors peering at the monitor adjacent to an exhibit of the costume she wore on the “Ranch Party” segment shown onscreen.

Yes, at age 66, Jackson possibly has more fans (three generations’ worth) than she did in 1960 when her signature song, “Let’s Have A Party”, rocketed into the Top 40. Given the recent passing of Johnny Cash, she stands with Jerry Lee Lewis as the only survivors of the high-octane rockabilly scene of the 1950s, and one of the few who managed to segue into a successful country-music career.

Tom and Nellie Jackson met in Maud, Oklahoma, at a dance where Tom played fiddle in the band. On October 20, 1937, a year after their marriage, they were blessed with the birth of Wanda Lavonne, their only child.

From day one of Wanda’s life, music abounded in the Jackson household. Though Tom had to put his fiddling on hold while working two jobs (at a gas station and a bakery), the radio blared Bob Wills’ and the Lightcrust Doughboys’ western swing. In 1942, Tom headed west to California to seek better opportunities for his family. Nellie and Wanda joined him in Los Angeles the following year. Before long, 6-year-old Wanda was singing along with her dad’s Jimmie Rodgers 78s, as well as to the western swing and hillbilly boogie the Jacksons constantly listened to. They took Wanda along to dance halls such as the Riverside Rancho to see Wills, Spade Cooley and Tex Williams. She was entranced.

“My parents loved to dance,” Jackson recalls, “and they danced beautifully. They won a lot of contests out there. In those days, they didn’t use babysitters. That was kind of unheard-of. So everyone brought their children. If you wanted to have a drink, you went into the beer garden — but the dance hall was just strictly dancing, so the kids could stay in there.

“They said that I would stand at the bandstand all night long and just look up there. My neck would nearly be broke from looking straight up. I’d cry when we had to leave. I saw Rose Maddox and the Maddox Brothers somewhere along the way. I don’t remember when; I was pretty young. But it really stuck. She was so feisty, so full of spunk, and they wore all those colorful, sparkly clothes. I said, ‘I gotta be like her.’”

The Jacksons’ next stop was Bakersfield, where Tom took up barbering. He bought Wanda a guitar and started showing her chords. Nellie missed the folks back home, though, so in 1949 the Jacksons packed it in and returned to Oklahoma, settling in Oklahoma City. Tom spent his days selling cars and driving a cab, and his evenings tutoring his daughter’s music lessons, which had expanded to piano.

Wanda became obsessed with Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues”, singing along with it on the radio. By the time she was 13, she sounded like a professional, her strong, distinctive voice belying her youth. After winning several talent shows, she auditioned for an afternoon radio show on Oklahoma City’s KLPR. Hitting all the high notes on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #6″, she got the gig, doing her own 30-minute show at 5:15 every day. In addition to singing on the program, she enlisted sponsors for whom she wrote and announced ad copy.

There she was in 1953, walking to Capital Hill High Monday through Friday with her guitar, then heading straight to the radio station after school. “I never really did care for the teenage things,” says Jackson. “Even in school, I didn’t join — well, I was in the band, that was my only extracurricular activity. I was a twirler and the band queen and the secretary.”

Her new gig brought some important new people into her life. At 14, she met her first beau, Leonard Sipes, a chemistry student at Central State Teachers College and part-time DJ at KLPR. Thinking she was older, he asked her out on a date.

“I asked Mother,” Jackson recalls, “and of course they knew him because he was on the radio station. Since my folks knew him, they said it’d be all right to go to the movie with him.” Soon, Sipes was a fixture around the Jackson home. “He and Daddy got along good, they laughed all the time,” Wanda remembers fondly.

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Originally Featured in Issue #48 Nov-Dec 2003

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