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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

Her September session found Jackson sounding as if her pent-up energy had reached its boiling point. She was spewing like Mount Vesuvius, resulting in the rollicking “Honey Bop” (co-written by Mae Axton, Hoyt’s mother and the co-author of “Heartbreak Hotel”) and the combustible “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad”, earlier crooned on disc by Betty Hutton.

“We took a break [during the recording of 'Hot Dog!'],” she later told writer Rich Kienzle for his notes to the 1990 Rhino anthology Rockin’ In The Country. “And I went to the little Coke area. Ken went down there and I was drinkin’ milk. And he said, ‘Put that milk down!…Never, never drink milk when you’re recording. It fogs your throat something terrible!’ So on the record it’s not clear and growly like I wanted.”

Another highlight of the session was “Silver Threads And Golden Needles” (later a hit for the Springfields, starring Dusty, and Linda Ronstadt), which Jackson rendered with an unbridled passion. Her own “Baby Loves Him” seemingly was inspired by her relationship with Elvis.

The following year, Jackson segued between frequent gigging and cutting more rockabilly and country sides, including her catchy co-write with her old friend Vicki Countryman, “Cool Bop”, and the two songs that would become her signature tunes: the incendiary call-to-teenage-arms “Let’s Have A Party”, which unbelievably went unnoticed for two years, and the searing “Fujiyama Mama”, ironically a 1958 smash in Japan, with Jackson hurling out the words, “You can say I’m crazy, so deaf and dumb/but I can cause destruction just like the atom bomb…/And when I start eruptin’/Nobody’s gonna make me stop!”

In 1957, after one of their last performances together, Elvis invited Wanda to his Memphis home on Audubon Drive to commiserate over a stack of R&B records (she’s never revealed the full extent of their relationship). Jackson still reminisces onstage about those days and the ring Presley gave her, but most of all she waxes nostalgic over he music he bestowed upon her.

“Elvis had such a feel for the blues,” she tells the audience on Alive And Still Kickin’ before covering “One Night With You” (a 1958 hit for Presley). “I loved to hear him sing the blues.” Certainly, their listening session made an impact on some of Jackson’s song selections in the late ’50s and early ’60s, including her exhilarating versions of “Riot In Cell Block #9″, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, “Rip It Up”, and “Long Tall Sally”. (She still performs some of them.)

With her constant gigging at dance halls, Jackson needed her own band rather than the pickup players she’d used in the past. She found a rockin’ combo in Dallas’ Bobby Poe & the Poe Kats, featuring Bobby “Poe” Brant, lead guitarist Vernon Sandusky, drummer Joe Brawley, and the poundin’ R&B-styled pianist Big Al Downing, who happened to be black. “I didn’t think a whole lot about [the color of his skin],” says Jackson today, “and Daddy didn’t ever voice any concerns about it to me.

“The main thing [about having an interracial band] was it was so hard on Al. Because we had to hide him in the car when we’d check in a motel and get a room for him. He couldn’t eat in restaurants so we’d bring food out to the car to him. At one of the clubs, when we started playing, the owner came up and said, ‘You’re gonna have to get the black man off the stage, they’re not welcome in here.’ So I said, ‘If he goes, I go’. So he finally gave in and said OK.

“In all the clubs, he couldn’t use the men’s restroom, couldn’t get off the stage to go get a Coke or something. But he was such a charismatic guy that he’d be sitting up there on the piano stool during our breaks and people would go up onstage and start hanging around him and talking to him. That helped and made him feel the people weren’t against him. Al plays on a lot of my early Capitol recordings.”

One of those was another Jackson composition, cut on April 8, 1958, “Mean, Mean Man”, of which writer Nick Tosches once wrote: “The joys of being slapped around were praised through wet lips.” Though Jackson and the Poe Kats got lots of work, chart action didn’t come until 1960, when a Des Moines DJ adopted her “Let’s Have A Party” as his theme song. Requests poured in, and the DJ informed Capitol that a single of the two-year-old number would be a hit. He was right.

Soon after, Jackson followed Thompson to Las Vegas, settling into a lucrative residency at the Golden Nugget and other nightspots. There, after the Poe Kats opted out, she formed a new band called the Party Timers, revolving around hotshot lead guitarist Roy Clark, whom Jackson had discovered in Baltimore. (Which means that Wanda employed both of the future emcees of “Hee Haw” as sidemen in their early days).

Clark joined her in Capitol’s Nashville studio for several sessions in October 1960, adding his exemplary playing to some of her most incredible tracks. For the sultry “Funnel Of Love”, he came up with exotic, echoey sonics. That number’s flip side, Jackson’s own “Right Or Wrong”, got the full-on Patsy Cline-style treatment, propelling Jackson back into the charts and yielding her second-biggest hit (#9 country, #29 pop).

Jackson also completed her “party trilogy” with the numbers “There’s A Party Goin’ On” and “Man We Had A Party” (surely inspired by her new Las Vegas lifestyle). On the barnburner “Hard Headed Woman”, Clark played an “astonishing solo,” so described by music historian Colin Escott, “that must have had every other picker in the city of pickers shaking their heads.”

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Originally Featured in Issue #48 Nov-Dec 2003

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