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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

By 1961, after six years of showbiz, Jackson was ready for a bit of stability and companionship. Around that time, her old pal Norma Jean Beasler asked her to spend time with her boyfriend Wendell Goodman, an IBM employee, while she was off in Nashville singing with Porter Wagoner. Jackson and Goodman rapidly fell in love, marrying on October 7, 1961.

“Wendell chose to let me stay in the music business and him join me,” Jackson says, “and I was so glad. He was in computer work, and he had a great future ahead of him — he’s real brilliant. But he said, ‘No, you’ve worked too hard for the success you have now. Don’t throw it away. I’ll quit my work and join you as long as I can be helpful. But I’m not gonna just tag along.’ He proved himself indispensable to me.”

For the next decade, the pair was inseparable. Goodman took on the role of Jackson’s manager throughout the all-night shows in Vegas, constant touring, and continual recording. The couple had two children, who stayed home in Oklahoma with their grandparents while Jackson continued to pursue her career.

That lifestyle eventually took its toll, however, according to Jackson. “Our marriage was in trouble. We loved each other but it was a hard way to live, on the road, with the bands. Other people were raising our children. We knew that wasn’t good.”

As she now relates to her audience during every performance, an important change came in 1971, when she and Goodman became born-again Christians. After doing a gospel album for Capitol, she parted ways with the company and started recording for gospel labels. Rather than honky-tonks, Jackson’s new venues were Baptist churches.

“In the beginning, when word got around that I’d become a Christian and was doing church concerts, they all called us,” says Jackson. “Then, say a church in California wanted us, we’d try to get bookings between California and Oklahoma. I sang and Wendell gave his testimony, and we extended an invitation for people to come to Christ, like Billy Graham does. We got to see a lot of decisions for the Lord in those fifteen years or so. It was a wonderful time.” Rather than charging a fee, Jackson and Goodman took donations from congregants to cover their expenses.

In 1985, some of Jackson’s European fans, starved for her rockabilly and country music, located her and convinced her to tour overseas. She found a loyal fan base, especially in Scandinavia, Germany and England. She recorded with local musicians, performed her secular music, and made a deal with the prestigious Bear Family label to release two box sets of her recordings.

Meanwhile, back home, unbeknownst to her, Jackson had become a cult favorite among a growing number of former punk rockers who’d gone country, and with a batch of retro rockabilly fans who clamored for the real-deal forerunners of hitmakers like the Stray Cats.

“Her attitude and her ‘do it my way or no way’ ethos was an inadvertent template for the punk movement a quarter-century later,” Bloodshot co-founder Rob Miller points out. “Throw in some of her subject matter and her gender, and her mark becomes even greater. The first time I heard Wanda, I didn’t respond to her being ‘the female rockabilly rebel,’ though; I responded to the feral nature of her vocals. I could only imagine how earth-shattering it must have been to hear it thirty years before. It is still powerful stuff today.”

Musicians who currently work with Jackson harbor a similar degree of respect and admiration. The guitarist on Alive And Still Kickin’ is Mark Spencer (Blood Oranges, Kelly Willis, Jay Farrar), whose chemistry onstage with Jackson visibly radiates. “Playing with Wanda is a blast,” says Spencer. “I imagine any guitar player in his or her right mind would be nothing but honored and thrilled to get to play with Wanda.”

The same goes for drummers, according to Dennis Diken (Smithereens) and Will Rigby (dBs, Steve Earle’s Dukes), both of whom have gigged with Jackson. “She just exudes a sense of class and style, but is as down home as can be,” Diken says. “She still has the goods. She still rocks!”

“Playing with Wanda Jackson was one of my top favorite three gigs of my entire career,” Rigby claims. “To see that she could still get the crowd that excited was incredibly thrilling. I had goosebumps the whole show.”

But it was one of the female musicians who fell under Jackson’s sway that coaxed her back into American rock clubs. In 1995, Rosie Flores, who’d been performing since a kid in Texas, sought out Jackson to sing on her Rockabilly Filly album. A tour ensued in which Flores shared the stage with Jackson.

“Getting to know Wanda has been a wonderful privilege,” says Flores. “We have a special bond that I share with no one else. It’s a friendship that can only happen between two gals with the same heart for music and showbiz.”

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Originally Featured in Issue #48 Nov-Dec 2003

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