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March 21-28, 2007

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Wanda Jackson

The female Elvis, only better: Unlike her old pal Presley, Wanda Jackson is alive and well and still proving herself the queen of rockabilly, gospel and all points between.

God Swing the Queen

Wanda Jackson keeps the rockabilly torch alive

By Paul Davis

She's been named the queen of rock & roll and rockabilly, the first woman in rock, even the prototypical riot grrl. She was a bad-ass woman hitting stages and putting a swivel in her hips back when even a male like Elvis doing so was considered to be an omen of the end of civilization. But if you're not familiar with the name Wanda Jackson, you're not alone--even the gatekeepers at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame have deigned that Eddie Van Halen deserves to be enshrined as a rock icon more than the fearless and trailblazing Jackson.

Jackson is often remembered for her close ties to the king of rock & roll himself, Elvis Presley--not surprising in a business where, even after 50 years, women have yet to fully earn their due. But in 2005 another Elvis came to advocate for Jackson. In an open letter to the Hall of Fame, Elvis Costello called for her induction, stating "she was standing up onstage with a guitar in her hands and making a sound that was as wild and raw as any rocker, man or woman, while other gals were still asking, 'How much is that doggy in the window?'"

Costello's open letter inspired a groundswell of support, but two years later, Jackson still goes unrecognized while Diamond Dave is yucking the plaudits up in his sagging pink leotards. For her part, Jackson is largely unfazed.

"For some reason, I've been overlooked by the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame," she says. "I've been in every other one, even the German Country Music Hall of Fame!"

Still, Jackson remains more bemused than frustrated, and notes that while she would of course appreciate the honor, she'd like to receive it mostly on behalf of her fans and her husband Wendell Goodman, who has organized a vigorous campaign for her induction.

"My fans are outraged," she explains. "I would like to see it happen, but for my fans and my husband--they have worked very hard for it."

The 70-year-old Jackson has more pressing concerns, like hitting the road with the same rockabilly two-step that she and her former beau Elvis Presley claimed as their own a half-century ago. Jackson's most recent album pays tribute to her one-time boyfriend and the man who encouraged her to find the snarling rock & roll soul that lay behind the demure country persona she had displayed on her early Decca releases. I Remember Elvis finds Jackson returning to the prototypical rockabilly sound that Presley encouraged her to explore.

"I did a lot of tours with Elvis," Jackson says. "We were dating and he took me to his house and played albums and showed me what he would do with a song. He tried to make me stretch out from country; he seemed to feel I had a knack for it."

Coming from a traditional country background, Jackson was initially hesitant, but at the urging of Presley and her father, she knew she had "found a niche, and was able to sell the songs."

Jackson hit the road with Presley straight out of high school, but found that during an era when most women performers were still emulating the likes of Patti Page, she was at a loss for material. "I graduated in '55," she says, "and started working with Elvis then. I couldn't find songs being written for girls, so my dad said I'd just have to start writing them myself." Jackson sat down and began writing songs that countless women would perform after her, building up a repertoire from scratch at a time when it was extremely rare for performers to write their own material.

Jackson didn't hit big in America as a rock singer until 1960 with "Let's Have a Party," although she had already racked up novelty hits in Japan (with the scandalous atomic age hips-shake "Fujiyama Mama") and Germany, all while her American rock releases languished on the shelves. And though she finally made a splash in the American rockabilly world after five years of laying down the sassy and brassy ground rules for all women rockers who followed her, Jackson was to find her greatest success in the country and gospel genres. By the time "Let's Have a Party" hit the charts, all that groundwork she had laid down was shifting underneath her. "Our type of rock had already begun to change," says Jackson. "Rock music had turned the industry upside down, and everything was in turmoil. As kids we were laughing at it all, but Motown was coming in and country was changing drastically as well."

Recognizing the sea change in the industry, Jackson moved toward the lush arrangements of the new-style country and enjoyed some of her biggest hits, though she takes care to note that she still released rock singles until the mid-'60s. As she settled into a successful country career, Jackson became increasingly involved in her Christian faith and moved toward gospel. "I became a Christian at the peak of my career in country music," she says. "Capitol let me record one gospel album. The next year, I wanted to do another and they said, 'No, we didn't sign you as a gospel artist.' I thought I could do all of the styles, but I think my country and rockabilly fans thought I'd died or fallen off the face of the Earth!"

For most of the '70s and '80s, Jackson and her husband retreated to their own ministry and released modest gospel records for 15 years. But when a record producer in Scandinavia approached Jackson to do a rockabilly and country album in the early '90s, she jumped at the opportunity. "I had missed the secular music world," she explains.

Since then, Jackson has enjoyed something of a resurgence, hitting the road on a rockabilly tour with Tex-Mex siren Rosie Flores in '95 and never looking back. In the past decade, she has at last realized her desire to devote her musical efforts equally to gospel and the secular worlds of country and rock & roll.

But there's still that small matter of getting her just dues from the Hall of Fame. And while Jackson is flattered by the adulation of her acolytes, she recently received an honor that, for her, eclipses that of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. In September 2005, Jackson was given the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship. And while awards from the German Country Music Hall of Fame and the like are great, it's this honor in particular that truly makes her feel that her efforts have been recognized.

"It's the most prestigious award a musician can have bestowed on them by their country," she says with a tone of reverence.

For the one-time lightning rod and grand dame of the rockabilly world, the award counts as another first-time milestone for women she can cross of the list.

"I saw the roster of inductees, she says. "There were no girl country singers or rock & roll singers in there at all. ... I was flabbergasted!"

Wanda Jackson performs Thursday, March 22, at 8pm at Don Quixote's Music Hall, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. Tickets are $14 advance/$16 at the door. For more information, call 831.603.2294.

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