Wanda Jackson is loud. Her brash voice snarls at the listener as much as it preens her own ego, lashing out at lackluster lovers and glorifying her own sexual prowess. In the 1950s and ’60s, the “queen of rockabilly” owned the raunchy music of youth after being turned onto the genre by none other than former flame Elvis Presley. Whether she was the first woman to actually step behind the mic and sing rockabilly, like the legend says, Wanda Jackson’s still-strong career spearheaded women’s involvement in rock music.
After a radio station played her gentle country tunes in the late ’50s, Oklahoma City country star Hank Thompson invited her to join in on practice with his band, the Brazos Valley Boys. One thing lead to another, and eventually Jackson recorded a major hit, “You Can’t Have My Love,” with Thompson’s bandleader, Billy Gray. As the legend goes, Capitol Records refused to sign Jackson because she was a woman, so she turned to Decca Records and soon was touring with none other than future beau Elvis Presley.
Elvis told Jackson to break out of the old-fogey country music she was playing and to start playing rockabilly. Jackson started edging towards the raw new sounds, all while keeping one foot in the country pool, and finally caught the ear of Capitol Records in 1956. The signing lead to a deluge of classic singles—this is the part of the movie where records come spinning toward the screen, cut with shots of screaming fans—often split with one side being a rockabilly cut and the other a country song.
Perhaps taking a cue from now-former lover Elvis Presley, Wanda Jackson sang mostly about one thing: sex. Her songs breathed with a sexual fervor unseen from young women at the time; “Fujiyama Mama” compares her sex to the volcano, as well as the atom bombs dropped on Japan (biographies of her feel necessary to point out that “Mama” sold like hotcakes in Japan, as if it that makes the song’s metaphor okay. #culturalimperialism). Other songs dealt with how to keep men coming back for more—“That Made Him Mad” suggests that the best way to get a man to return is to date his best friend (your mileage may vary).
Rockabilly music became one of the few places for sexual expression in the late ’50s (its musicians, including Jackson, were indebted to African-American blues singers of the early 20th century). Here, Jackson didn’t bother with the stuffy country and western garb of other women singers at the time—Jackson repped pencil skirts, high-heels and low-hanging earrings that made her feel comfortable. She also rocked the pantsuit (!), putting her in a special league of internationally famous pantsuit-lovers. In a straight-up John Waters-esque cultural clash, the Grand Ole Opry wouldn’t even let her onstage until she agreed to cover her lascivious shoulders.
Jackson and White are pretty adorable in this video together.
Fast forward forty years, one talk show host stint, and one Christian rebirth (among other things), and Jackson is still pushing strong. She just released an LP produced by Jack White last year (although I would have killed to see her pull a Mary Weiss and play with Greg Cartwright), and re-recorded her classics with punk legends the Cramps and Dave Alvin of the Blasters. Not only is she an inspiration for women, she’s an inspiration for people of all ages! How many 74-year-olds do you know that still tour in a rock band?