CATCHING UP WITH ... WANDA JACKSON

Action Jackson - Wanda Jackson's still carrying the rockabilly torch

She was dubbed the "female Elvis" for her hip-swiveling stage moves. She's been described as "a very sweet lady with a nasty voice." And at her Grand Ole Opry debut, she was told her "daring," spaghetti-strap dress was too suggestive - and she had to cover her bare shoulders with a coat before stepping onstage.

But no one could ever cover up the spark and energy of Wanda Jackson, a country hitmaker and rockabilly pioneer.

"My daddy said, 'Just rare back and give it all you've got!' " declares Wanda of the unique raspy-yet-angelic singing style she developed. In the '50s and '60s, she hit the country Top 10 with "In The Middle Of A Heartache," "You Can't Have My Love" and "Right Or Wrong." And she's had enduring success as one of the first female rockabilly stars - before the genre even had a name.

"People expected men to do something different," recalls Wanda of the part-country, part-rock tunes that evolved into rockabilly. "But when girls got into this field that was strictly male dominated at the time, it was newsworthy and shook everybody up. They said, 'What are we gonna do with this?' "

Wanda found herself in the company of rockabilly stars like Carl Perkins and even Elvis Presley, whom she toured with in 1955 - 56. She quickly established a reputation as a powerhouse performer. Audiences loved to hear her shake the house with songs like "Let's Have A Party," "Fujiyama Mama" and "I Gotta Know."

As the '70s neared, Wanda focused her career on gospel music. But in 1985 rockabilly experienced a rebirth in Europe - and so did she. "It seems like the music never died over there," notes Wanda, who began making yearly trips overseas. "These fans are true fans and record collectors. They know things about my recordings that I'd forgotten!"

In 1995, Rosie Flores invited Wanda to sing on her album Rockabilly Filly. "Through that album, the rockabilly fans in America found out I was still alive and singing," says Wanda. "Rosie set up a five-week tour for us all across the country. I had no idea all these fans were out there. The rockabilly cult is alive and well in America. I was really shocked."

This month PBS is airing Welcome To The Club - The Women Of Rockabilly, a special on Wanda, Brenda Lee, Janis Martin, Lorrie Collins and others. Wanda attributes the long-lasting appeal of rockabilly to the simplicity of the music. "We got put down for it in the '50s because they thought it was bad stuff," she explains. "But these days, in comparison, the music was very innocent."

Wanda - inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2000 - still keeps a busy touring schedule with 100 shows a year. And this proud grandmother of four wouldn't have it any other way.

"I have never earned a penny doing anything but singing," she reveals. "I love it. It's what I do. When I'm not on the road I'm like a fish out of water.

"When you stop and think about it, I travel the world over, I go first class, I stay in five-star hotels. What would I retire from?" she says, laughing. "That's what most people retire to do - see the world.

"And I get paid to do it!"

-- Wendy Newcomer

Comments