This week, Ira Sternberg spoke with Wanda Jackson.
Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly and the first lady of Rock and Roll, will be making a rare Las Vegas appearance, headlining at Backstage Bar and Billiards in Downtown Las Vegas Saturday, October 31.
Jackson was born in Maud, Oklahoma on Oct. 20, 1937. She spent her first few years in Oklahoma before her father, Tom Jackson, a country music singer and fiddle player, moved the family to Bakersfield, California in 1941. The Great Depression led many Oklahoma families to the West coast in search of a better life.
In 1943, Tom bought his daughter her first guitar and started teaching her how to play. Jackson’s parents were talented dancers, and would take her to the big bandstand shows to see acts such as Tex Williams, Spade Cooley and Bob Wills. She would stand up front by the bandstand the entire night, mesmerized, while her parents would dance. Seeing these classic performers left a lasting impression on Jackson’s young mind.
When Jackson was 12, she and her family moved back to Oklahoma City. In 1952, she won a local talent contest that landed her a 15-minute daily show on the OKC radio station, KLPR. She would rush over after school every day with her guitar to sing and play to fill her 15-minute slot. KLPR noticed Jackson’s knack for entertaining and quickly upped her show to 30 minutes. This afternoon radio show lasted through Jackson’s high school years and led to her discovery.
King of Western Swing, Hank Thompson, heard Jackson performing on the show one day and called into the station. He asked for Wanda personally. During that conversation, Thompson asked Wanda to join him and his band, the Brazos Valley Boys, in an upcoming performance.
After graduating from Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City in 1955, Jackson hit the road with her father as her chaperon and manager.
When she first started touring, Jackson was placed on the bill with none other than the King himself, Elvis Presley. The two hit it off almost immediately and toured together and briefly dated in 1955 and 1956. Jackson cites Elvis and her father as the ones who encouraged her to sing rockabilly music.
In 1958, Jackson released her rockabilly hit, “Fujiyama Mama,” which skyrocketed her into stardom in Japan. Two years later, she released her version of Presley’s “Let’s Have a Party.” The song soared into the Top 40 charts in 1960 and has remained one of Jackson’s most popular songs since.
Jackson continued to tour regularly and became a Las Vegas attraction from the mid ‘50s into the ‘70s.
2009 proved to be a career-altering year for Jackson, as she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence.
At almost 78 years old, Jackson continues to tour the world. She has recently teamed up with another celebrity producer and is working on releasing a new record next year.