Music feature Kinda fonda Wanda

Rockabilly queen's career has been bookended by help from two Elvises

In 1956, Wanda Jackson made a record that encapsulated the dilemma of her career.

At that point Jackson was a seasoned country singer with a couple of hit records to her credit. But she was also a restless 18-year-old kid who'd toured with Elvis Presley and worn his ring for a time. At Presley's urging, she'd decided to try her hand "at this new music," not yet widely known as rock 'n' roll. To help make her rock move without alienating her country fan-base, Jackson cut a custom-written tune called "I Gotta Know."

Wanda Jackson, as a young rockabilly temptress in 1956.

Jackson calls it her "transition" record, but it was much more than that. Opening as a somber country waltz, "I Gotta Know" abruptly kicks into an amped-up rockabilly beat, with Jackson complaining about a party-animal boyfriend so carried away with rock 'n' roll that he doesn't have time for romance. For the choruses, she whines in a caricaturish twang: "If our love's the real thing/where's my wedding ring?"

What's great about this record is the way it tells us contradictory things about Jackson. Much as she gripes about her steady's need for teenage kicks, her voice tells you that she's having just as much fun as he is. By the end of the song, you're left with the implicit message that country is for domesticated adults while rock 'n' roll is where the real excitement can be found.

Jackson, who's coming to San Antonio to headline a June 4 rockabilly blowout at Sam's Burger Joint, paid a heavy price for her devotion to the rockabilly beat. It took her nearly five years to score a hit on the pop charts (with the epochal "Let's Have A Party"), and she never cracked the Top 20 with any of her rock records. But now at 67, Jackson is remembered not for her country successes but for her rock 'n' roll failures, the string of brilliantly audacious records she made a full decade before Janis Joplin provided rock with its first female superstar.

Wanda Jackson
Dawn Shipley & The Sharpshooters,
The Starlite Wranglers,
Sean Castillo & the Hubcaps,
and more

Sat, June 4
$18 (advance);
$25 (at the door)

Sam's Burger Joint
330 E. Grayson

An only child from Oklahoma who'd been discovered on local radio by Hank Thompson, Jackson never heard rock 'n' roll until her first day on a 1955 package tour that included a Memphis up-and-comer named Elvis Presley. While she felt the music's excitement immediately, she was also fairly startled by its riotous impact.

"I didn't know what was going on," Jackson recalls. "I was in the dressing room and I heard all this screaming and my dad and I thought the place might be on fire. So he went out to check. He came back and said, 'Come here, you've got to see this.'"

She'd met Presley earlier that day and been impressed by his smoldering good looks and his "mannerly, soft-spoken" ways. Presley took a shine - both personal and musical - to Jackson, and worked to convince her that she should record rock 'n' roll. His determination extended to rock tutorials at Graceland, where he played records for her and helped her get a feel for this alien new sound.

"I said, 'I can't do that kind of music. I'm a country singer, that's all I've ever sang,'" Jackson says. "He said, 'I am too. But you can see how the kids like it, and the kids are the ones who buy records.' He was just adamant about it, and I've been forever grateful to him. I don't even know if I would have had the thought about doing it without him."

Elvis Costello, one of Jackson's duet partners on the album Heart Trouble, wrote a letter of recommendation for her to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. He's made the argument that for the Hall to have any meaning, Wanda Jackson needs to be inducted.

Simply being one of rock's first female performers would make Jackson a historical footnote, but what makes her a beloved icon is the manic exuberance of her recordings. For instance, "Fujiyama Mama" should be one of the most offensive tracks ever recorded. With wildly inappropriate lines such as "I've been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too/the things I did to them, baby, I can do to you," it could have single-handedly ruptured Japanese-American relations for the rest of the millennium. But Jackson's vocals are so cartoonishly sassy that it reduces your intellectual defenses to rubble. Need proof? It became a No. 1 hit in Japan, where Jackson remains a revered figure.

Live audiences loved Jackson's rock material, but she ran into consistent resistance from radio, so she eventually reverted to her country roots. In the early '70s, Jackson (along with her husband Wendell) experienced a born-again religious conversion and launched a new career as a gospel singer.

"I was brought up in church but church wasn't important in my life," she says. "My mother took it upon herself to take our kids to Sunday school. So it was through our kids that Wendell and I started going. They wanted us to come with them to hear this new preacher they were just crazy about. That Sunday morning we both gave our hearts to Christ. It just changed everything around wonderfully, because our marriage was in trouble. I knew that changes needed to be made, because I didn't want a divorce and Wendell didn't either. But we didn't know what to do."

These days, Jackson comfortably incorporates rock, country, and gospel in her shows, and her 2003 back-to-basics album, Heart Trouble, found her in exceptional vocal form. Elvis Costello, one of her duet partners on the album, wrote a letter of recommendation for her to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. He's made the argument that for the Hall to have any meaning, Jackson needs to be inducted.

"I've never been real big on these things, but at this point in my life, and after all the ups and downs in my career, it's quite an honor that I'm still being recognized," Jackson says. "I know my husband and fans would like me to be there, so I'd like it for them."

By Gilbert Garcia

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