Two years ago, Wanda Jackson announced her retirement. Now, she’s back with her 32nd album, Encore, an impeccably stylish collaboration with Joan Jett that sees Jackson in astonishingly good shape. She says it’ll definitely be her last album… unless she gets bored of retirement a second time around. Let’s hope she does. If you’ve ever wanted to find out more about the life and career of rockabilly’s first lady, check out these 10 things you didn’t know about Wanda Jackson.
1. Her father inspired her to sing
Jackson’s earliest musical inspiration was her father, Tom. A singer himself, he bought Wanda her first guitar when she was 6 years old, arranged for her to take lessons, and encouraged her to play the piano as well. At every opportunity he could, he took her to see acts like Bob Wils, Spade Cooley, and Tex Williams, all of whom helped nurture her growing love for music. When she eventually decided to turn her passion into a career, it was Tom who helped make it a reality. “He understood that fire that was in me, that desire to sing, so he understood why, when I got out of school, I wanted to go on the road,” she’s explained to clashmusic.com.”He just decided that since this was what I wanted to do, he would just go with me and help me do it.”
2. She was talent-spotted by Hank Thompson
In 1952, a teenage Jackson won a local talent contest. The price was a 15-minute daily show on KLPR. It was here that country legend Hank Thompson first heard her sing. He asked her to record with his band, the Brazos Valley Boys. Her duet with Thompson’s bandleader Billy Gray, “You Can’t Have My Love,” went on to become a huge hit, and before she knew it, she was on her way to becoming one of the nation’s first female country and rockabilly stars.
3. Finding religion saved her marriage
In 1961, Jackson married IBM programmer Wendell Goodman. In a rare move for the period, Jackson continued her career after the marriage, while Goodman gave up his to become her manager. It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. As she later explained to timeout.com, by the turn of the ’70s, the couple had hit a rocky patch. In the end, it was finding religion that saved her marriage. “About ten years into our marriage we were on rocky ground and both gave our hearts to Jesus Christ, and that made all of the difference,” she said, “When both of you want to be the leader of the family, you’re bumping heads, and anything with two heads is a monster. When you have Christ as your leader, the couple isn’t fighting.”
4. Elvis was her rock and roll influence
For the first few years of her career, Jackson sang country. That changed when she went on tour with Elvis, who convinced her she had the makings of a rock’n’roll star. She thought he was crazy; her dad didn’t. “My daddy, who was my first manager, wanted me to be open to new things that come along; he thought Elvis was right,” she later said. “We could see his crowds were young people, the excitement they had for his music, and then it got to where you turned the radio on, you couldn’t find anything but that, so we said: ‘Let’s give it a try.’” She did, and while her first few attempts at the genre were slightly tentative, she was soon rocking and rolling with the best of them.
5. She’s a Lady GaGa fan
Jackson may have come to fame in the ’50s, but she’s not stuck in a time warp. She’s recorded with dozens of younger artists over the years, from Elvis Costello to Jack White and Justin Townes Earl. As she told trueendeavorsblog.com, she’s also a huge fan of Lady GaGa. “She’s great! There’s no two ways about it,” she said. “And she knows what it takes to get the attention. It’s harder these days, but she knew how to do it. She’s got a great voice and she’s got a lot of talent.”
6. She retired in 2019
After 65 years on the road, Jackson retired in 2019. It was understandable enough – she’d suffered a stroke, had problems with her knees, and her husband and manager had died two years prior. She was ready, she said, for a rest. The rest didn’t last long. This August, she returned with a bang with her 32nd album, Encore. She thinks the album, which is produced by Joan Jett, might be her last, but she’s making no promises. “Like so many things in my career, you never know. Maybe I could do a duet with someone, or make an appearance somewhere,” she’s ruminated with The Guardian.
7. She was told to tone down her growl
Jackson wasn’t the only female rock’n’roll singer around in the 1950s, but she had something that none of the others had: a filthy, lowdown rasp. Strangely enough, the thing that made her stand head and shoulders above the rest was the very thing her record company most wanted her to lose. A softer tone, they told her, would be more appropriate She reacted by roaring harder and louder than ever.
8. She’s won dozens of awards
Jackson’s popularity may have peaked and waned at various points over her career, but even when her records sales were dipping, the awards kept coming in for both her rock and her country songs. In addition to receiving two Grammy nominations, she’s been honored with acceptance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, The International Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Music and Oklahoma Country Music halls of fame, along with the International Gospel and the German Music halls of fame. She’s a recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship (the highest honor in the folk and traditional arts in the US) and of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association. To top it all, she’s had an alley in Oklahoma City named after her.
9. She’s written an autobiography
If you want to get the inside scoop on Jackson’s life, you can. In 2017, she published her autobiography, Every Night is Saturday Night: A Country Girl’s Journey to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which lifts the lid of her career, her marriage, and her faith.
10. She dated the King
Jackson didn’t just tour with Elvis Presley, she dated him. It was an innocent enough affair though, with the pair spending more time eating hamburgers than doing anything else. “He wasn’t really ready to marry. I wanted my career and he was career oriented too, so we just had fun when we were together,” she told classicbands.com. “When we’d get into a town early enough, we’d catch a movie and go out to get a hamburger after the show. It finally got to where we couldn’t go in a place and eat ’cause they’d start mobbing him. They’d see that Cadillac wherever it was in the town. So, we’d get hamburgers at a drive-in and drive around and eat ’em and talk, like teenagers do.”