Wanda Jackson was only halfway through high school when, in 1954, country singer Hank Thompson heard her on an Oklahoma City radio show and asked her to record with his band, the Brazos Valley Boys. By the end of the decade, Jackson had become one of America’s first major female country and rockabilly singers.
Jackson was born in Maud, Oklahoma, but her father Tom – himself a country singer who quit because of the Depression – moved the family to California in 1941. He bought Wanda her first guitar two years later, gave her lessons and encouraged her to play piano as well. In addition, he took her to see such acts as Tex Williams, Spade Cooley and Bob Wills, which left a lasting impression on her young mind. Tom moved the family back to Oklahoma City when his daughter was 12 years old. In 1952, she won a local talent contest and was given a 15-minute daily show on KLPR. The program, soon upped to 30 minutes, lasted throughout Jackson’s high-school years. It’s here that Thompson heard her sing. Jackson recorded several songs with the Brazos Valley Boys, including “You Can’t Have My Love,” a duet with Thompson’s bandleader, Billy Gray. The song, on the Decca label, became a national hit, and Jackson’s career was off and running.
When Jackson first toured in 1955 and 1956, she was placed on a bill with none other than Elvis Presley. The two hit it off almost immediately. Jackson said it was Presley, along with her father, who encouraged her to sing rockabilly.
Jackson cut the rockabilly hit “Fujiyama Mama” in 1958, which became a major success in Japan. Her version of “Let’s Have a Party,” which Elvis had cut earlier, was a U.S. Top 40 pop hit for her in 1960, after which she began calling her band the Party Timers. A year later, she was back in the country Top Ten with “Right or Wrong” and “In the Middle of a Heartache.” In 1965, she topped the German charts with “Santa Domingo,” sung in German. In 1966, she hit the U.S. Top 20 with “The Box It Came In” and “Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine.” Jackson’s popularity continued through the end of the decade.
Jackson toured regularly, was twice nominated for a Grammy, and was a big attraction in Las Vegas from the mid-’50s into the ’70s. She married IBM programmer Wendell Goodman in 1961, and instead of quitting the business – as many women singers had done at the time – Goodman gave up his job in order to manage his wife’s career. In 1971, Jackson and her husband became Christians, which she says saved their marriage. She released one gospel album on Capitol in 1972, “Praise the Lord”, before shifting to the Myrrh label for three more gospel albums. In 1977, she switched again, this time to Word Records, and released another two.
In the early 1980s, Jackson was invited to Europe to play rockabilly and country festivals and to record. More recently, American country artists Pam Tillis, Jann Browne, and Rosie Flores have acknowledged Jackson as a major influence. Jackson embarked on a major U.S. tour with Flores in 1995. Jackson returned to the studio in 2010 to begin work on a new album. “The Party Ain’t Over” arrived in early 2011 and while in her seventies she was still touring in 2012.
Interview with Wanda Jackson
Müllerhaus Legacy Website Team
Date Created: January 17, 2012
Date Published: May 6, 2013
Photo Credits: Slideshow images from “Good Guys Wear White Hats, The Life of George Nigh” by Bob Burke
Notes: Recorded by John Erling in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Digital Audio Sound Recording, Non-Music.