We could quibble with her website's claim of "The First Female Rock and Roll Singer," but as "The Queen of Rockabilly," that domain is her's alone. Not even an heir or pretender because few women, now or then, would have the courage to stand with her. (Fewer still were as dishy as her: Dig that waist! It'd probably fit in a napkin ring.) In 2011 at the age of 73, and under the able wing of Jack White, Wanda Jackson returned to reclaim the throne that still sat empty.
The story goes that she planned on a career in country music until her friend Elvis told her she should do otherwise. (Previously, the Oklahoma born singer was a regular on the local Missouri TV show Ozark Jubilee. Sound country enough?) She had a few hits in her time including Fujiyama Mama (which makes sport of Japan's atomic holocausts: "I've been to Nagasaki/ Hiroshima too/ the same I did to them, baby/ I can do to you"—apparently, the Japanese could look past uncouth metaphors; it was a big hit there in 1957), Funnel of Love (dig that crazy deep-fried country cum Middle Eastern sound!), and her one entrée into the Top 40, Let's Have a Party.
Even on the country stage she was feisty little broad. Check her early TV performances and compare her to the women around her, those in the cowboy boots and fringey over-the-knee skirts. Wanda's dresses are a little tighter, her necklines much lower, her fringe more strategic, and her lips way more red. But all of that was secondary to her voice, a suggestive down-tuned piccolo rasp, half animal growl, half choir girl, and all spunk. Historically, the critics have ladled on the praise thick as Southern gravy for her accomplishments. As a pioneer and survivor she has no peers. But as for her music, survey some of her You Tube output and note that for all her alleged greatness, you might find yourself disappointed in the way of classic material. She covered a lot of songs already made popular by other artists; It appears the men got first pick on all the best tunes. While her treatments are endearing and contain a trice enough edge and fire to be slightly left of the mainstream, even then she was no Brenda Lee.
Below is a performance from David Letterman with "special guest" Jack White: White's enthusiastic spill-over is more than enough to compensate for whatever time has taken from Wanda's rocking chair vintage voice. Jack might've done with a few less Marshalls. His volume obliterates the horns and nearly Wanda's voice too but, granted, the energy he supplies lifts everyone. Wanda is the grandma we all wished we had, even if her helmet of blackened hair looks like it could stop a bullet (applied with a few ozone holes worth of hairspray, no doubt) and that early spunk has all but (understandably) gone matronly. Still, her smile radiates an undimished 14K brilliance and her characteristic rasp is mostly intact.
The hair may be bigger than life, but then, it's not unlike the woman herself.
Download: Wanda Jackson - Funnel of Love
It appears "the nice lady with the nasty voice" will be getting some of her due afterall.