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Rock on Wanda!

Wanda Jackson
Cadillac Lounge, Queen St. W, Oct. 14, 2005

Click here for photos of her show, and here for photos from her Sep. 29, 2006 show.

UPDATE, Jan. 2009:
Wanda is elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (finally!)



On the first of a two-night stint in Parkdale, the Cadillac Lounge was packed from front to back for the 67 year old “Queen of Rockabilly”. The audience whooped, cheered and sweated while watching Wanda Jackson show the same energy, spunk – and graciousness – she first brought to rock & roll 50 years ago.

She was still dynamite.

"Well you can talk about me, say that I'm mean
I'll blow your head off, baby, with nitroglycerine
 -- “Fujiyama Mama”, written by Wanda Jackson

Wanda has travelled a few roads on her way to Queen Street. Born in Oklahoma, she had her own 15 minute radio show when she was just 12. Before long, she began occasionally singing with country star Hank Thompson, and in 1954 got her first recording contract, doing mainly country love songs. Her life changed the next year when she joined a southern tour package featuring the still-not-famous Elvis Presley.

At her recent show, she talked with great affection and respect for Elvis. They dated for a time, and she told us that the ring he gave her is still her proudest possession. She then asked someone to hold up the Elvis bust sitting on the corner of the Lounge’s bar (one with a cigarette stuck between Elvis’s lips). “I could have said this earlier tonight, but I wanted everyone to hear this. Take that cigarette out!” she said. “Elvis would never have a cigarette”.

Elvis was the one that convinced a reluctant Wanda that she should sing rock ‘n’ roll, and thus the first true female rocker was born.

Wanda didn’t fit into the “girl rock & roll singer mould”. (She didn’t fit into any moulds). In an interview with NOW magazine’s Tim Perlich earlier this year she said, "In those days, a lot of the songs women were singing were 'I'll love you forever' kinda things, while my feeling was more like 'If you don't love me, I'll wring your neck!' I guess I've always had a bit of an attitude.”

One writer wrote that “She developed a wild, growling sound that at times sounds possessed or strangely alien. Basically, she sang like a raving banshee.”

I never kissed a bear, I never kissed a goon
But I can shake a chicken in the middle of the room
Let's have a party, whoooo!!!

 -- “Let’s Have a Party”

She didn’t match the accepted image for female country singers either. She rejected country outfits, preferring her tight dresses and deep red lipstick. Wanda could exude as much sex in her shows as her friend Elvis. She told the story of getting ready for her first Grand Ole Opry show, wearing one of her special dresses, adjusting the neckline just right, but was told she couldn’t go until she covered her shoulders.

The liner notes to her most recent CD (Heart Trouble) compare Wanda to the “respectable” Kitty Wells. “To say Wanda was the complete opposite hardly begins to cover it. … [She] just about declared war on established country methodology. Jackson’s mixture of wild rockabilly passion and her taboo-shattering flat-out confrontational use of a mixed race band was not merely atypical, it was downright shocking, and no other contemporary female performer came anywhere near to pulling off such a magnificently successful affront”.

Wanda’s place in the rock & roll pantheon is ensured by her groundbreaking role for women singers. Lynn Crosbie, in the Globe & Mail in May, 2005 wrote “Without her, Lesley Gore might still be crying; and Loretta Lynn may never have picked up a 2-by-4 when her husband considered catting around with some kitty”.


So it was no surprise that so many women of all ages were at the Cadillac show. Wanda spoke and sang to them often. After the show, she signed endless autographs until almost 2:00 am, and it was enlightening watching the natural and warm interaction, the instant conversation and shared laughter, between Wanda and many women who could be 40 or more years younger than her.

However, her uniqueness was perhaps part of her undoing. Wanda’s time in the rock & roll limelight faded by around 1961. An online bio of her (see links below) wrote, “The fact that she was a young, cute, small-town country girl singing rock 'n' roll was already a bit ‘out there.’ That she sang as if possessed by some sex-obsessed demon was too much for the general public.”

She switched to recording country for a number of years, and became a regular in Las Vegas. Beginning in the 70’s, she recorded a number of gospel albums. (At her Friday show she said that, “June 6, 1971 was the most important day of my life. It was when I invited Jesus Christ into my life”, and then moved into a rousing “I Saw the Light”).

In 1995, alt-country singer Rosie Flores invited Wanda to record with her, and then they joined together on a coast-to-coast tour titled, “Rockabilly Tour U.S.A ‘95”. That was the start of the return of the Queen of Rockabilly.

Ten years later she could be found on stage at the Cadillac Lounge, wowing an audience of all ages.

She ran through many of her old hits, including “Mean, Mean Man”; the audience joined in on all the “Whooo!!’s of  “Let’s Have a Party”. She introduced one of her best-known songs, “Fujiyama Mama” as her first #1 hit – quickly adding that it was #1 only in Japan. “I don’t why they liked it”, she said. “Maybe they didn’t understand the words”. Maybe they understood the spirit. One magazine called it "probably the best female vocal ever done in rock & roll."

I've been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too!
The things I did to them baby, I can do to you!

'Cause I'm a Fujiyama Mama and I'm just about to blow my top!

She also sang a number of songs from her newest CD including “Woman, Walk Out The Door”, recorded with Rosie Flores; “Crying Time” (a duet with Elvis Costello on the CD); and the old Leiber-Stoller Coasters hit, “Riot in Cell Block #9”. She relocated that one into a women’s prison featuring characters like Two Gun Matilda.

But something almost everyone notes about Wanda Jackson was the seeming discrepancy between the wild singer with the rough, tough voice, and the gentle, diminutive (about 5 feet tall), soft spoken, person off-stage. I have rarely seen a performer with such a warm, genuine, intuitive rapport with the audience. Gracious on and off stage, she charmed everyone thoroughly, while exhausting them with her music.

Nobody left that place who didn't feel a heck of a lot better than when they went in.


Get her in the Hall
Recently, Wanda has become the focus of a campaign in the music world. Strange as it may seem to those who know her significant contributions, she is still not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  Elvis Costello is one leading this campaign. (He wrote the Hall saying he’d be embarrassed to see one of his guitars there if Wanda was not in the Hall).

At the Cadillac Lounge, shortly before she went on stage, the club screened a short film which was made expressly for the Hall of Fame delegates that outlined her case.

This is a person who made some great, unique rock & roll songs (a number of which she wrote) at the birth of the music. Her sound was unique, and her role in paving the way for later generations of women singers was utterly invaluable. In the 1950’s, when others turned a blind eye, she stood up to racial intolerance (at least once threatening to walk off stage when a club owner said her black piano player had to leave). For the last 50 years, she has continued to make magnificent rock, country and gospel music, and live out all the good that rock & roll is supposed to hold.

If Wanda Jackson is not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, just what is it for?

If you agree, then please help by writing to:

Joel Peresman
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation
1290 Avenue of the Americas
2nd Floor
New York City, NY 101044

Update: Jan. 2009 -- Wanda has finally been elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!

Final Note
At her Cadillac Lounge shows, Wanda was backed by The Rizdales, a very fine country band from London Ont. They are worth seeing on their own. See

Want more Wanda? Try:

And here is the Cadillac Lounge website