Queen of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson Is Gonna Rock Until You Drop

Wanda Jackson

Wanda Jackson

If there exists a first lady of rock ’n’ roll, it’s Wanda Jackson. Or should we say, she’s the first lady in rock ’n’ roll:  Back in the 1950s, when a ponytailed Patti Page was crooning “How Much is that Doggie In the Window,” Jackson was wearing rhinestones and fringe, twanging a guitar and growling, “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad.”

A 2009 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Jackson’s career has spanned genres and decades–how many artists have shared bills with Elvis and Adele? At 78, Jackson is celebrating her 60th year of virtual nonstop recording and touring, which includes an October 31 show at Backstage Bar & Billiards. As she says, “All of my life I have never made a penny doing anything but singing.”

It was a path she chose early on. “On the weekend, Mother and Daddy loved to dance. They went to see some great country bands like Bob Wills, and they took me with them,” she recalls. “They just let me stand by the bandstand—they say I’d stand there all night. I loved the music. My favorite part was the girls. All bands had at least one girl, and they dressed up in these shiny western outfits. And I thought, ‘I’m going to be a girl singer.’”

Jackson began in country, but became intrigued by a new style of music—and the young musician who was leading it. “I graduated high school in ’55 and Daddy was gonna help me with my career. The very first tour he was able to book me on was one with Elvis Presley. This kind of rockabilly—as it became known—it wasn’t popular yet in Oklahoma, so I had never heard Elvis or that kind of music. It was so fresh and new, and it was spreading.”

“By ’56-’57, I got to work with him through those years. He’s the one that encouraged me to try rockabilly. I said, ‘I can’t sing that, Elvis, I’m a country singer and, aside from that, I’m a girl.’ He said, ‘Sure you can. I know you can sing it. I think you would like it.’ He commenced to give me an idea of how he’d take a country song and put a little tilt on it to make it rockabilly. It was interesting, but it was a challenge. That’s how I became the first girl to sing rockabilly—on a dare, almost.”

Rockabilly helped Jackson top the charts from the U.S. to Sweden to Japan, but eventually her career turned more toward country and gospel. Still, fans never forgot tracks such as the boisterous “Let’s Have a Party” and the sultry “Funnel of Love,” and even more have discovered them.

“The Internet has spread my music like wildfire,” she says. “It’s been a real godsend for me.”

Part of Jackson’s enduring appeal is that she’s always seeking new collaborators and a new sound. “In about 2010, I got a call from Jack White and he is way out on rock. So that proved, ‘Hey, I’m ready for this new kind of music.’ He picked out some older songs for me, but helped me sing them in a more contemporary sound. That was a real challenge, but I loved working with Jack.” That album, The Party Ain’t Over, expanded Jackson’s audience even further.

For her next disc, Jackson has turned to another legendary lady from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“I’m now working to get an album under way with Joan Jett. That’s our next project. She’s in New York and I’m in Oklahoma, so the logistics are a problem. We’re just gathering material now.” This collaboration will also mark Jackson’s return to songwriting: “I hadn’t written in ages,” she says. “I thought I would watch, maybe make a suggestion here and there—I wound up jumping right in the boat!”

It should come as no surprise that Jackson’s far-ranging career has also brought her to Sin City, starting back in the ‘50s. “I began singing in Vegas at the Showboat,” she recalls, “When we had “Let’s Have a Party” released—all of a sudden I was in demand, so my manager at the time moved me up to the Golden Nugget.”

She still gets a kick out of playing Vegas. “My husband and I will take a few days to just stay in Vegas and play and see the shows,” she says. “I’ll have some play days and then a work day: I’ll take that anytime.”

And that includes this All Hallows’ Eve.

“It’s going to be fun to be in Vegas on Halloween,” Jackson says. “Do they get any wilder than they already are?”

Wanda Jackson

with Delta Bombers, Yawpers, Shanda & the Howlers, DJ Lucky LaRue and Catman

8 p.m. Oct. 31, Backstage Bar & Billiards, $25, 702-382-2227, BackstageBarAndBilliards.com.

UPDATE: The print version of this story lists Eddie Bear and the Cubs as an opening act. They have since been replaced with Shanda & the Howlers.