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Before we talk about Wanda Jackson, let's first speak of Nick Tosches, one of the greatest rock & roll scholars (and stylists) music writing has ever known. He felt Jackson was a vitally historic figure, and he wrote many impassioned things about her—things that would probably make her kind of mad. He famously called her the greatest menstruating rock & roll singer the world has ever known, but he underlined the point by explaining that at "not even 20 years old, she sounded like she could fry eggs on her G-spot."
These are not the kind of things you'd say to the Wanda Jackson of 2012—or even to the Wanda Jackson of 1956, actually. Back on the road and back on vinyl after Jack White coaxed her to Memphis to make a brand-new record on his Third Man Label last year, she's more a self-effacing, self-described "busy grandma." She was never the bad girl her label made her out to be, she says. "I always acted like a lady—I still do to this day!"
But please excuse the crudity of Mr. Tosches' sentiment. It's just that . . . that voice can do things to one's better judgment. And that's because of what Tosches and probably any other person who ever heard the first 15 seconds of any of Jackson's particularly ferocious Capitol 45s calls . . . the growl.
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Rock & roll is and was full of wildmen who just loved to throw back their heads and holler as though they were werewolves under a full moon, but Jackson was in a class (or species?) all her own. Let's check the first seconds of "Fujiyama Mama," a classic about a girl who can atomize entire cities: "I'veeeeeee-a been to Nagasaki/Hiroshima, too/The same I did to them, baby/I can do to you!" By the end of the first sentence, she's gone nuclear, and that's before she starts demanding tobacc-y to chase the dynamite she has just finished smoking. It's one of the most fundamental American rock & roll songs of all time, and as Jackson tells it, it almost never happened.
"They were trying to tone me down on 'Fuijyama Mama,'" she recalls. "But I thought, 'Hey, what are we afraid of?' My daddy just said, 'Rear back and sing this thing the way you want to sing it! Don't pay any attention to your producer!' And the songs just brought it out of me."
She hadn't started out as a rock & roll singer—well, more correctly, rockabilly singer—because in 1954, there wasn't really rock & roll for people to sing yet. Instead, she signed while underage to cut country records for Decca, after Hank Thompson heard her on an Oklahoma City radio station. She'd played piano and sang the same way her father had done, before the Depression and marriage and the birth of baby Wanda put him on a straighter path. ("I came along, and that stopped everything," she says with a laugh now.) But just after her high-school graduation, she went on her first tour with this guy named Elvis Presley, who before her eyes and those of the world pretty much cracked the 1950s wide open. "Here he comes along, something no one had ever seen before, and I was right there while it was happening," she says.
Not only would they date—seriously enough that her dad allowed Elvis to take her out for burgers and matinees unchaperoned—but it was also Elvis who personally convinced her to switch from being a girl country singer to . . . the growl. "He cared enough to challenge me to get in on it—to do this kinda music!" she says. "I said, 'I can't! I'm country!' He said, 'You CAN do it.'" And my daddy said, 'I think Elvis is right.'"
The rest isn't so much history as destiny. One of Jackson's definitive compilations is called Queen of Rockabilly, as neat a way as any of putting it. On slow songs and fast, through breakneck rockabilly or slinky bad-girl B-sides, there was always that growl: "It's such a crazy, crazy feeling/. . . It's bound to get you some day," she (of course) growled on her famous "Funnel of Love," a song quite possibly written to describe exactly the effect she had on anyone who heard her. And yes, if you wondered—she still sounds just the same today. After 50 years of recording, she hopes to put just one thing through: "Be yourself," she says. "Don't let people dictate to you. I was not gonna do it their way! I'm the artist, and I'll do it my way!"
This article appeared in print as "The Growler: Wanda Jackson isn't called the Queen of Rockabilly for nothing."