Wanda Jackson's debut single, "You Can't Have My Love," reached the Top 10 while she was still a sixteen-year-old high school student. She hit the road after graduation, playing package shows with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, who gave Wanda his ring and asked her to be "his girl." With Presley's encouragement, the Oklahoma native began recording rock music, often releasing singles with country on one side and rock on the other during her decade-and-a-half tenure on Capitol Records.
Known for her energetic stage shows and pioneering presence as a female artist, Wanda stormed the charts with a series of hit singles, including "Let's Have a Party," "Right or Wrong," and "In the Middle of a Heartache." With more than 40 albums to her credit, Wanda has proven to be an enduring and genre-defying legend of American music.
In Every Night is Saturday Night, Wanda tells her own story of getting discovered by Country Music Hall of Famer Hank Thompson; shy she refused to return to The Grand Ole Opry for more than fifty years; the challenges she and her integrated band, The Party Timers, faced in the early 1960s; finding the love of her life; her recent work with rock luminaries Jack White and Joan Jett; and how her deep faith has sustained her over more than seven decades of rocking, shocking, and thrilling audiences around the globe.
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About the Author
Known as the queen of rockabilly, Wanda Jackson combined grit with glamour to set a new template for country music's "girl singers" of the 1950s. With urging from Elvis, she soon showed the world that girls could rock, too! Wanda landed more than 30 singles on the country and pop charts between 1954 and 1974. She is a multiple Grammy nominee, a recipient of the Americana Music Association's Lifetime Achievement Award, and a 2009 inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Scott B. Bomar is an award-winning writer who has authored or co-authored several books, including Southbound: An Illustrated History of Southern Rock; The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country; and The "Odessey": The Zombies in Words and Images. He earned a Grammy nomination for his liner notes to the rockabilly compilation The Other Side of Bakersfield, and co-hosts the podcast, Songcraft: Conversations with Great Songwriters.
Elvis Costello is a Grammy award-winning musician whose career spans almost four decades. His first three albums all appeared on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. A prolific singer-songwriter, Costello has gone on to release a long list of critically-acclaimed albums, and in 2003 was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
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My mother was born Nellie Whitaker on December 19, 1913, in Hickory, Oklahoma. Her parents, William and Grace, both hailed from Denton, Texas, but were married in Rush Springs, Oklahoma, in 1909. They moved to the town of Roff, Oklahoma, around 1916, where my grandfather worked as a farmer.
My father, Tom, was born on March 24, 1915, in Texas. His parents, Will and Maud, were from Missouri and Texas, respectively. My paternal grandfather only made it through the fifth grade, and the Jackson family really struggled financially. Mother used to say that when she first realized how hard Daddy had it growing up, she felt sorry for him. They were as poor as people can possibly be, but one thing Daddy did have was a deep love for music. He began playing guitar and fiddle from an early age.
Mother was still living in Roff as a young woman in the early 1930s, but, at some point, she traveled to Maud, which is about sixty miles east of Oklahoma City, to visit her sister, Edna. Even though my aunt's name was Edna, everyone called her Polly. That's the thing about country people. You have to work to keep up with all the various names! I haven't even told you about my Aunt Electa yet. But we'll get there eventually.
The little city of Maud was established in the late 1800s and straddles Pottawatomie and Seminole Counties in central Oklahoma. I've been told that it was on the dividing line between Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory, and that a barbed-wire fence once ran along Broadway to keep the Indians from crossing that border. The town was named for Maud Sterns, who was the sister-in-law to the owners of the local general store. By the early 1900s there was a post office, a train station, and a newspaper. When oil was discovered in the 1920s, Maud became a boom town, and the population of a few hundred residents soon swelled to as many as 10,000. By the time Aunt Polly was living there, things had settled down considerably, and the population was less than half what it had been in its heyday.
One Saturday night Polly suggested that she and Mother go out to a dance. My daddy was the leader of a little band that was performing that night, and he spotted Mother as soon as she arrived at the dance hall. During one of the songs Daddy turned to his brother, who was also in the band. "You take over for a minute," he said. "I've gotta go meet this girl, but I'll be back soon." He climbed down from the bandstand, made his way across the room, and asked Mother if she'd like to dance. I guess that was it for both of them. Mother was a beautiful woman, and Daddy was quite a handsome guy in his younger days. They both adored music and loved to dance. It was love at first sight.
Mother and Daddy married in 1933 and made their home there in Maud. My father worked various jobs and played music on the side. He was working at a gas station by the time I came along on October 20, 1937. He soon found work driving a delivery truck for a bread company.
I was born prematurely, and my family says it was the last time I was early for anything! They tell me I live on rock-and-roll time. Mother was scheduled to have a C-section, which was pretty unusual at that time. I'm not entirely certain what sort of complications she had during her pregnancy, since people really didn't discuss those matters openly in those days. I do know that she had a very difficult time. The plan was that I would enter the world at a hospital in Oklahoma City, but when Mother unexpectedly went into labor, she had to stay in Maud. That's where I was born on October 20, 1937.
Mother wanted to name me Roberta, because my dad's middle name was Robert. He wouldn't have it. I don't know where he came up with it, but Daddy said he always wanted to have a daughter, and he declared, in no uncertain terms, "Her name is Wanda. It's got to be Wanda." Since he was set on the first name, Mother came up with my middle name, which is Lavonne. I don't know why it wasn't Roberta. Maybe she thought she'd save that name in case she had a second daughter.
But another child was not part of the plan for the Jacksons. Not only was Mother's pregnancy difficult, but natural childbirth was an extremely painful challenge for her. She was always number one for Daddy, and when he saw what a problem she had, he didn't want her to ever risk going through that kind of pain and discomfort again. He went to the "chopping block," as he called it, so there would be no chance of Mother getting pregnant a second time. And, with that, Wanda Lavonne Jackson's fate as an only child was sealed.
A lot of people have asked me over the years if I feel like I missed out by not having brothers and sisters around. I didn't know any different. Truth be told, I kind of enjoyed being the center of attention. I think being an only child helped me grow up a little faster. I wasn't real interested in kid things, even when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time around adults, so I was like a little adult very early on. Even though it's the only thing I ever knew, I don't think I would have wanted it any other way. Mother and Daddy put all their focus and energies on me, which is almost certainly the main reason I would later be successful in my music career.
Even though I remember very little about my early childhood, I've always thought of Maud as my hometown. In the late 1980s the city launched an annual Wanda Jackson Day. There was a parade, a carnival, food vendors, a car show, and booths with handmade crafts for sale. The festivities would culminate with a big concert in the evening, featuring some of my Nashville friends whom I'd invite to perform. Eventually, we added a talent contest. I thought maybe four or five people would participate, but we were flooded with applicants. One year we had seventy people pay the entry fee to be a part of the competition. I would typically serve as one of the judges, and we would recruit radio personalities and others to join me. The winner of the contest would get to open the show that evening, which was great exposure for them.
We celebrated Wanda Jackson Day for thirteen years, and it turned out to be a really good thing for Maud. All the profits went to the city, which allowed them to get the things they needed for their local government. My dad's sister lived in Maud and was killed in a house fire. The fire department didn't have the equipment they needed to rescue her at the time, and I'm proud that funds we raised allowed the department to obtain the equipment to assist them when entering a burning building. That was very important to me. I'm also proud that our benefit allowed the police department to purchase new cars. I'm thankful, too, that we helped Maud officials get the attention of their legislative representatives, resulting in new highways and other improvements. They even named a street after me one year. Just think, if my mother had not gone into labor early, I would have been born in Oklahoma City and might not have had the opportunity to make the same kinds of contributions to the birthplace I called home for the first few years of my life.
One of the more distinguished residents to come from Maud was Edmond Harjo, a Seminole Indian who was one of the famous code talkers who helped transmit secret messages during World War II. He received the Congressional Gold Medal for his service in Normandy and Iwo Jima, and was the last surviving Seminole code talker until his death in 2014. I'm honored to hail from the same town as an American hero, and I suppose Edmond and I have been Maud's ambassadors to the world over the years.
When I was around five years old, our family moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles. That was a pretty common thing back then. All us Okies and Arkies and Texans couldn't find much work, so we headed west in search of better opportunities. All the images you associate with The Grapes of Wrath were a real thing. People were desperate for a better way of life, and California held the promise of fresh opportunities. As an only child, I had what I needed. I never suffered. Mother saw to that. But Daddy had friends in California, and he thought maybe we could go out there, and he could learn a trade that would give us more chances to make a better way in the world.
We had a two-door Pontiac coupe with a small storage space behind the front seats. Mother was quite a seamstress, and Daddy built a little frame so they could put a mattress for me to sleep on back there. One of my earliest memories is that car ride on Route 66 headed for the West Coast. There were no interstates then, so it took a lot longer to wind our way out there than it does now.
The war was on at the time we arrived in California, and the war industry brought an even larger wave of migrants than those who had come out during the Dust Bowl era. I remember seeing signs picturing Uncle Sam that talked about "the Japs." You didn't see the word Japanese then. It was always "Japs." I could have never imagined as a little girl that one day I would be a professional singer who would have a number one song in Japan, become a superstar there, and tour the country for weeks at a time. But that moment, of course, was still a long way away.
When we first arrived in Los Angeles, we rented a single-room upstairs apartment in a large house called Gramercy Place near downtown. Mother had a hot plate, so she could fix soups or open a can of something simple for us to eat. Built in the early 1920s, the old mansion is still there today, and is still operated as a boarding house and hostel. Mother had lived in Oklahoma her entire life, and Los Angeles was an enormous new world. She was protective of me anyway, but being in a new environment made her pretty nervous. The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's one-year-old baby in the early 1930s caused a lot of people to realize that the world can be an unsafe place. Bad things can happen even to children, and it seemed that these things were more likely to occur in big cities.
When we went out in public, Mother held my hand tight for fear of a stranger snatching me away. Even when we were home, she didn't like it when I was out of her sight. The bathroom was down the hall from our tiny apartment, and I would usually bathe in the early evenings when Mother was fixing supper. She'd tell me to sing while I was in the bath. She'd pop her head in and say, "Sing louder, honey. I can't hear you!" A few minutes would go by, and I'd hear her call out to me, "Keep singing, Wanda!" She was afraid I was going to fall in that tub and drown, but she knew if she could hear me singing I was okay. One time I heard her coming toward the bathroom, so I lay down in that tub real still to trick her. I about scared her half to death. That was me being a little prankster, I guess. Those must have been the genes from my dad's side of the family!
Mother and Daddy were pretty different in that regard. She tended to imagine the worst-case scenario and was somewhat of a worry wart. She was a fairly nervous person and was always in motion. My dad was more laid back. He was a joker and she was a workaholic. Even though my parents were complete opposites, they were real cute together and were affectionate toward one another — and toward me. From my earliest memories, our home was always filled with love.
By the time I started school, we had moved to a small apartment at 2727 Menlo Avenue, just east of Vermont. I attended Vermont Avenue Elementary School, which was located on the other side of the street from where we lived. Vermont was, and is, a busy thoroughfare running through Los Angeles, but there was an underground pedestrian tunnel that would take us to the other side. Mother felt it was safe and usually let me walk to school with my friends. I didn't like that tunnel, though. It seemed so dark and scary, so we would take a deep breath and run through, not daring to breathe until we got to the other side.
When I began school, I was known to everyone by my middle name, Lavonne. I'm not sure why, but that's what I wanted everyone to call me then. I was Lavonne to everyone, including my parents, during my elementary school years. That's not the only thing about me that would change later. Even though I'm known for my dark hair, I was actually a blonde when I was little. It would be quite some time before blonde Lavonne would transform into the Wanda Jackson you know today.
Both Mother and Daddy were still at work when I got home from school each day, so they hired a woman named Ma Settlage to watch me for a few hours. I went through a clumsy phase where I would knock over milk — or whatever I was drinking — all the time. I'm sure it was maddening. One time I knocked some milk over on the table, and Ma Settlage made me scoop it up with my mouth. Mother happened to walk in at that very moment to see what was going on. She was steaming mad. "You don't have her licking stuff up off the table," she barked. And that was the end of Ma Settlage.
There were about four other kids living on our block on Menlo Avenue, and since the entire country was preoccupied with the war at the time, it was only natural that my friends and I would stage pretend battles in our backyards. I also loved Tarzan. One girl's house had a balcony, so we imagined that balcony was our treehouse, and we'd make up all sorts of adventures. When we weren't playing war or Tarzan, it was usually cowboys and Indians. I had a couple of toy six-shooters tucked into holsters with a hat, vest, and the whole getup. Later on, I'd be known for introducing high heels, strappy dresses, and glamour into the world of country music. As a kid, however, I was no demure little girl having a tea party. I was running around the neighborhood like a wild banshee. And I loved it!
The other game I remember playing with the neighborhood children was "preacher." There was a Baptist church at the north end of the street where Mother attended regularly. She enrolled me in Sunday School class and took me to services pretty much every week. I'd go home afterward, line up the other kids on the stairs outside, and start preaching to them. I don't remember what I would say, but I remember I'd be pacing back and forth and shaking my finger at them. That must have been what the pastor did at the church. I was just a little girl, but I was showing off already. I guess I had the performance bug from an early age and was already looking for my stage.
Church was always an important part of Mother's life. She was a fine Christian lady. Daddy thought her dedication to the church was great, but he didn't feel like it was for him. He never interfered, though. He thought it was wonderful that Mother enjoyed being a part of the life of the church. She wasn't the type to get involved in all the various activities during the week because she worked outside the home, but we were there every Sunday morning in little matching outfits. She'd curl my hair and treat me like a little doll on Sundays. I liked going, but as soon as I got home, I was ready to put on one of my costumes and go tearing off into the neighborhood to get into another adventure with my friends.
I don't remember much about the music I heard in church on Sunday mornings, but I seem to remember it was a little uptight. I did like the sound of the piano, but that music just didn't make much of an impact at that age. I do remember a lot about the Western swing music that was so popular on the Coast in the 1940s. Back then, church music was pretty reserved. Country music back east was fairly polite, too. It was made for sitting and listening. On the Coast, though, country music was made for dancing. Fortunately, Mother and Daddy never lost their love for dancing. They were both beautiful dancers who would go out nearly every weekend.
People didn't get babysitters very often then. They took their kids along with them. If Mother and Daddy went to a dance, I went too. There were several venues and dance halls around the city, but the Venice and Santa Monica Pier ballrooms were the most popular. They drew literally thousands of dancers to hear the likes of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys or Tex Williams and his band. My favorite bandleader was Spade Cooley. I absolutely loved his group. He had two or three pretty girls in the lineup, and I thought they dressed so beautifully. The Maddox Brothers and Rose were big at the time, too, and were known as "the most colorful hillbilly band in America." I just thought Rose was the greatest. She was so feisty onstage! Heck, the whole family was a feisty bunch. I was paying close attention, and all this music was having a significant impact on me.
Even though Mother worried about me all the time, she always said she never had to worry about me at a dance. She knew exactly where I'd be. I would stand right in front of the bandstand staring up at the performers all night. I wasn't about to wander off! As a little girl people would ask me, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I'd always tell them, "I want to be a girl singer." I don't suppose I really could have been any other type of singer, but that's what I told them. I knew I wanted to sing, but I also wanted to wear shiny clothes and be pretty and glamorous while doing it!
Excerpted from "Every Night Is Saturday Night"
Copyright © 2017 Wanda Jackson Goodman.
Excerpted by permission of BMG Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 — Back Then, 1,
Chapter 2 — California Stars, 11,
Chapter 3 — No Place to Go but Home, 21,
Chapter 4 — Turn Your Radio On, 31,
Chapter 5 — Lovin' Country Style, 41,
Chapter 6 — You Can't Have My Love, 51,
Chapter 7 — Tears at the Grand Ole Opry, 63,
Chapter 8 — I Wish I Was Your Friend, 75,
Chapter 9 — Rock Your Baby, 85,
Chapter 10 — If You Don't Somebody Else Will, 97,
Chapter 11 — I Gotta Know, 109,
Chapter 12 — Let's Have a Party, 121,
Chapter 13 — Fujiyama Mama, 131,
Chapter 14 — Both Sides of the Line, 141,
Chapter 15 — Right or Wrong, 151,
Chapter 16 — You're the One for Me, 161,
Chapter 17 — A Woman Lives for Love, 171,
Chapter 18 — Santo Domingo, 181,
Chapter 19 — Kickin' Our Hearts Around, 191,
Chapter 20 — Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine, 201,
Chapter 21 — I Saw the Light, 211,
Chapter 22 — My Testimony, 221,
Chapter 23 — Rockabilly Fever, 231,
Chapter 24 — Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, 241,
Chapter 25 — Thunder on the Mountain, 249,
Chapter 26 — In the Middle of a Heartache, 257,
Chapter 27 — Treat Me Like a Lady, 265,