“I’ve been coming to Cain’s and singing since—I don’t know, it was a long time ago—1955? It kinda hurts that they don’t have my picture up here,” Wanda Jackson noted with a smile when she took the stage in Cain’s main ballroom Friday night. “It looks like they replaced the dance floor, though. We used to get everyone boogieing back in the day, and that really tore it up.”
For the uninitiated, Jackson is a legend in the world of early rock ‘n roll—essentially the first woman to sing rockabilly music—a Tulsa native, and schedule to be inducted into Cleveland, Ohio’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame come April 4 this year. To celebrate this latest achievement, she sang at Cain’s Ballroom and mayor Kathy Taylor declared the day “Wanda Jackson Day” (no, seriously)—which Jackson wryly pointed out meant that her special day was Friday the Thirteenth. With more than 50 years’ worth of achievements under her belt, Jackson has very little left to prove, and her show served simply as more evidence of that. Jackson was completely at ease on the stage, effortlessly leading the band with the same pleasantly throaty voice she’s had throughout her entire career (occasionally—and amusingly—even stopping songs a few measures in to tell her band to tune up and start over). To use the old cliché, she was there to rock. And yes, she did.
Taking the stage with rockabilly band Bill Holden and the Nighthawks (who also functioned as an impressive opening act), Jackson picked up a bouquet of roses from the stage. “Who gave me these?” she asked. Upon finding the culprit—a boy in the audience—she asked “Do you like rock ‘n roll?”
“Yes,” he responded.
“Good,” she said. “Your parents are raising you right.” Then, thinking better of her comments, added, “Well—I hope you only listen to 50’s rock.” Jackson then launched into several of her early hits, including “Mean, Mean Man,” “Rock Your Baby,” and “Hard-Headed Woman,” before sharing some of her memories of Elvis Presley.
“When I started my career, I was a country singer,” she remembered, “but I was fortunate enough to go on tour with Elvis early on, and he was the one who encouraged me to try singing some of this new music. He took me back to his place, and we sat in his bedroom and he played some records for me and sang me some songs. People always asked me which records he played for me, but come on—I’m 17, I’m sitting in Elvis Presley’s bedroom, and he’s singing to me. Am I really going to remember what records he played?”
Jackson went on to tell the crowd, “People always asked me if I was going to record a tribute to Elvis. I never wanted to—once Elvis has done something, you don’t just redo it. How can you improve on that? But eventually, I decided to give it a try, and it turned out to be a lot of fun. So I’m going to sing some Elvis songs for you tonight—I hope I don’t mess them up too terribly.” She then performed energetic renditions of “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “I Wanna Play House with You,” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” which practically had the crowd on their feet by the end.
Jackson continued to offer insight into some of the more interesting moments in her career: “In 1959, I finally get my first number-one record [“Fujiyama Mama”], but it was in Japan: Probably because they couldn’t understand the lyrics.”
“I eventually got to a point in my career when I had pretty much everything I’d ever wanted, but something was still missing. So on June the 6th of 1971, I invited Jesus Christ into my heart.” (This was followed by “I Saw the Light,” one of her late gospel recordings, and a big hit with the audience.)
Jackson concluded her show with a performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and wished the appreciative crowd a pleasant evening. Having rocked Cain’s, collected several dozen roses, and enjoyed her own personal day, she had nothing left to do but collect her accolades in Cleveland.
“The only thing I’m worried about is the acceptance speech,” she remarked. “I’m not a speaker.”
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Editor’s Note: The Oklahoma State Senate honored the country’s first female Rock and Roll singer in February 2009. Senate Resolution 6 congratulated Wanda Jackson on her lifetime of success in the music industry as well as being the first Oklahoma woman to be inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame.
“Mrs. Jackson is an amazing talent who has had an incredible career. She’s a musical pioneer who has touched the lives of so many with her music,” said Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole. “She has made her state, and especially the folks in Seminole and Pottawatomie Counties, very proud; and we wish her all the best in her future endeavors.”