Wanda Jackson, The Rockabilly Queen, breaks through
One of the women who challenged rock and roll’s male dominance has changed little herself since the 1950’s, when she toured as a 17-year old country singer. At 73, Wanda Jackson is still touring – nine months of the year – and still wearing her jet black hairstyle and her flashy, sequined outfits. And she’s still spirited. Asked about her nickname – “the sweet lady with the nasty voice” - she says:
"I think it’s not quite accurate, because I don’t know for sure that I’m a sweet lady. … Gotcha!”
It took a bit of grit and humor to make it as a female artist in the decades when rock and roll was born – and was dominated by male acts like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Jackson, a 2009 Rock Hall inductee, made her mark joining boyfriend Elvis Presley in a new type of music that mixed country with rock. Today, she’s known as the queen of rockabilly. But, she recalls that in the ‘50’s:
“The mindset in America was such that they were just not gonna hear an 18-year old girl, dressin’ in this silk fringe and shakin’ her booty and playing her guitar. They were just not gonna help me. They’re scratching their heads “I don’t know what this world is coming to.”
Phil Spector and mean men
Like many women rockers, Jackson persevered, even writing her own rockabilly songs at the advice of another male influence – her dad.
“I went into my bedroom with my guitar and wrote ‘Mean, Mean Man.’ … And when it turned out so good, I was quite proud and I thought, ‘I think I found a home here.’”
Jackson’s rockabilly songs earned her a small fraction of the success in the U.S. of Elvis and other men who were taking center stage. And in the 1960’s, the misogyny in the industry extended behind the scenes, as well. Many R&B singers like Darlene Love worked in relative anonymity in studios and on stage backing up others.
Darlene Love is best known today for the 1962 hit “He’s a Rebel.” But few knew she had a hand in the song back then. Producer Phil Spector credited that song to a bigger R&B group of the time, The Crystals. But Love fought back, later suing Spector – and winning.
“(I was) probably the only person walking on the earth that wasn’t afraid of him. I’d go into his office, his secretary would be there, ‘You can’t go in there.’ And I’d say, ‘Girl, you better get out of my way.’ And I just pushed her aside and said, ‘Phil what the ___ is wrong with you?’ They made it seem like the men were doing everything and they were not. It was hard and even harder for me because I was black.
Love, inducted into the Rock Hall this year, says the industry simply treated women artists as inferior.
“I would be up there doing what the guys were doing, but we weren’t throwing guitars around and burning ‘em and all that. We were just out there gut-bucket singing! And we could stand out there and do a show for an hour, hour and a half. I don’t think they thought we could do that.”
But stamina wasn’t enough to swing the genre women’s way; nor was being first.
The 1960’s group, Goldie and the Gingerbreads, is known by many in the industry as the first all-female rock band. But to most people, the band remains obscure. The group never had a hit in the U.S. and found only mild success in England. You likely know one of their songs, “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” but not their sound.
That’s because the British pop band Herman’s Hermits released it just two weeks before the Gingerbreads in 1965.
Genya Ravan acknowledges the song was likely a better fit for the Hermits.
“We were not ‘Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat.’ We had attitudes that went with our music. We didn’t say, ‘Come on let’s be stars.’ We were real, real musicians.”
Finding a place in the Rock Hall
The Rock Hall exhibit features 60 women artists with everything from flashy performance costumes and sheet music to personalized instruments and posters. The hall’s Vice President Lauren Onkey says the look is as important as the sound.
“It’s not like no woman ever picked up a rock instrument before. But … when you see a photo of Goldie and the Gingerbreads, in that era with the particular style of that era, you’re just not used to seeing them behind the drums, with guitar and bass. … That’s visually important.
Gingerbreads founder Genya Ravan went on to front other bands. She’s released more than a dozen albums and became one of the first female record producers.
“I get a lotta respect, you know? But did I get a hit record out of it? No! Radio stations were saying, we can’t play it, it’s too hard. Sometimes being ahead of your time is not a good thing, but I’m not a follower.
Heart breaks in to the mainstream
One of the first to take the lead into the mainstream in a big way was Heart. The Rock Hall’s Onkey says the band known for its powerful vocals over a heavy guitar has been recording for four decades. And that makes it one of the most successful rock bands in history.
“Their first record came out, it felt comfortable on FM radio. You heard a woman rocker’s voice behind this turn-up-the-radio, kind of rock ’n roll of the mid 70’s. I mean that guitar is as driving as any guitar on a Zeppelin record.”
Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson say they wanted to write the same types of songs as the male rock icons of that time.
“There was an attempt made a few times to put us in a cute, sexy chicky box,” remembers Ann. “ But with Nancy and I, that doesn’t really register with reality. You know, going out there and having your say. And stomping around with your songs and being gentle and being tender and then coming out of the bag with a baseball bat. To me, that’s rock.”
While Heart found inspiration in the misogynistic world of rock, another female rocker responded even more directly.
Liz Phair acknowledges her 1993 album, “Exile in Guyville,” is a sexually explicit, song-for-song response to the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album “Exile on Main Street.”
“I was really trying to take “Exile on Main Street” and put it in the context of what the woman on the other side of Mick’s lyrics was feeling by embodying the invisible woman in all these songs. To some extent, I was trying to strike a blow for feminism.
Taking off the gloves
For other women rockers, that feminist blow came as much in their style as their lyrics. Count 1980’s pop star Cyndi Lauper – orange hair, high-pitched voice and all -- among them. Lauper cried when she saw Wanda Jackson and Darlene Love at the Rock Hall for the exhibit’s opening.
“I came out with boxing gloves, not realizing until I was really eyeball deep in the business just how tough it must have been for them. Once I heard them sing, I realized my voice wasn’t so weird and messed up. And you hear a feminine sound….with balls…. (and know) that you can do it, too.”
These days, acts like Lady Gaga dwarf what was Lauper’s then-outrageous stage appearance. But Wanda Jackson says the music the women of rock made decades ago remains relevant.
“That’s what’s exciting about what’s happening today, … this whole new generation of young people finding our music, the classics. … But for the future, I’d still like them to know that this little gal right there, she started the whole rock thing for girls.”
That “rock thing for girls” will remain on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at least through February.