“Will You Willyum”, Janis Martin, (1956)
“I Gotta Know”, Wanda Jackson (1956)
Like any definition of what the ‘first’ of anything was in history, it is fuzzy. Things aren’t that clear- cut. I have said this before, and I will say it again: music is a continuum, an evolution. Is anything ever entirely original? Some more than others, and it is a judgement call at the end of the day.
The first female rockers were arguably ‘rockabilly’ artists who were steeped in country music and tainted by the wildness of their male contemporaries. One of these was Janis Martin.
The same week that Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” was released, producer Steve Sholes had 15 year old Janis Martin in Sun Studios recording “Will You Willyum”. He was puzzling his puzzler, wondering if a female rocker would work. She had watched Elvis closely and mimicked his moves. She had been playing guitar since she was 4 and was an expert with years of experience performing for audiences and winning talent shows since she was 8.
After they recorded “Will You Willyum”, Sholes asked her if she had anything else. Janis said “No, but give a few minutes” and came back about 10 minutes later with “Drug Store Rock and Roll”, which they proceeded to record and put out as the flip-side. The record sold over 750,000 copies, the most successful in her career.
It was thought that she had the presence and style of Elvis and that they could perform together, but her parents did not want that – she was only 16 then and they saw how Elvis had been run down with nerves and hospitalized and did not want that for their daughter. She did only ever meet Elvis twice, but he and RCA called her the “Female Elvis”. She did a tribute song to Elvis titled “My Boy Elvis”.
Her smash success came to an end in 1958 when RCA dropped her because she was pregnant – and a teenager. She had secretly been married to her boyfriend and had become pregnant when she visited him where he was stationed overseas in the military. By the 60’s she was on her second marriage and her husband demanded that she leave the music business. How things have changed, yet stayed the same.
Almost like in “The Grapes of Wrath”, Wanda Jackson’s family moved from Oklahoma to California for a better life in the ‘40’s. This was not what it was cracked up to be apparently and they moved back to Oklahoma City when she was 11 in 1948.
Wanda won a radio talent show contest that landed her on her own radio show. Hank Thompson, a veteran country performer, invited her to perform in his band the ‘Brazos Valley Boys’. In 1954 she recorded the duet “You Can’t Have My Love” with band leader Billy Gray, which went to #8 on the country charts. Wanda then asked Capital records to sign her but was told “girls don’t sell records”, so she signed with Decca who would have her.
Sometimes Wanda toured with Elvis in the early days and he encouraged her to do rockabilly. In 1956 she released “I Gotta Know” which went to number 15 on the charts. Working with producer Ken Nelson, she insisted that her records sound like the great Gene Vincent. Continuing in the ‘50’s she released a string of rockabilly singles including: “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad”, “Mean, Mean, Man”, “Fujiyama Mama” and “Honey Bop”. “Fujiyama Mama” went to number one in Japan and she toured there early in 1959. Some called her the ‘Queen of Rockabilly’.
Continuing into the sixties she played with some of the virtually unknown but great players like Roy Clark and Buck Owens, who would come into their own fame in time. She headlined shows and continued to do rockabilly until 1968 when it was clear that rockabilly had fallen out of popularity and she switched to country. Not before she had left and indelible mark in rock history and proving that girls did sell records - and they did it with fringes and high heels and bling that had never been seen before!