THE INTERVIEW: Rockabilly Legend Wanda Jackson

With her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year and new music coming out produced by Jack White, it seems that Wanda Jackson’s 50 plus year career is finally gaining the validation it so richly deserves. Perhaps it was her switch to country and gospel music in the 70’s that confused people, but the Rockabilly music the revivalists adore her for is still in her heart and on her set list. She’ll be in town in February to play The Knitting Factory and I suggest, like me, you get yourself schooled by The Queen of Rock.

You’ve been called the sweet lady with the nasty voice. Are you comfortable with that description?

Well it’s a little misleading because I’m not really sure that I’m a sweet lady. [Laughter]

Where do you think that part of your voice comes from?

I’ve been asked about it a lot lately. A lot of artists do it. I just call it growlin’. I can do it a couple of different ways. Its just something I reached down and got a hold of through a song I was recording, “Fujiyama Mama.” I loved the song but I didn’t want to just sing it plain. I dug down deep and found that part of my voice through that song.

When you first turned the audience on to that part of your voice, could you see that it had a really strong effect on people?

Yes you could kind of tell. Maybe it shocked them a little bit. They liked it. Live audiences like that type of growlin’ and singin’ because I’m a belter. The songs that I belt out like that are really crowd pleasers.

What was it like being a young girl in a touring boys club that included Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and of course, Elvis Presley?

Well, I rather liked it. But that’s the way it had always been. We used to call it a package show. We’d go on 10 day, or 2 week tours. It was always just one girl. There weren’t that many girls singing, even country music. I was about the second or third one to come along, Kitty Wells, Jean Shepard and me and then a few years later came Patsy and Brenda. But I didn’t think anything about it. I enjoyed the company of the guys. My dad traveled with me to make sure my reputation stayed intact. That was good. Everyone liked dad. I was always treated with respect and like a lady because my dad was there.

I guess at the time you all were helping to create rock and roll although maybe you didn’t really know it.

Right. We didn’t really have a name at that point. Like when Elvis talked to me about starting to record, we just called it this new kind of music. Elvis was billed as “The Hillbilly Cat.” I had a couple of different ones through the years. Finally they stopped doing that stuff. At one point I was “The Singing Doll.” Then I was “The Party Doll” after “Let’s Have a Party” was a hit. Of course now I guess they are still doing it. I’m “The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice.” “First Lady of Rock and Roll” is the title I like.

I watched a clip of you singing “Hard Headed Woman” on Town Hall Party” in 1958. You introduced it as a beautiful love song and then you proceeded to tear the place up. Did you enjoy playing with the audiences expectations in terms of country versus rock?

Yeah, well, I’m an entertainer as well as a singer. Some are one or the other, but it’s best when you’re both. Oh yeah, I still flirt and play with my audience. I always have. It gives an intimate feel to your show. I especially like it when the audience can come down front right at the bandstand. That way I can look ’em right in the eye and ruffle their hair up, throw water on ’em, just have fun with ’em.

Can you tell me about your collaboration with Jack White? People are extremely excited about it. How did that come to be?

Well I just found out myself for sure. My webmaster Jon Hensley is a big, big fan of mine. So he loves rockabilly and early rock, but he also wanted me to get in the 21st century, you know, so my career wouldn’t always be just the old stuff I’ve done. So he was talking to a friend of his from Nashville, she does make-up and hair for a lot of the big stars like Faith Hill. She said, well heck why don’t you get in touch with Jack White, he lives here in Nashville, has his own studio, he might be interested. So John was brave enough to call him, unintroduced or anything. I think John wanted him to do a duet with me on a new album. My husband, John and I were getting our heads together. What kind of album would I want to do right now? So we were thinking Wanda Jackson and Friends. So he asked him about that, and Jack said, well no I wouldn’t be interested in doing a duet on her album, but I would be interested in recording her myself. That got John very excited. He called us and he had to tell me who Jack White was because I really didn’t know. But I’ve learned some things about him now. So we kind of bounced that around awhile and decided, heck yeah, we ought to try it. So that was it. Then Jack said OK. He sent me some songs he had in mind, we set up a time for me to come in and record. We got 6 songs now in the can for single releases or however he wants to use them.

Are you planning on doing a full length record?

Well the first release is a single. I believe the release date is January 26th. I think the song will be “You Know I’m No Good.”

Are they Jack White songs?

These are cover songs, kind of obscure ones. He wants to do more of a showcase with me. Allow me to do things more in the country vein and a lot of rock and roll, some Blues and Gospel, so I’m just staying on the lookout for songs. He’s got 6 so we’ll put out the first single this month. It’s going to be 7 inch vinyl.

Vinyl’s making a comeback.

I know it. I think it’s great. It’ll be “You Know I’m No Good” and “Shakin’ All Over.” Now “You Know I’m No Good,” Amy Winehouse had a pretty good hit on it a few years ago. So it’s not one of the old ones out of the archives. A little more up to date. I really liked the song. We reworked it a little bit. I got to do my own style with Jack’s coaching, pushing me.

Did he bring in session players?

He had playbacks for me like most of the artists do these days. He laid the music down and then I do my part. If there are any extra voices behind me or a string section, that’s added later. The dubs I had to work with had horns and great guitar and everything. So he had all that done without me. He’s such a talented young man, he really is.

Do you find it encouraging when these younger artists seek inspiration from and help to communicate your music to another generation?

Well, you can imagine, it’s very exciting. This has been going on for me since the late 80’s. The revival of rock and roll, 50’s rock, began for me in Scandinavia, and then in Great Britain, Australia, Japan. I went from straight country right back into the rockabilly. I’ve come full circle now. I’m seeing all these beautiful young people who just love these songs, they just love ’em! They know all about ’em, they know all about me. They ask intelligent questions. It’s cute, they’ll say ‘well now who’s playing bass on “Fujiyama Mama?”‘ I have to sometimes look it up and give them the answer later. But they know that much about it. And to see them dressing in the vintage clothes and driving the classic cars, it makes me feel like a teenager again. That’s not bad. At my age it’s easy to want to sit back and go on your past body of work. But I haven’t been able to do that because of this new popularity here in America and all over the world. I’ve been recording all along. I did an album called Heart Trouble. I had some great musicians and singers join me on that. The Cramps, Dave Alvin, Lee Rocker, Rosie Flores, Elvis Costello. That made a lot of noise. My latest one is I Remember Elvis. I did a tribute to him.

I listened to that last night. It’s a really moving record. I know that Elvis has had a very special place in your heart and in your career.

The last track on the record I tell the story about how I met him, the first time I saw him work, the last time I got to see him, the day that he asked me to be his girl and gave me his ring.

Over the years did you lose touch with him?

I worked with him and toured quite a bit with him from the Summer of ’55 when I graduated high school. I was 17. I’d already had a couple of country hits on the Billboard charts. I had a name pretty well built up for myself. I toured with him up until February of ’57. That’s when he went to Hollywood to start his movie career and he no longer toured. You’ve read about how Colonel Parker didn’t allow him to tour anymore. He concentrated on the movies. Of course everyone has the same opinion about Colonel Parker taking him out of music and making him stay right there in the movies, because he didn’t get good movies. I think he could’ve been a really fine actor if he’d been given a chance. That’s where we lost contact. I didn’t push it. He had enough to do. So, yeah, we drifted apart.

Any clues as to what’s given you such longevity in your career?

Well of course I’m not the only one. Jerry Lee Lewis is still working. I worked with Chuck Berry recently, Jerry Lee too. So there’s a handful of us left. I don’t know except our songs were simple. You can learn ’em real easy. Other singers can do ’em easy. And it represents a time in America. We were the last generation of innocence. Because in the ’60’s, here came the Vietnam War and free love and all that stuff, so everything changed. And now we’re up here where we are now, everything is so fast and automated and I think they’re wanting to just step into a time capsule just for a few hours. I can tell them stories and things like that in my show and they just get the feel of what it was like to be a teenager in America in the ’50’s.

I hear that you’re coming to town to play The Knitting Factory in February.

Yes, I’m looking forward to it. I like the Knitting Factory very much. We always have full houses. I forgot to say when we were talking about Elvis, I did see him one last time in 1964, in kind of a chance meeting. I left word that I was staying at the same hotel as him, in fact on the same floor. He had the whole floor rented out except for the rooms my husband and I and another couple had. I left word that I’d like to say hi to him. The very same night he came down to the room and met my husband and our friends, stayed maybe 10, 15 minutes with us. That was the last time I got to see him.

It’s nice that you got to have a positive final encounter with him and that he got to meet your husband.

What I liked was the fact that of course my husband had been to his shows when he was a teenager too, in Texas. But the fact that he got to meet him personally and he could see what was between me and Elvis, it was just a pure, sweet friendship. I didn’t know how important it was at the time, but since 1985, I’ve talked about Elvis just about everyday, in one way or another, on a show or in an interview. I think that made it easier for him to accept that everyone wants to know about me and Elvis. In the beginning it didn’t sit real well with him. But he wasn’t in show business and he didn’t really understand our relationship. He wasn’t intimidated or anything by it, he just didn’t understand our relationship and so after that he did and it’s made it a lot easier for him.

I can sympathize with the guy. Most men have to deal with someone who’s their rival who’s just a regular joe. But to have it be Elvis Presley. It takes a strong man to deal with that all those years!

That’s my thinking exactly.

Dan Siegler

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