Wanda Jackson can't remember the last time she played Virginia. “It had to have been in the 1950s, but I don't remember. … so this will be something new.”
Jackson, a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame honoree and the undisputed Queen of Rockabilly, will make a special live appearance at Shenanigans on Saturday night - an event that is cause for serious celebration to anyone who likes raw and primal rock 'n' roll from the music's Golden Age.
While there were a few standout female rockers in the 1950s — most notably Virginia's own Janis Martin - Wanda Jackson took the rockabilly music pioneered by one of her boyfriends, Elvis Presley, to a whole new level. Jackson's work for Capitol Records and producer Ken Nelson spawned numerous classics - stomping anthems like “Let's Have a Party” and “Fujiyama Mama,” fueled by Jackson's untamed growl and kittenish persona (not to mention top notch guitarists such as Grady Martin and the young Roy Clark).
The Queen is still going strong at 73. After a number of years singing straight country music, she has reemerged again as a rockabilly filly. Her latest project is a promising collaboration with Jack White of the White Stripes, due out this fall. On the horn from her home in Oklahoma City, Wanda Jackson recently talked to Style Weekly about dating Elvis, giving Roy Clark his first break, and her early days as a singer with country legend Hank Thompson's band.
Style Weekly: If you were singing with Hank Thompson at 15, you must've started singing at a very young age.
Wanda Jackson: Yeah, I did. That's all I ever wanted to do. I was good enough to get on a little radio show here in Oklahoma City. I won a contest and got my own show, 15 minutes, 5:15 every day on a radio station near my junior high school. And Hank Thompson heard me, he had moved to Oklahoma City, and he had caught my radio show. He called and asked me to come that Saturday night to play with his band and you can't imagine how thrilled I was. But I said, “I'd love to, Mr. Thompson, but I have to ask my mother.'” And he said, “How old are you?” (Laughs) He thought I was a little older than fifteen.
Your parents must have trusted you.
Well, I'm an only child. And I loved it. I didn't have to vie for the attention of my parents. (laughs)
Were your parents musical?
My father was, he's the one that taught me to play guitar. We used to sing and he'd play fiddle and I'd play guitar. Several nights a week from the time I was seven, he was teaching me. They knew it was in my blood and daddy traveled with me, you know, after I graduated high school. I had a couple of little country hits under my belt and we started touring and he acted as my road manager, driver and protector. And my mother always made my clothes — I wanted to get out of those cowboy clothes. So my career was like a family affair, it really was.
What kind of music did you play when you first started?
I played country, stone country. I just did whatever was popular at the time, which was all [songs by] men. So it may have sounded strange that I was singing a song that a man sings. Sometimes I'd change the gender wording, sometimes I wouldn't. There weren't that many (country) artists back then, much less women. There were only two when I signed with Decca and got my first charted record. That was Kitty Wells and Jean Shepard. And I was just the third girl to come along.
Times were really different for female vocalists in country music at that time. You were supposed to be demure and not very aggressive. I sure changed that (laughs).
When did you start playing what we now know as ‘rockabilly music'?
Let's back up a little bit when I graduated from high school. My dad was a barber and he really didn't know anything about show business. He knew we needed somebody to book [show] dates and he got in touch with Bob Neal out of Memphis, picked his name up out of “Billboard Magazine.” My daddy asked Mr. Neal if he would be interested in booking me and he said yes. He had a young man that is getting really big real fast and he needed a girl to be on the shows with him. And that's when I began working with Elvis Presley.
I graduated in May and my first show with Elvis was in July 1955. And I worked with him under Jan. 1957, not exclusively, you know, but off and on. I had a TV show by then in Missouri that went out nationally [“Ozark Jubilee”]. I was doing all that too but I loved working with him on those shows, the package shows — they were all men. But I was used to that. If there was a girl it was usually just one.
But I worked with some men who weren't legends yet: Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins… all those greats. So I had the best introduction to it. I was 17 and this was my generation's new music and I loved it. I loved to watch Elvis perform. But I didn't even think about doing it myself. I was a country singer. But Elvis started talking to me, saying, ‘You can do more than just the country.' He gave me the courage to do it. So in 1956, I got my feet wet and began recording [rockabilly].
Elvis really changed things, didn't he?
He took the nation by storm and changed the whole industry. I mean, it shook everything up. Nobody knew what to record, the record company's didn't know how to record it or market it. I was the only one at Capitol at that time trying it.
Give me a sense of what Elvis was like as a person. You dated him, right?
Yeah, we dated when we were on the road together and when we got the opportunity. But my daddy kept me on a pretty short leash (laughs). But he loved Elvis and they got along fabulously so he would let me go out with Elvis before or after a show. If we got into a little town early enough, Elvis and I would slip off to a movie or have some time together.
Was he a complicated person?
To me, he was a little complicated because he was so different. And refreshing, because he was his own person. He didn't follow somebody else's rules, and that's exactly what my father taught me all along — you do things your way and don't let anyone keep you from it. That's why he was such a big influence on me. But he was complicated in the sense of… we were just starting to use the word, ‘moody.' He'd be up one minute and then he'd get real quiet and kind of thoughtful. I even used that in a song I wrote about going out with a guy who is moody. But basically he was friendly, he loved people, he loved his fans. We really liked each other but we were both very excited about our careers. 1957 is when Colonel Parker took him to Hollywood and he stopped his touring.
The last time I saw him, it was 1964 in Las Vegas. He came to my and my husband's room — we found out we were staying on the same floor of the hotel. It was a great time. My husband finally understood. It helped my husband to grasp the idea that we weren't lovers. Elvis and I liked each other and had a lot of fun together and that was it.
You had Ken Nelson as your producer at Capitol. He also produced the great rockabilly tracks by Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps? What was he like?
I have always admired Ken Nelson simply because he allowed me to stretch myself, he had enough faith in his artists to give them room. He'd say, ‘If this is what you want to try, go for it.'
Some of the songs you did at the time were amazing. And very edgy. Was there opposition to the songs you were doing?
No, the public loved it. (laughs) In person that is. But the radio stations wouldn't play it — very few of them would play any of my rockabilly songs, like ‘I Don't Know' or “Fujiyama Mama” or “Mean Mean Man.” They thought it was too edgy for radio. And it was really confusing because it was really what I wanted to do but my hands were kind of tied. I continued to sing them during my personal appearances and people really loved them. I was feisty and kind of different from the other country girl singers.
It wasn't long before Ken and I agreed to put a country song on one side of the record and a rockabilly song on the other. It was strictly so I could get some airplay, and you had to have that in order to get the crowds for your personal appearances. And we did two or three albums like that.
And in 1959, I had a number one record with “Fujiyama Mama.” But it was in Japan. (laughs)
I was going to ask about that. Did you tour Japan?
Oh yeah. And when I got over there, you wouldn't believe it. I was like a superstar. I was really surprised. I was doing things I hadn't done before — press conference, red carpets. When I arrived, there were fans all around the airport hollering. My shows were all over Japan, but in Tokyo I was doing five shows a day in the largest theatre in Tokyo then. And these shows had choreography, costume changes - it was like a New York production.
I didn't mind doing the shows, I was 18 you know. But my daddy was having a fit: ‘We are doing all of this and we're only getting $100 a night.” Throughout the years, I've gone back to Japan. And that song, believe it or not, is still popular. Every generation, it's been passed on… they sing along… it's fabulous.
You eventually got a rockabilly hit, with “Let's Have a Party.”
Yes. And that was unusual. … Ken Nelson, dad and I were thinking, “Well, it looks like America is not going to accept this [rockabilly material],” so I went back to singing straight country. We put a record out [in 1961] that was country on both sides. And after a few weeks I called Ken Nelson to see how the record was doing and he said, ‘You've got a hit on your hands.' I asked him which side of the record was going strong and he said, ‘Oh no, it's not that record. We pulled a track from the first album I recorded on you in 1956.' They had released “Party” on the strength of a deejay in Iowa, who was using it as the theme song for his show. The deejay said, “I think if you pulled it out of that album, you would have a hit” and they took his advice.
So I always say that I backed into rockabilly. Once I threw up my hands and said ‘No more.”… then it happened.
Didn't you give Roy Clark his first break?
When “Party” hit, the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas called me about headlining. I had to get my own band, I had been using house bands. So my manager then, Jim Halsey, knew a band in his area that wanted to work with me so we hired them. But I needed some help there because in Vegas we would be doing five shows a night. None of the guys in the band had done solo work. And I had worked with Roy before and I just remembered that he didn't have a band and wasn't tied down, and he was such a great entertainer.
On our opening night, Capitol executives came up to Vegas from Hollywood and saw Roy perform solo and with me. And so at my next session in Nashville, he was playing on it. We did some rock things and some ballads. But I had a little time at the end of the session, not enough for another song. So Ken said, “Wanda, if you don't mind, we'll let Roy do some instrumentals.” So I paid for his first session. … (laughs).
Roy Clark's playing on that album is incredible. Along with being a great country guitarist, he proved to be a heck of a rockabilly player too.
Hank Thompson played an important role in my career. At 16 he got me my first recording contract on Decca. I was there two years. And then, in 1956, he helped me get my Capitol (Records) contract. He was my idol. I miss him still. Anyway, he helped me so greatly and somewhere along the way I said, “Hank, you've done so much for me, I can never pay you back.” And he said, “That isn't necessary. You pay me back by doing it for somebody else.”
So I've helped get a lot good music through Roy Clark (laughs).
Fast-forwarding to today, I heard you are working with Jack White of the White Stripes.
That's the latest. Jack helped Loretta Lynn by giving her great Loretta Lynn songs a fresh sound. … but he wanted to take me into the 21st century and it's like I'm being stretched again. They are all cover songs but I had never heard them so they were like brand new songs to me. Then we went back and got some that were from the late '40s. That's for the album that is coming out in early fall. But our single is “Shaking All Over” backed with “You Know I'm No Good.”
[Jack] taught me kind of how to sing this new kind of song. He was kind of like Elvis was in the beginning. And once I got the gist of what he was trying to pull out of me, we worked together just great. He was very patient with me. He was the one who wanted to do the project. … it was a real delight. It was hard work for me.
What will you be performing when you come to town. Is it mostly rockabilly?
It's mixed somewhat. It depends on what venue I'm in and how they are advertising me. Are they saying, “First Lady of Rock 'n' Roll” or something about country music? But generally speaking these days I do a rockabilly show, interspersed with a little bit of country. I'll do both songs from the new single, I'll do “Right or Wrong” [one of her big country hits], I'll do a yodel song which the young kids love, I'll do a country gospel song and the rest is rock 'n' roll.
Wanda Jackson will perform at Shenanigans on Feb. 13 with the Luster Kings. Showtime is 8:30 p.m. Tickets $15. For information, call 264-5010.