Long Live The Queen: An Interview With Wanda Jackson

Wanda Jackson

From shaking her hips with The King in her teens to covering Amy Winehouse in her seventies, Wanda Jackson is one of those rare talents whose career has truly spanned the entirety of the glorious rock and roll epoch. She is, after all, The Queen.

Listening to her now, it’s no stretch of the imagination to see that this rockabilly filly is the original Debbie Harry, Chrissy Hynde and Joan Jett—a good girl who wanted to make a big bad racket; simultaneously purring and growling her way through that “music out of Hell.”

I recently spoke to Jackson about her life, legacy, and even Lady GaGa. Read on to check out the interview, and then come see The Queen herself when she shows Madison what a real rock and roll show is all about at The High Noon Saloon later tonight! Get your tickets here.

What was it that attracted you to music in the beginning?

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, my daddy put a little guitar in my hands and he began showing me chords. My dad was a musician—not trained, but a musician—and in his younger days he had a band that played a little bit around Oklahoma on weekends and things. He played guitar and fiddle. He was always singing, always playing records. He loved music.

I need to back up a bit. He and mother would love to dance, [and when] we were living in Los Angeles, every weekend there would be some big Western swing band that had a dance somewhere. So they would go dancing. I’m an only child, and their friends, one couple, had an only child also, so they brought us along to the dance. My mother said that she never really had to worry about where I was because I was always standing right in front of the bandstand—looking up and watching and listening to the music. So from the very beginning, I’ve loved music. Then Dad began showing me chords and it wasn’t too long before I could use the pick and keep a rhythm. He would have me back him if he played fiddle, so that was the beginning. We’d sing together a lot of times.

So it all stemmed from your family.

Yeah, just my dad, yeah. Mother, she loved to dance, but she was a workaholic. You couldn’t get her to sit down long enough to sing with us. She’d write out all the lyrics to the popular songs, and I still have the book where she’s written down all these songs for Daddy to sing. My mother’s still alive—I’m sounding like she’s already gone, but she isn’t. So, that’s why I don’t mention mother, because she doesn’t relate to music.

You started out wanting to be a country singer, right?

That’s all I was exposed to, yeah. That’s about all there was. There was two categories and it was called Western music or pop—that was the singers like Patty Page, Kay Starr and those people. Rosemary Clooney. So I knew that I liked the Western music. Then it became country Western, then before long they dropped the “western” so today we just say “country.”  Just a little history for you there.

Wanda Jackson

And you eventually became introduced to rockabilly too, which certainly had some country influences.

I was introduced by The King himself—Elvis. I had already signed with Decca records in my junior year, so [after graduating high school] I’d already had a couple of songs that were in the Billboard country charts. My name was pretty well known around Oklahoma and Texas, so I was ready to go on tour.

My dad found Bob Neal out of Memphis that was a booking agent. He called him and said who he was and who I was, and Bob was familiar with my name, and could be book some dates for tours for me? Bob said “Well, as a matter of fact, I would love to do that because I have a young man that I book and he’s getting very very popular, very fast. He works a lot of shows and we could use a girl singer on the shows.” That’s another little piece of history for you: no matter how many men were on a show, if they had a woman it was just one. They never had two women acts and two men or something.

So, I began working with Elvis and I toured with him, not on a constant basis. I did other jobs by myself and had a national TV show and things, but I worked long tours with him throughout half of ’55, all of ’56, and a little bit into ’57 until he went to Hollywood to start his movie career. He was my rock and roll influence, and he was the one that suggested I start doing it. I thought he was crazy! I thought, “I can’t do that kind of music,” and he said, “I know that you can.”

Wanda Jackson Elvis Presley

[He] explained to me why he thought I should, because it was getting so popular, and if I wanted to sell records I needed to aim my songs at the young people instead of adults because the young people were just beginning to have a voice, you know. They knew what music they wanted, and I guess they had a little money coming from somewhere, and they were the ones that bought the records…That was good advice and I talked it over with my dad, who was my manager—he travelled with me—and he agreed with Elvis.

So, I changed record labels about that time. In ’56 I went to Capitol Records. We thought, “Well, this would be a good time to jump in and try this new music,” so I found a couple of songs and I started singing those and recording them, and I loved it. I just absolutely loved to sing those things! So I began writing a lot of my own material simply because there wasn’t anyone writing songs like that for girls. I was really scrounging around trying to find material like “Fujiyama Mama,” which I found on a jukebox. I was always looking for good material, but I began writing. My signature song was “Right or Wrong.” I wrote that and a lot of other rock and roll tunes.

And that was the first time you’d ever tried your hand at writing?

Yeah. I’d tried up-tempo songs, but they were just country. I found out that I did this growling and I liked that real well. It didn’t hurt when I did it. I wasn’t hurting my voice in any way, and I was the first girl to record rock and roll.

Yeah, I was curious where that growl came from. Was that something that just came about when you were playing for fun one day?

Yeah, while I was singing these songs—especially “Fujiyama Mama,” I think that may have been the first one, or maybe it was “Let’s Have A Party.” I need to check my facts on that [laughs], but it was one or the other. I usually say “Fujiyama Mama.”

You always hear about rock and roll being so shocking at the time. It was very sexual when that was very much repressed in society. Was it hard for your father, your manager, to accept that that was what you were going to be devoting your career to?

No, not at all. He was a very contemporary guy—my mother too. He just had a pretty good horse sense, you know, business sense. He knew this was the trend and could see how big music was getting. We didn’t know it would still be around fifty-something years later and how much it would change, but no, he thought this was great because it’s something different.

That’s one of the pieces of advice he had given me at the beginning: not to copy anyone, to sing a song the way I felt it, to dress the way I felt comfortable and wanted to. That’s when I changed my style of dress and my mother made all of my stage clothes with fringe and rhinestones. I took the boots off and went to high heels. I put some glamour into country music and rockabilly, as it turned out.

Wanda Jackson

I never had a hit with rockabilly until 1960 and I began recording it in ’56, so you know, I wasn’t getting airplay. They were, as you said, all up in the air–all the adults and DJs and everyone else—about this raucous music and music out of Hell. I had already given up on recording any more of that. I went right back to country, and that’s when I got the hit “Right or Wrong.” For those four year there, we would put a rock song on one side of the single and a country song on the other to make sure I could get airplay on one side or the other, to keep my popularity up where I could do my own shows and make a name for myself.

You started performing at such a young age. Initially, did you really fully understand the significance of what you were doing for music and for women?

No, I never thought of that because the whole mindset of society was totally different in the ‘50s than it is now. I always thought that after I graduated high school that I might want to work at some job a couple of years, but the main aim was to get married and make a home; become a housewife. We didn’t have many choices. We had that, or we could be a secretary, or a nurse, airline stewardess, and things like that. I liked airline stewardess. That looked interesting, but I was too short. You had to be 5’5” I think in order to be one, and I was way under that [laughs], but I never thought about [being] the first to do this or that.

It was just what I wanted to do, and if the public liked it, fine, but if they didn’t, I was still going to do it. My audiences loved the rock and roll stuff when I did it in person, so it was kind of mind-boggling that if adults liked the stuff when I sang it in person, why wouldn’t the radio people air it? It just had me totally baffled, because people wanted to know, “Was that out on a record?” they’d ask me. “Well, yes it is, it’s available.” “Well, I’ve never heard it before.” So, people can’t buy your music if they never hear it.

Well, that thankfully changed, eventually.

Yeah, women have come such a long way and I’m very proud of our women today—for the most part. [laughs]

What do you think your greatest legacy or influence on the music world has been?

Well, when I was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame…in my heart I thought, “I’m not so sure I deserve to be in that hall of fame because I never had smash hits or anything.” But when the Hall Of Fame put me in the category that they did, which was called Early Influence, then I felt comfortable because I knew I had been an influence, and you know, a force that had to be dealt with. [laughs] That’s kind of what rock and roll is all about.

Do you think your attitude–just being very brave and confident—has been just as big of an influence as your music has?

That’s what I’m hearing today from my fans—the young adults. The girls, that’s what they tell me: that I’ve influenced them. And the fact that I’m still touring and doing it well enough that I’m drawing good crowds and all that, it gives them hope that in their career they can also do that–be able to work as long as they want to, even into their seventies.

Wanda Jackson

That’s incredibly valuable. I mean, you have a whole career to be proud of, but certainly that aspect is huge as well.

Yeah, I think as far as the legacy, I think you’re right. That would be the main thing that I did. I broke some walls down, even with country music. Not that I did different types of material or sang it different, but there just weren’t that many women doing any kind of country recording. I was about the third one. So, I jumped in there, and then I jumped into rock and roll. I tried everything I could because I love music, and I love being able to sing a variety of the types of songs.

Related to that, speaking of breaking walls down, you’ve struck me as someone that’s always taken risks musically and been willing and open to the idea of collaborating with all sorts of different artists.

And I’m so glad that that can be done today. You know, when Elvis Costello wanted to record with me on my comeback album in ’04, that really shocked me. Back in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and maybe into the ‘70s–I don’t know when things changed–but if you recorded a duet, it had to be with someone who was on your own label. I couldn’t record with a Decca artist, for instance. Why, I don’t know, but I was very glad to see that barrier broken by somebody—whoever it was.

Your latest collaboration is with Jack White. [The White Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather frontman recently produced a series of songs with Jackson on his Third Man Records label.] How did that come about?

My publicist, my husband and I were talking one time about what kind of [album I wanted] to do next if a company came by and was interested in recording me. I hadn’t been out on the pavement knocking on doors wanting a contract because these days I don’t have to do that. They come to me if they’re interested, but it’s nice to have something in mind, some direction you want to go.

So, we decided to do an album of duets with people that I’ve influenced. [My publicist] mentioned this to a friend in Nashville that’s in the business and she said, “Well, if that comes about, be sure you ask Jack White, because he’s about the biggest artist on the planet right now, among the top ones. He loves the early rock and roll music, early country, and I happen to know that he has Wanda Jackson’s records and is a fan of hers to.” So that’s what [he] did. He gave him a call and Jack said, right off the bat, “Well, I’m not interested in doing a duet with her on her album…but I would be interested in recording her on my label and doing a single and an album with her.” So boy, that was exciting! It was very scary for me.

Wanda Jackson Jack White

Why was that?

I don’t know. Age has changed some of that attitude, you know. But anyway, we talked to him and agreed that we’d try this. He began sending me material that he wanted me to do. It was all good stuff, but I just thought, “This isn’t my style of music. A Bob Dylan song? A Johnny Cash song? And Amy Winehouse?” It was just a bit scary for me at this point because I have so many fans of this rockabilly music that I thought, “If I do something like this, they’re going to think I’ve abandoned them. They’re not going to like it.” Was I ever surprised! They not only like it, they love it!

So, my husband dragged me almost literally kicking and screaming into Nashville and got me in the studio. Jack had laid down some music tracks already and I just jumped in. One of them I had to learn right there on the spot because I was kind of determined that I wasn’t going to do this project. Isn’t that strange? But really it’s true…I was just afraid.

But anyway, Jack had to teach me this Amy Winehouse song right there, practically on the spot. He had changed some lyrics, softened it up just a bit from her lyrics, so that made me happy. I wasn’t singing some of that second verse that she sung, so it worked. He was literally singing in my ear and showing me the structure of the song. He kept saying, “I want you to push. Push some more. Give me that growl. Give me that Wanda Jackson sound!” Once I got a handle on what he was wanting, then it smoothed out. They were still hard songs to sing for me, but I loved the challenge. All of a sudden I said, “Hey, I love this!”

So I have to be pushed a lot. People don’t realize that because they think I’m this big strong woman, and very confident in everything I do, when I’m really quite the opposite.

Wanda Jackson

Is that true? Even early on you needed to be pushed like that?

In a lot of ways I did, [but] not nearly as much. I was willing to try anything. It wasn’t that I always liked it in the beginning…we were out there just chasing trends, trying to get in on it. It was about all anybody could do because the music industry was turned upside down. Everything that we felt we knew had changed. I should have been afraid at that point, but that didn’t scare me. Anyway, I’ve told you more than I’d tell most people.

I appreciate your honesty.

Well, you sound very sweet. [laughs]

Thank you! Well, we’ve talked about what your impact has been on other generations, but what have you learned from the people that you’ve collaborated with? Jack White, for instance, or Elvis Costello, or The Cramps…

Yeah, I learn from just about any entertainer. I’m just a fan of singers and their music. I don’t study them or try to tear them apart. Like Lady GaGa, you know, I think, “Man, she’s great! There’s no two ways about it.” And she knows what it takes to get the attention. It’s harder these days, but she knew how to do it. She’s got a great voice and she’s got a lot of talent. So yeah, I learn from everyone a little something.

I’ve learned from Elvis [Presley] don’t take yourself so serious, because he had so much fun out on stage. Working with him and watching him night after night I just saw him enjoying the audience and the music. [He] wasn’t worried about if they liked him…you know, like us girls, we’re always worrying about something. So I just learned to relax and kid with the audience and have fun with them. I’ve been doing that ever since.

My daddy, another thing he told me in the beginning, he said, “Just remember to have fun. You have fun, and your audience will have fun.” So he was a pretty wise guy. I finally learned how to do that.

Wanda Jackson

Are there any artists our there that you haven’t collaborated with that you’d like to record or tour with?

Oh yeah, there’s always a lot of them, but I probably won’t have the chance because we draw different types of people—different ages and things like that. Yeah, I’d love to record with Tanya Tucker. She’s about my favorite female singer. Vince Gill. I’d love to tour with Garth Brooks just to watch his performance and hear him and that great band. I really would. Brooks and Dunn. I love them. Is that enough? I don’t need to go on? [laughs]

Sure, that’s fine. Are you still writing songs of your own now?

No, for some reason…It seemed like the need for the songs wasn’t there anymore, so I kind of dropped my guard and I just stopped thinking about it. Consequently, music began to change a lot. And then when I thought, “Maybe I should try writing,” I just found that the songs are structured different; the rhythms and melodies are so different.

I talked to another great songwriter—this was in the ‘80s and ‘90s—it was Hank Thompson, who had written almost all of his material most of his whole career. I asked him about it and he said, “I can’t write the stuff that they’re doing now. I just don’t have that knack to do it.” And I was the same way. So, to answer your question, to make a long story out of a short one, no, I don’t write anymore. That’s the main reason why. Music has changed and I didn’t stay up with it in the beginning, so I’m kind of floundering in the water.

Wanda Jackson

I’ve heard you speak before about becoming a Christian and how that impacted your life. Do you remember what instigated that change for you?

I saw the need that I had in my own life for Christ. It happened in a small church. My husband and I had gone on Sunday morning. It’s a church that I had been a member of, actually, for 20 years. As a girl, my mother joined that church and so I joined with her, but that’s really all that it was. I had just joined a church and I hadn’t really received Christ at that point. So, my husband was there and all of a sudden it was just a knowing that this is what I need to really fulfill me. And so that morning I stepped out and my husband said, “Me too.” He felt, without even saying what we were talking about, he knew what I was getting ready to do, and he said, “I want to do that too.”

So that morning, we both gave our hearts and life to Jesus Christ. It changed us wonderfully. Of course it helped our marriage and made us better parents. We got our priorities right and a lot of [other] changes, but the main thing that happens when you become a Christian or you’re born again is the change in your own heart and the peace that you can have. You just—you can’t hardly describe it.

It’s just the knowing that Christ is there, he’s real. He’s more real than anything that we can see or hear or feel or touch. He guides my life. I just want my fans to know that if they’re floundering in life and realizing that they need a savior, and they need someone to throw them that life ring and save you, that’s what the Bible says happens: we get saved, and it changes you wonderfully…I don’t belabor the point, but I just briefly tell an audience what happened to me: that I received Christ as my lord and my savior and he made a wonderful change in my life, and I do a gospel song in just about all of my shows. People love it. They love to hear that something good has happened to people, you know. I’m not having to go to rehab! [laughs]

This is what Roseanne Cash said in her presentation speech for the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame—she presented my award to me: “She’s not a druggie, rehab reject” and stuff like that. She kept going and said, “Through all of her career, she’s kept her soul intact.” And I thought, “Man! She has a way with words.” That says it. I haven’t let the career be more important than the things that really are important.

Wanda Jackson

I assume with that you’re considering your family—your children, and your grandchildren—are they similarly musically inclined?

I have two granddaughters who love the guitar. They play guitar and took some lessons. I’m not the best teacher. I wanted them to really know the proper way to learn the chords, because I don’t pick. I don’t take a solo in a song. I just keep the chord and keep rhythm, but those girls have been on stage with me now two or three times and they do some backup singing with me. They’re just darling and it makes me so proud, of course, to have them up there with me.

That’s wonderful that you’re able to share that experience with them. I just have one more question for you. I assume the answer is yes, but I’ll ask it anyway: is it still exciting for you to be onstage and tour and share your music?

Absolutely. Without the excitement of it, I don’t think I could put up with all the travel and all that goes into that. It’s all I’ve ever known. I love travelling, and I love singing and when you can put a couple of the things that you truly love together, it makes you happy. Now to have this—it’s like a new career for me! My name is bigger now than it’s ever been. It’s shocking to me, but it’s darned exciting, I’ll say that! I love it, that’s what I live for, you know in the proper sense. I didn’t say that exactly right. I do live for other things also, but as far as my job, I want to contribute and I’m just so glad that I can. Music makes people happy and it’s an international language. It automatically breaks down a lot of barriers. I think it’s just wonderful what music can do for people.

-Shelley Peckham

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

WANDA JACKSON with special guest THE LUSTRE KINGS

High Noon Saloon – 8pm – $15 adv and dos – 21+

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2 Responses

  1. Amazing interview~ !!

  2. LONG LIVE THE QUEEN OF ROCK & ROLL I REALLY DO ENJOY HER AND HER MUSIC

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