Sizzling with Wanda Jackson
The Legendary rockabilly beauty performs at Workplay.
Touted as the Queen of Rockabilly, singer Wanda Jackson was the first woman to sing in a seductive, growling rock ‘n’ roll style. Jackson was discovered by country and western singer Hank Thompson in 1954 at age 17, recording her first country hit “You Can’t Have My Love” with his band. A year later, she briefly dated a then-unknown Elvis Presley, who told her that she should start singing rock ‘n’ roll. In 1956, she took his advice and hit the Top 20 country charts with the rocked up “I Gotta Know.” The following year, she recorded the smoking “Fujiyama Mama,” which hit number one in Japan despite the opening verse: “I been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too. The things I did to them, baby, I can do to you!” The sexuality of Elvis that had shaken up America appeared tame compared to Jackson’s sizzling style.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I sat in my car in the French Quarter in New Orleans and rang up Jackson at her hotel room in Del Mar, California, where she was scheduled to perform that evening. She graciously agreed to a short chat, sharing stories of her sexy, dynamic style, which, of course, upset the Grand Ole Opry in 1957 during her first appearance there. Earlier this year, she recorded The Party Ain’t Over with the White Stripes’ Jack White. Jackson will perform at Workplay on September 30. Visit www.workplay.com for details.
Black & White: When you met Elvis on the Ozark Jubilee tour in 1955 and he suggested that you sing rock ‘n’ roll, were you reluctant to give it a try?
Wanda Jackson: Oh yeah, because I didn’t think I could sing it. He convinced me that I could. As the music became more and more popular, it was sweeping the nation—and it was my generation’s music—so I loved it. I finally found a [rocking] song when a friend of mine wrote a special song for me, kind of a transition from country into rock. The song was “I Gotta Know.” It opens with a line that has a real country melody and then would break into rock ‘n’ roll, then back to that one line of country and then back into rock ‘n’ roll. It’s really a clever song. It’s still one of my most requested numbers today.
You put glamour and sex appeal into country music. Is it true that your mother designed your stage clothes in the early days?
By the time I was 16, it was high heels and everything. I had gotten very tired of the cowboy outfits that the girls wore. I didn’t look too good in those and I knew it. My mother had always sewn for me since I was a little girl, and she sewed beautifully. So we just got our heads together and we knew that I felt better in the straight skirts rather than full ones. And I wanted no sleeves, I wanted spaghetti straps. Kind of a sweetheart neck, a little cleavage. I thought fringe would be good, it would still indicate kind of a western look. So we used the short silk fringe. It really shimmied and shook when I walked. I wore the long earrings and high heels and big hair. CMT (Country Music Television) did a series on the 40 top women of country music, the most influential. I think I was number 35 on that list. They said I was the first one to bring a sexy look into country music. So since that day, I’ve worn the fringe and the low-cuts and the sparkly outfits. I still do.
I read that your first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry didn’t go over too well. Was it your style?
Yes, the dress I wore was the problem. (laughs) I only did it [played the Opry] the one time because I just really didn’t care for anything about it [the Opry]. I had been used to working with Hank Thompson and the big bands with drums and horns and the whole western swing–type music. And, of course, the Opry was very country. They didn’t allow drums. They had a lot of rules. I wasn’t a member, I was just a guest. So when I showed up in one of the dresses that I wore, I was told that I couldn’t go on the stage of the Opry dressed like that. They said, “Women can’t show their shoulders.” So, I put on a jacket and covered myself up. And I was very unhappy with the whole situation, so I said I wouldn’t ever do it again. And I didn’t until earlier this year when I was given a lifetime achievement award. It took place at the old Ryman Auditorium. I got to go on with the kind of band that I wanted, and I did rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll. So I did go back but I had it my way when I did.
Were you singing in your seductive, growling voice at all before you started singing rock ‘n’ roll?
No, actually it took the right song to bring that out. I didn’t know I could do it. (laughs) But I just felt it that way and that’s the way I sang it. I don’t know where it came from but it took rock ‘n’ roll for me to find that I could do it.
What’s the story behind you recording with Jack White?
Well, he was interested in recording me, giving me kind of a fresh sound. Of course, it was all cover songs but they were hand-picked by Jack. And it makes for a really exciting album. I’ve had so much publicity around it. At this age, having an album in the Top 20 or Top 50 or something, it’s pretty exciting for me.
You’ve got a birthday coming up on October 20. What’s it like being on the road at age 73?
Oh yeah, you would have to remind me. It’s coming ’round again (laughs). Touring is all I’m used to, I never have quit. I may have not been in the spotlight all those years or on the charts but I’ve never quit touring. It’s been 57 years that I’ve toured, so it’s my way of life and it’s all I know. &