Six Questions For ... Wanda Jackson

Let's have a party!

All hail the queen of rockabilly! That'd be Wanda Jackson, the tough-voiced trailblazer who in the 1950s helped sire this thing that eventually came to be known as rock and roll.

On May 18, a new documentary about Jackson - "The Sweet Lady With the Nasty Voice" - will begin playing on the Smithsonian Channel. And this Thursday, Jackson - still touring at the age of 70 - will perform at Jammin' Java.

What do you think will be higher in your obituary: A nod to your status as the "queen of rockabilly" or a reference to the fact that you used to date Elvis?

It's more my status as the first female to do rock and roll. In interviews, we always do talk about the fact that I dated Elvis and that we were good friends. He was the one that encouraged me to stretch myself and sing this kind of music, which I didn't think I could. He seemed to know something I didn't know. He was just anxious to see me have the career he thought I should have. He was concerned and interested; that was very flattering to me. I found that I really loved singing these songs.

But I think the main thing will be my pioneering in that field and opening doors for other women. Plus, I changed the look of clothes for the girls in country music. I got out of cowboy boots and hats and full skirts and dressed the way I wanted to dress. I broke some rules. I decided maybe I was covering up things I shouldn't be covering. (Laughs.) My mother being my seamstress, we came up with the straight skirts and the off-the-shoulder spaghetti strap dresses with the silk fringes that moved without me having to actually move a lot. It gave me a lot of movement anyway. That turned out to be a style that everyone jumped on. They started copying me.

So if you helped open up the world of rock and roll for women, does that mean we should blame you for Tila Tequila?

(Laughs.) No! I'd rather not be given credit for that. Rock and roll was our music. It was called rockabilly at the time, I guess because we had been country singers, most of us, and country singers were known as hillbilly singers. None of us liked it, but Elvis became "The Hillbilly Cat." From that came rockabilly. It was the first rock-and-roll music. And then, somewhere in the '60s I guess, it started changing, getting more and more radical until you have what you have today. I think Elvis would turn over in his grave if he heard and saw what's going on today. So no, I don't want to want to be referred to with that bunch.

(Four more after the jump.)

Summer of 1955: You have a record deal, you've just graduated high school and all of the sudden, you're on the road with Elvis Presley. It's not exactly the average life of a teenager from Maud, Oklahoma, is it?

Probably not; I think you're safe in saying that. I had been really anxious to get out of school. I'm not very scholarly. I just wanted to tour and sing and get out in the world. I'd signed with Decca Records when I was a junior in high school and I'd had a couple of hit records. And so by summer of '55, I was ready to go out and see the world.

My folks thought it best if they could help me, and they decided my dad would go with me, act as my manager and drive and that sort of thing. My mother stayed home. She had a very good job with the government and she also made all of my stage clothes. She was a very busy lady. We didn't really know how to get started but my dad had a Billboard and saw the name of Bob Neal and just called him to explain the situation: That I'd had some hits, I was getting well-known, I was ready to tour and would he like to book some shows for me. He said it was good timing for him; he was booking a young man who was really getting popular and his name was Elvis Presley.

We hadn't heard of him at that point in Oklahoma, or at least I hadn't. So I didn't have any idea who I was working with. But my first tour right out of high school was with Elvis. I wound up working with him for the next couple of years, through January of '57, when he went to Hollywood and began making movies. Bob Neal continued to book me quite a bit with him, because so many of the men stars couldn't work with him. When they'd be on stage, the audiences would be stomping and hollering, "We want Elvis!" It made it very hard for the men to work with him.

I talked to a guy recently, a disc jockey, and we were talking about this very thing: Why did the audience accept me being on the show when they didn't accept stars who were much bigger than I was? This guy said: "We knew one thing. If Elvis was in town and you had a date with your girlfriend, well that's where you were going. We looked forward to seeing Wanda Jackson on the show, and the girls looked forward to seeing Elvis." (Laughs.) It worked pretty good.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame still hasn't given you a sniff, which continues to give some of your fans fits. Elvis Costello has even written an open letter, urging the Rock Hall's voters to induct you. Is that something you really, really want?

Yes, I suppose. You're always flattered when you're inducted into these things, but I had never had given it much thought until my husband and my fans started talking about it. "Why hasn't this happened for Wanda?" As you said, it's caused some interest. I'm nominated every year, we know that much. And I've been on the final ballot before. But they've just overlooked me.

My husband and my fans have worked very hard to get the word out. My documentary will help. There are some pretty high-powered names asking the same question about why I'm not there. I feel like it will happen eventually as soon as the right people get word of what I really did, being brave enough in 1956-1957 to sing these rock and roll songs just like the guys were doing. At that point in time, I felt nobody was ready to accept a teenage girl singing these songs. I sang that music for four or five years, and then I just decided I was not going to make it with rock-and-roll songs.

I had a No. 1 rock song with "Fujiyama Mama" It wasn't in America; it was in Japan, which is very odd. But I finally had to just give it up. And as soon as I did, "Let's Have a Party," an obscure song buried in a country album, was discovered by a disc jockey in Iowa and it became so popular through his radio show that he contacted Capitol Records and said, "You're missing the boat if you don't pull this out of the album and make this a single." And they did that, took his suggestion and gave me a hit nationally and then shortly after that internationally. It was a signature song for me. Had it not been for my country following, I probably would have been a name that nobody would have heard of today.

Elvis Costello says in the open letter that if you "look around today ... you can hear lots of rocking girl singers who owe an unconscious debt to the mere idea of a woman like Wanda. She was standing up on stage with a guitar in her hands and making a sound that was as wild and raw as any rocker, man or women, while other gals were still asking, 'How much is that doggy in the window?'" Did you feel radical back in the mid-50s?

I guess I did. And I liked that. My dad had always encouraged me to be different, to be myself. Don't copy anybody else. Do what you feel you want to do, say it the way you want to say it. I felt quite free to do that. I had no problems with my parents or my friends or anything. They liked it. I was a teenager and this was our generation's music. To me, it felt quite natural that I do that.

Elvis Costello is also featured in the documentary, "The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice." I think you dated the wrong Elvis!

Well, he wasn't around then. (Laughs.) My husband said a cute thing. I talk about Elvis so much to fans and in interviews, and then Elvis Costello and I recorded a song together for my album a few years back, then all of the sudden I was talking about him. My husband said that's all he needed, was another Elvis in his life. The poor guy has to hear about both of them all the time. But we've been married 47 years. I got the right person.

By J. Freedom du Lac |  May 8, 2008; 7:42 AM ET Interviews
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The Smithsonian Channel? We have FiOS and I'm pretty sure we don't get that. How about a little more commonplace cable channel for your fans?

Posted by: Elvira | May 8, 2008 3:51 PM

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