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You could never tell by looking at her now, that the modest, well-dressed 73-year-old woman sitting before me at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, TN recently was once va-va-va-voom Wanda Jackson, one of the very first successful female country singers, and one-time girlfriend of Elvis Presley.

In case you thought that looks don’t deceive, that idea was crushed as Jackson began speaking about her years in show business, beginning at age 14, when she met the legendary Hank Thompson. A slide show of photographs of her through the years was projected on a large screen as she spoke, showing her beautiful face, framed by flowing curly black hair, and her tantalizing figure, clothed in sexy, skin-tight western gear. It became clear why the king of rock & roll and so many others fell for the beauteous young singer. And even though beauty fades, it has been Jackson’s persistence and enormous talent that have kept her in the limelight--enough so that the very sought-after Jack White, (yes, that Jack White) is producing her next album, to be called aptly, The Party Ain’t Over (release date January 25, 2011 on Third Man Records).

Wanda Jackson Head ShotJackson’s career began in the forties, when her father, a musician, first put a guitar in her hands. “He began showing me some chords,” she explained, “and I began to play, with an Uncle Sam hat on. You know, it was the war days. The first song I remember learning was Jimmy Rogers ‘Blue Yodel #6’ and I still do it today.”

She continued, “My mother loved to dance, and in California, where we were living at this time, every weekend you had some big name Western swing bands playing. So my parents would go dancing, and another thing in those days, people didn’t get babysitters so much. If they went to a movie or out dancing I went with them. So I kind of grew up in this adult atmosphere. That’s where I saw people like Rose Maddox, and I thought she was just fabulous. She wore pretty, flashy clothes, and she was so feisty. ‘Boy,’ I said, ‘I wanna be like her. I wanna stand on a stage and sing.’ So it was kind of born in me, I think, and it was all I ever wanted to do.  I can honestly say I never made one penny in my life doing anything but singing.”

Her first stroke of luck came early, when Jackson was just a teenager in high school. “Hank Thompson was just my favorite—my all-time favorite singer and star. He had the number one Western swing band at the time, and number one record. I had a little radio show at 5:15 every day after school, and I went up there and did my fifteen minute show. One day after the program, someone came and said, ‘Wanda, you have a phone call.’ I went to the phone and it was Hank Thompson! I just about fainted. I could not believe it was him.”

He said, “I’d like to know if you’d come down and sing with me and the band this Saturday night.” At this time I was 14, maybe 15, and I said, ‘Golly, Mr. Thompson, I would love to, but I have to ask my mother first.’ He said, ‘Well, how old are you, girl?’ So that’s how it started. I met him that night and he became my mentor and one of my dearest friends, got me my first recording contract with Decca while I was still a junior in high school.”

At first, Jackson recorded what at the time was straight-ahead country music. “There were no drums on those records,” she said, of the Nashville-controlled studio sound. But then, she met a boy named Elvis Presley through her booking agent, Bob Neal. Presley, she claimed, not only introduced her to Rockabilly, but encouraged her to sing it. “More than once,” she added. “I mean, he seemed to just really be interested. He wanted me to do well and he explained to dad and I both that  ‘most people have always recorded material aimed to an adult audience because they were the ones who bought records. But that’s changing.’ And of course, you could see it. Every night, the young people were there screamin’ and hollerin’.”Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley

“Elvis said, ‘In order to sell a lot of records you need to aim these songs at the young people.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t think I can do it like you do. I’ve never sung anything but country.’ And he just seemed to have faith in me. He said, ‘I just know you can. You’ve got the spirit for it, you’ve got the voice.’ And he took me out to his home in Memphis, and one afternoon—we were working that night I guess—he played records for me and picked up a guitar and said, ‘See, you can take a song like that and do this to it.’”

When asked if she remembers what songs Elvis played, exactly, she replies, laughing, “You’ve got to be kidding me. I was 17. I was in Elvis Presley’s bedroom. I don’t remember. His mother was home, also,” she added.

But her lack of memory had no effect on her how she remembered feeling after singing Rockabilly for the first time. “I loved it. I loved to sing. I loved the freedom that I felt. And another thing, I’m a teenager. This is my generation’s music. Always before I was singin’ mommy and daddy’s generation’s, so this was all new and exciting to me.”

Jackson also admitted to dating Elvis, “but not in the traditional sense,” she clarified. “Because the only time we saw each other was when we were on tour working.” But that didn’t stop the King from giving her his ring.Yeah, he asked me to be his girl but uhh, I don’t know how many other girls he had,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t ask. So then he gave me his ring and I wore it for about a year.”

Where early Rock & Roll was pivotal in the breaking-down of race barriers, Jackson was a step ahead, touring with a racially mixed band. “I didn’t get much negative feedback, but poor Al [her pianist], it was very hard on him and he couldn’t check in—not supposed to be in the same hotels we were in, couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain, and he couldn’t get off the stage, sometimes all night long. They didn’t want him mixing. He could play, but he couldn’t mix. It was just sad, you know.”

Wanda Jackson in FringeShe was also sexually progressive, wearing provacative stage costumes, that raised quite a few eyebrows and even a bit of controversy. “Well, I just remember turning some heads and hearing some whistling,” she said. “I started out wearing full skirts and boots and a cowboy hat, but I never was very comfortable in that, you know, playing the guitar. Mother had always sewn all of my clothes—she was a professional seamstress for a period, so that was nothing unusual. But I told her, ‘I don’t like these clothes I’m wearing. These big old clunky boots and all this.’ I felt smothered. With street dress, I wore slender, tight-fitting skirts and high heels and I decided those clothes I was wearing on stage was covering up some of my assets. I said, ‘I’d like to have some fringe on ‘em still,” so she found some silky fringes and then we built a dress from there. But it didn’t change the way the other girls dressed in country music.”

Even less than changing how the girls dressed, her style had no effect on the rules of the Grand Ole Opry. “They invited me to come and sing a song on the Ernest Tubb Show. Well, that’s every country music singer’s dream, right? So, my mother and I got our heads together and we designed a special, real pretty, red, and white fringy dress. And we put rhinestones around the neck. So I was back stage and had my guitar on and I knew I was on that portion, when Ernest Tubb came back and said, ‘Now, are you Wanda Jackson?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he said, ‘Well honey, you’re on next.” So I said, ‘Ok, I’m ready.’ And he said, “Well, no no no. You can’t go on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry like that.’ And I said, ‘Like what? Was something showing?’ He said, ‘Wanda, you can’t show your bare shoulders on the stage at the Opry.’” Jackson cried as a result of the reprimand, and from that grew resentment. “So, yeah, I didn’t like that experience. When I got off, I found daddy and said, ‘Let’s just get out of here. I’m not ever coming back.’” And she hasn’t been back to the Ryman Auditorium since.

After having many, many hit songs in the 60’s and 70’s, such as the break out “Fujiyama Mama” which was a even bigger hit in far-away Japan, and stealing away her best friend’s beau, (which she justifies by citing that she and her husband have been married for 49 years, Jackson is still at it--with Jack White.

She explained how the odd-pairing came about. “I was talking with my publicist. I said, ‘Let’s do a Wanda Jackson and Friends.’ I had never done that kind of an album. He said, ‘Ok’ and we started thinking along those lines. He found out through a friend of his here in Nashville that Jack White was a pretty big fan of mine. Of course, he loves all kinds of music. Someone described Jack White as being a young man with an old soul. So John called him and said, ‘Jack, Wanda is thinking of doing this kind of an album, would you be interested in doing a duet with her—one or two with her, on the album?’ And just very politely, he said, ‘No, I wouldn’t be interested in doing that. But I would be interested in recording her.’ I’m sorry to say I didn’t know—I knew his name and I’ve heard of the White Stripes, but you can look at him and tell that he’s a rocker, of the new order. So Jack called my husband up and they talked about me coming in and recording a single and then if we could work together, if it felt right, we would do an album. So that’s how it came about. And I very quickly learned about Jack and his popularity. I guess he’s one of the hottest acts on the planet. Wanda Jackson Country Music Hall of FameAnd he’s interested in recording moi?”

When asked about what’s going to be on the record, Jackson said. “The single is an Amy Winehouse song ‘You Know I’m No Good.’ And, the album is—Jack loves surprises. He really does. And it’s gonna be a surprise. From the minute you open it up. I’m doin’ all kinds of songs. I’ve got a Bob Dylan song. I’ve got an Andrews Sisters—a song that goes back to WWII. The Castro Sisters. I’ve got an Elvis song. I’ve got a gospel song in there. Jack picked out an old one called “Dust On the Bible.” And just to top things off, we threw in a yodel, ‘Blue Yodel #6’ of course.”

For more about Wanda Jackson, check out / Issue 116 - September 2018
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