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The Rockabilly Queen

Wed Oct 24, 2012 4:41 am



Perched in a director's chair placed in Graceland's Jungle Room, rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson was at a loss for words. Looking around the Hawaiian-themed space that Elvis Presley had used as a den and home recording studio, she appeared overwhelmed. "Knowing Elvis like I did, this is a bit much," she said. "Everything that was fun about him is crystallized in this house. It's Elvis, but he's not here."

Zina Saunders
Back in 1955 and '56, the singer-guitarist toured with Presley and dated him. Today, Ms. Jackson, 74, is one of the last original female rockabilly stars still performing and recording. Her twangy cap-gun voice and feisty confidence haven't dimmed much since her early television appearances, now posted on YouTube. But the raven-haired singer—dressed for her interview in a lipstick-red sequined top and black slacks—is no hayseed. Over the past year, she has been rediscovered by a new generation of rockers and fans curious about the music's roots.

On Tuesday, Ms. Jackson will release "Unfinished Business" (Sugar Hill), her 31st studio album, produced by folk-country musician Justin Townes Earle. It follows "The Party Ain't Over," her 2011 album produced by blues-rock guitarist Jack White. Last year she opened for Adele in North America, and Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello have hailed Ms. Jackson's sizzly voice and rock-history importance.

"In '55, most country songs were about hard times and adult life," said Ms. Jackson, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. "Rockabilly was a new wind. The electric guitar replaced the fiddle, and the music was about the back beat and the excitement of being young."

Ms. Jackson, born in Maud, Okla., moved with her parents to Los Angeles in 1942. "There was no work for my daddy after the Depression," she said. "We became Okies."

Out West, Ms. Jackson's father took odd jobs and taught her to play the guitar. "We'd go as a family to see Western swing stars like Spade Cooley, Bob Wills and Tex Williams," she said. "But in the late '40s, we had to move back to Oklahoma so my mom could care for her invalid mother."

A "double-dog dare" in 1950 by a church-group friend goosed Ms. Jackson into appearing on a local-radio talent segment. Before long she had her own show, and when country entertainer Hank Thompson heard her in 1953, he asked Ms. Jackson to sing with his band whenever he was in Oklahoma City. Records for Decca followed, and when Ms. Jackson graduated from high school in May 1955, her father became her manager.

"That June, my daddy read Billboard magazine and found a promoter in Memphis named Bob Neal," she said. "He called him, and Bob said: 'You know, I'm managing a young man now who's getting popular real fast. I'd like to book a girl on those shows, too.' We signed with Bob, and a month later in Missouri I met the young man—Elvis Presley. His hair was still sandy blond."

For the first few months, Ms. Jackson performed as a country singer-guitarist. But as Presley amped up his stage act, Ms. Jackson became transfixed. "The kids were just loving it and loving him," she said. "We didn't call it rockabilly yet. We just called it 'Elvis's kind of music.'"

After Ms. Jackson signed with Capitol in early 1956, Presley had a talk with her and her father. "He said if I wanted to sell records, I needed to record what kids wanted to hear," she said. "But I didn't think I could pull off what he was doing."

By then, the two performers were an item. Presley gave Ms. Jackson his diamond-studded dinner ring and called her promptly at 4:30 p.m. each day at her parents' home when they weren't on tour. "We both were only-children and we both had music careers—though his was out of sight and mine was barely hanging in there," she said. "He wanted me to stretch."

To give Ms. Jackson a boost, Elvis drove her to his parents' home on Audubon Drive. "We spent an innocent afternoon in his bedroom," she said. "He put on records for me and played guitar and sang. It wasn't a formal lesson, but he gave me what I needed: the courage to try his style. So I began singing his way—freer, with more teenage attitude and that vocal hiccup."

She picked up other sassy tips from the wings. "Elvis never took himself seriously and just had fun on stage," Ms. Jackson said. "He flirted with the girls, and his charm was his shyness. That's why when I'm up there today, I make eye contact with everyone in the first few rows. I like to have fun with them."

Ms. Jackson's first rockabilly record in 1956—"I Gotta Know"—was followed by a string of singles, including "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad," "Fujiyama Mama" and "Let's Have a Party," as well as her own songs "Cool Love," "Rock Your Baby" and "Mean, Mean Man." But like other female rockabilly artists who followed Ms. Jackson, success had its limits. "Teenage girls bought most of the records then, so guys' singles sold best," she said.

In January 1957, Elvis began spending more time in Hollywood, ending the rural tours and puppy love. "I never foolishly believed I was Elvis's only girl," Ms. Jackson confessed. "I wasn't in love with Elvis. I thought the world of him. I had a crush on him. And that was it." Ms. Jackson married Wendell Goodman, an IBM executive, in 1961. They had two children, and she began recording country and gospel albums as pop-rock and R&B rapidly eclipsed rockabilly.

What was Presley's most attractive feature? "Oh, his eyes," Ms. Jackson said, closing her own. "They were all smoky and smoldering." Was he a good kisser? "Yeah," she said softly, dragging out the word. "Had to be if I was going to go with him." And what about that ring? "Oh, I still have it." ... da+jackson

Re: The Rockabilly Queen

Wed Oct 24, 2012 7:58 am

Just saw Wanda Jackson in concert last week near Philadelphia, Pa. It was a small theater and shamefully only about 125 people were there. The theater holds about 550 people.

Wanda put on a great show and spoke with the audience about Elvis and his impact on her life and career. A lovely woman. Her back Up band The High Dollar Band was incredible.

Re: The Rockabilly Queen

Wed Oct 24, 2012 7:41 pm

Wanda Jackson is my all time favourite female rock'n'roll singer. Mean Mean Man is my favourite track of hers. I gotta Know (not the Elvis song) is a great combination of country and rock and her version of Let's Have A Party is fantastic.

She is Elvis's female rock-a-billy counterpart 8)

Re: The Rockabilly Queen

Thu Oct 25, 2012 7:19 am

I think Elvis' Female Rock counterpart is none other than, "Joan Jett". Elvis and Joan in their leather get ups.....nothing but pure royalty! And the plus is that Joan still rocks and never sold out or gave up. Maybe she learned some valuable info from one of her fallen idols.

Re: The Rockabilly Queen

Thu Oct 25, 2012 12:59 pm

Deke Rivers II wrote:I think Elvis' Female Rock counterpart is none other than, "Joan Jett". Elvis and Joan in their leather get ups.....nothing but pure royalty! And the plus is that Joan still rocks and never sold out or gave up. Maybe she learned some valuable info from one of her fallen idols.

She sure does look the part, just a bit young at 54 :wink: but just the right age for the 80's rock'n'roll revival :)

Re: The Rockabilly Queen

Sat Oct 27, 2012 5:17 am

The rockabilly princess is Little miss dynamite Brenda Lee.who at 11 in 1956 could out sing anybody back then.Brenda and Wanda are still great after all these years.

Re: The Rockabilly Queen

Sat Oct 27, 2012 2:01 pm

Wanda Jackson ROCKS!!!!