A Hotel Room Chat with Wanda Jackson, First Lady of Rock N’ Roll
Wanda Jackson, Live in 2007. Photo by the author.
“We do need a girl…” type of thinking got Wanda Jackson on tour with Elvis in 1955, where he convinced her to play rockabilly, and gave her his ring.
Wanda already stood out from the country scene, coming out of Oklahoma, glamming up the cowboy look with long earrings, silk fringe, and black hair.
As rockabilly carved a dance party out of country and blues, Wanda Jackson became the first female rocker, the first woman to growl and squeal and shake this new kind of music and culture into existence.
This past weekend, she played her yearly show at the Knitting Factory, at age 70, making history and spreading a little gospel.
The following conversation takes place in her hotel room, sifting through newspaper clippings and photos, which her husband brings everywhere they go, just in case.
Wendell (Wanda’s husband): Thought.
Wendell: Thought, would it be good to dedicate “I Saw the Light” to Janis Joplin? Or is that a little morbid? …Janice Mar-, uh…
Wanda: You said it right.
Wendell: Martin. I said Joplin.
Wanda: Oh! Janis Joplin! I was thinking Martin.
Wendell: Anyways, I thought. Okay?
Wanda [To Daiana]: Have you heard of Janis Martin? Rockabilly girl singer from my era. Her one big hit was “My Boy Elvis.” Some of the rock and roll people know her. The kids. I say kids, I mean young adults.
D: Do your fans surprise you?
Wendell: The writer?
Wanda: Oh…Where’s that paper? Where is that paper? That I showed you.
Wendell: I don’t have it.
Wanda: The one from Santa Barbara.
Wendell: Oh, Santa…Yeah, I have that. Stephen King?
Wanda: Stephen King. He named “Let’s Have A Party” the number ten, I think, all time great song.
D: Well, the way you sing it. Even the songs you covered. You did that Buddy Holly song (“Oh Boy”) in such a different way that’s just, the best.
W: Well, you’re a girl.
D: True. But, for people who know, and people who don’t, here we are at the very beginning, the birth of hip.
W: Kind of started it, yeah.
Wendell: Did ya want to see this now?
Wanda: This is from Santa Barbara Weekly.
D: And your mom made this dress?
W: Yeah, she made all of them.
D: Did you keep any?
W: Not enough. I was hard on my clothes. Even on this one, there’s a rhinestone missing. When I was through with a garment, I’d just say, “Mother, this is looking too frayed” or something. Well she’d take everything that was reusable. If the zipper was still good, rhinestones that were still sparkly, she’d take them off.
D: What inspired these infamous outfits?
W: I was a big fan of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor in those days. I wanted to look sexy or glamorous. A full cowboy skirt and boots just isn’t gonna get it. I’m short and hippy. I look squatty and dumpy in those things. Mother made a lot of my street dresses too. We just got our heads together and said, let’s don’t use that heavy leather fringe. So we went to the silk fringe. It moves a lot better.
D: That’s for sure, and with that you shook up the audience, and fashion in music.
W: It just kind of happened. In the ‘60s, I went to something different. Those shiny, pretty, stra-pless beaded tops. It’s a soft, sparkly material. And it’s very flattering when you’re getting chunky. So, it covers up a multitude of sins.
D: Speaking of sparkly sins, you spent a bit of time in Vegas. At the inception of all we know Vegas to be. The first hi-rise (9 stories), multi-coin slots…
W: I did. The Showboat was the first one that wanted to use a country artist. The Showboat just had the lounge, they didn’t have the big showrooms. It was hard work, but I was young, and thought it was okay. I worked the Showboat and then the Golden Nugget, which was a much bet-ter venue.
D: You were doing country and rockabilly at the same time? Can you separate things into chapters?
W: One thing happened. I had “Let’s Have A Party.” It was a hit. But that wasn’t until 1960, hmm—I’ve got to get this straightened out, Wendell, in my mind.
Wendell: I am not responsible. I didn’t know you then.
Wanda: He’s my brain. He’s my memory. I had to form the band. We called them The Partytimers. We did five shows a night. 45 on, 15 off.
D: Five shows a night?!
W: I guess that was 1960. But I’d been working in Vegas since about ‘57…no, not ’57, ’58.
D: Okay, let’s trace from Elvis?
W: I graduated from high school. In 1955. He was the first person I toured with. ‘Course, I didn’t know him. He didn’t have that big a name yet. He did very shortly and just went up so fast. My daddy contacted Bob Neal who was booking Elvis. I already had a couple’a records that had done good, even though I was still in high school. Bob said, “I could use her on this show with this young man I’m booking now. He’s getting really popular, but we do need a girl.” And so that’s how that began. We did several extended tours. The rest of ’55, all of ’56 and into January of ’57. It wasn’t too unusual for me to work a show with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and then some country artist like Hank Snow or Ray Pierce. Then Elvis came to Hollywood to start making movies.
D: What do you think draws people to this snippet of history?
W: Everyone, especially your age people, I think, long for the days like we had, when we were teenagers and young adults. It was a totally different world. Of course the mindset was totally different, much more conservative. My act on stage, they make it sound like I was really wild, but, you know, I wasn’t.
D: Just a little fringe. You also, I noticed in videos, no matter what the song, you have this sort of smirk, even on a sadder tune, even it’s more of a sassy song or a racy song. And the growling, of course.
W: For those times it was unusual to have that energy that I put into my songs. As a little girl, I remember we lived out here and I was influenced by, I was only six and seven and eight maybe, but Rose Maddox. She was really feisty and sang good and was all over the stage and I thought, that’s what I want to do when I grow up.
D: What’s a hiccup?
W: It’s like Elvis did, like [demonstrates]…And then, the growl [demonstrates].
D: Where’d that come from?
W: I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know if there was somebody that did the growling like that. I did a lot of Chuck Berry and Little Richard songs, but they don’t do that.
D: Maybe the hiccup.
W: Maybe, but not that growl. And Elvis didn’t. I guess it was just me. You know, I got to thinking the other day, I’ve never held down a job. I’ve never made a penny doing anything but singing. I never babysat. I never soda jerked. From the word go I was singing somewhere.
D: And you’ve done whatever was important to you when it was important, which is admirable. You left Vegas and showbiz and Grammy nominations and went into gospel (1971).
W: When I wanted to do that, I did that. Oh, my secular career suffered maybe. But I wouldn’t take anything for it. My husband and I had a ministry for fifteen years. We saw a lot of lives touched and changed and it felt very gratifying.
D: What prompted that need in you, to change?
W: We all have the need. We don’t recognize it, at least not until a certain point. Somewhere in your life, it’ll happen. We all need a savior. Everyday, one way or another, through our thoughts or our actions. So, you ask for forgiveness and it’s there. The life we were living was pretty hard, traveling with the band, working. Gone from our children all the time. That way of life, like, partying, every night’s a party, you know, it can be. So, we were at a crossroads. We’d been married ten years. But, it’s like, “Who’s gonna be the boss here? Am I gonna answer to you or…” So, there’s no more fighting over who’s the boss, we both have the same boss.
D: What about coming back?
W: What brought me back to secular country music first and then into rockabilly again was a man in Sweden who had a record company and was a fan of mine. He contacted us—I don’t know how he found us—and said he would like me to come to Sweden and make an album and let him set up a tour. And I thought, “Well, okay. I can’t see how I have any fans in Sweden.” And, my gosh, we started touring in great big auditoriums and concert venues. Now I’ve been all over the world. Let me tell you. It’s a big world when you go around it. I’ve been going to Sweden every year since 1985. We went almost up to the North Pole. This little town in Norway. We rode a train all day. Then they met us with a bus. We drove for two hours. Then we got on a ferry, and then they picked us up in a car. I thought we never would get there. And it was in the Arctic Circle! So I’ve really been around and up the world. South Africa is big on country music. France only knows me as rock and roll. We go there every year.
D: What was it like, dusting off the old songs?
W: All night long, every night, I sing the old things: “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad,” and “Fujiyama Mama” and “Let’s Have a Party.” So…I guess I wrote some good songs. At first, when they started wanting me to do rockabilly in Sweden, I thought, I’m gonna feel kind of silly singing a song about dating or you know… Like “Hot Dog,” it’s a song about dating this…guy [and getting him on his knees] But, once I started singing I really enjoyed them. I just like to sing. I like the song I’m singing. I have so much fun singing “Let’s Have A Party.” And “Right or Wrong,” I wrote that one. Uh, my mouth is dry. I had to take a pain pill a while ago. Do you ever take pain pills? It makes your mouth dry.
Wendell [to Daiana]: Where do you live?
D: Los Feliz.
Wendell: In what? Is that where the Derby club is?
D: Down the street.
Wendell: That sounds romantic.
Wanda: This picture was taken in the Derby club. I loved that place. That club was so unique be-cause it still looked like the 40’s or 30’s when it was built. And we’d do a club in San Francisco like that…um…
W: Bimbos! I thought of it and then I forgot it by the time I got it said. Try to go too many different directions, ‘cause so much has happened, so I get all confused.
Wanda Jackson, Live in 2007. Photo by the author.
SOME WANDA ON THE YOUTUBE