Elvis and Wanda Jackson first met in 1955, at a radio station while promoting a package tour that the two were a part of. 'I had never heard his name, I had never even seen him'. She remembers him as tall, dark-haired and good looking. He was wearing a yellow sports coat, with longish hair, sideburns and a ducktail, 'which was different than what my friends in Oklahoma were wearing'.
She remembers he drove off in a pink Cadillac. The guy knew how to make an impression. 'I think entertainers are just special anyway. They put their pants on one leg at a time, but there is a magnetism and a charisma about them. Elvis had charisma. Anybody that's ever known him always says the same thing'.
Elvis liked her, too, enough to try to convince her to try a different style of music, a sound geared toward teenagers that he believed would sell records. Until that time, Jackson said, recording artists aimed music toward adults.
'He took me to his home and we'd play records and he played guitar', she said. 'He'd tell me, loosen it up and do it like this. He'd play country and the blues, the music of black people - that kind of blues.
'He gave me confidence, and I promised him I'd try it. I think 'Fujiyama Mama' and 'Let's Have a Party' proved Elvis was right. I found my niche in the music world right there'.
'He broke into my train of thought and made me realize I could stretch myself', she recalls. 'I could do more than I thought I could'.
'Rockabilly was a special window of time, albeit short'. 'There was nothing like that before. 'When Elvis Presely hit the scene, he put a face and a youthfulness on the term 'rock'. Before that he was called the 'Hillbilly Cat'. Consequently, the term 'rockabilly' came into expression'.
'He was a kid then, only about 20, I guess', Jackson says. 'I was 17, 18. Sometimes, he and I would just get a hamburger and a Coke. Drive around. Talk. Get acquainted. We were young, our careers were just starting. He was so encouraging to me. He give me the courage to try this new style'.
Elvis and Wanda were part of an extended package tour just as he was becoming a superstar during 1955 and '56, along with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly and that crazy Jerry Lee Lewis. With her dad, of course, as chaperone. A girl's reputation had to be guarded, you know - . 'Our dating amounted to what we could do on the road', she says -- not to mention what they could do with her father, her manager, in tow. 'If we got in town early, we might take in a matinee movie. Then after shows we could go places with his band -- and my dad, of course'.
Rock and roll. And rockabilly. All of the guys were doing it, and Elvis was persistent. And Jackson caved. She thought, 'Maybe I should. I was a teenager, and this was my generation of music. And it would be silly not to try to do it'.
Does Wanda Jackson believe, as many musicologists insist, that she was the first female rock and roller? She pauses for just a moment. 'Yes', she says.
It's not that Jackson has gone unnoticed. She is in the country music and gospel halls of fame. And in 2005, she was a National Endowment for the Arts honoree, which spotlights folk and traditional arts. 'There were 12 of us, including a 93-year-old woman who wove Navajo rugs', Jackson says. She did take note of how few female singers had been honored by the organization over the years. 'That made it all the more special to me. Here we are, putting our American music all over the world. I've done my very best to make it pure and not make it pop music, in the poorest sense'.
Hers was an era in which rock and roll 'turned it upside down', Jackson says. 'Up until Elvis, all of our songs were geared toward an adult audience. But young people were now buying the records'.
She was quickly accepted into the club. 'I often wondered why I was able to work with him', she says of shows where everyone came to see Elvis. 'The crowd seemed to accept me; they didn't boo me, like they did some of the other artists'.
Well, if Elvis was for the girls, Wanda was for the guys. But the songs were always for the guys. 'There just wasn't that much material available for a girl, and I wouldn't get first chance at a rock and roll song', she says. 'They wanted one of the guys to get first crack at it'.
While Jackson speaks admiringly of Elvis' encouraging words, it's tough to tell to what degree Elvis was the man in Jackson's life; she doesn't tell tales. But Elvis did give her a ring, which she still has.
But soon enough, he went off to Hollywood, and they lost touch.
The last time she saw Elvis was in 1964, during a brief meeting in (while Elvis was filming 'Viva las Vegas') in Las Vegas.
Interview with Wanda Jackson By Scott Jenkins
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