Interview with Wanda Jackson

By: Scott Jenkins
Source: Wanda Jackson
March 3, 2019

In the beginning, Wanda Jackson was a country singer, and one day on the road Elvis said to her, 'You should do the new kind of music like I'm doing'. And Wanda said, 'But I'm just a country singer'.

And Elvis said, 'Well, I am too'. And that was that ...

Elvis Presley caught Wanda Jackson's eye through wearing a yellow sports jacket when everyone else wore blue, black or grey and driving a Pink Cadillac, when nobody had seen a pink car before. She included some of his songs in her set, including 'Good Rockin' Tonight' and 'Heartbreak Hotel'.

When asked about Elvis, Wanda says, 'When I first met him he had the wildest stage presence of any entertainer I'd ever seen, and he had a great voice. He encouraged me to do what I've been doing since he met me, and that's sing rock 'n' roll music. I owed a lot to Elvis and still think about him often'.

Elvis was hugely influential on Wanda's career as he was the one who persuaded her to switch from country music to the then new style of rockabilly. She remains equally talented at both, as illustrated by her 1956 single, 'I Gotta Know', which she sang for us, with its fast rock 'n' roll verse and slower country-style chorus.

It's well documented the impact that Elvis Presley had on you in terms of your music. You've said that he pointed you towards rock and roll as being the future of young people's music. What was the impact of rock and roll on America? Was it really like a tornado sweeping the old guard away?

Yeah, it truly was. It was so fresh and new, and lot of people - especially adults - they don't accept something so new very easily. We were finding that that's the way it was with rock and roll. But yeah, it turned the whole music industry upside down. Nothing was selling but just rock and roll; us other artists were getting frustrated. I'd been working with [Elvis] since '55 after I graduated - he was the first one I toured with, and toured with up until '57 - and it was then that he encouraged me to try this new music that was gaining popularity by the minute. And of course I could see that, but I just didn't think that I could sing it, and he just kept assuring me that I could. Because it was my generation's music - I was a teenager, seventeen.

Where did the term 'rockabilly' come from? What does it mean to you?

It was the artist that wore a guitar and... (Laughs) It's a hard term to explain! Elvis was called 'the hillbilly cat', so we think that by him having the guitar, and the word 'hillbilly' was the word for country music - that wasn't used because you're 'hillbilly music'. None of us liked that word.

It's a disparaging term, isn't it?

Yeah. I could see somebody with hay in their mouth or a corncob pipe or something. (Laughs) But that's what they dubbed him, 'the hillbilly cat'. But as the music became so popular and the word 'rock' came into being, they just kinda dropped the 'cat' and went with 'rockabilly'. I don't know who did that.

Interview with Wanda Jackson by Scott Jenkins

Wanda Jackson & Elvis
Wanda Jackson & Elvis
Wanda Jackson, now on the cusp of her 70th birthday, is the first lady of Rockabilly. 'The nice girl with the bad voice' appeared on the same bill as Elvis on the Hank Snow Jamboree in July and August 1955, and a two-week tour that traveled from Abilene, Texas, to St.Louis, Missouri, in October 1955 and again in early 1956. With a stellar career spanning decades, Wanda's commitment to music shows no signs of slowing down. I spoke to Wanda during her June 2007 tour of Australia which was a personal thrill for me, as I had listened to her music since before I could remember.

SJ Wanda, thankyou for speaking with us. Welcome to Australia.

Is this your first time here?

WJ No, I was here in 1972 with a large package tour from America for a benefit show for UNICEF. So I've been here before, it's just been a long time.

SJ For our readers that may not know much about you, can you tell us about your early life and how you got into music?

WJ My dad was a musician. He played guitar and fiddle. I was quite young. I loved it (music) and it was the only thing I ever wanted to do. When I was about 12 or 13, I played guitar with my friends at parties. I went to a radio station to try out for a show, and they let me go on. Through that, I won a contest I think it was. That and the radio show gave me a lot of very good experience. From the show, Hank Thompson - he had the number one Western swing band in the nation at the time. He was my favorite singer and he heard me. He helped me get my first recording contract with Decca Records. I was junior in high school. Two years later, I moved to Capitol Records and I was recording straight country music. I had some pretty good success with a couple of songs. So I graduated high school in the summer of '55, and I was ready to go on tour. And as it's turned out, I've been on tour ever since. Fifty-odd years. But it's something I loved then, and I still love it. I've traveled around the world singing my songs, and I've got a lot of wonderful friends.

SJ So did you hear Elvis' music first or did you meet him first?

WJ I had met him first. I hadn't heard any of his songs being played on the radio in Oklahoma City where I lived, so I had no idea who I was working with at the time.

SJ How did that first meeting come about?

WJ As I said, I was ready to go on tour, and we went with the Bob Neal agency. He was booking Elvis at the time. Bob wanted a girl on the bill and he decided to book me. So that's how I began working with Elvis for a couple of years and several extended tours. So we became good friends.

SJ What was being on tour with Elvis and the others like?

WJ Well, at that time it was pretty exciting. Elvis' career was really taking off, you know - '55',56',57 - so we were able to enjoy that success. It was exciting times. I was working with people like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins. People like that on the bill. They were with Elvis and they were with me. They weren't superstars at that time, but they were on their way up.

SJ What were your first impressions of Elvis? Obviously, it was before the big stardom came into his life, so what was he like before the whole thing exploded?

WJ I was very impressed with him. My father was too - he traveled with me in those days. He was the perfect gentleman, very quiet and reserved sort of fellow. We liked him very much.

Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley
Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley.

SJ So did you se much of Elvis after the fifties?

WJ Not really. The last time I saw him was in '64 in Las Vegas. He came to my room to say hello to me and to meet my husband. We had about 10 or 15 minutes with him. But that was the last time.

SJ Did you follow his career during the sixties and seventies?

WJ Yes, of course I did.

SJ What did you make of him as a performer in the seventies and his later career?

WJ Well, he turned out to be the great performer that he always was. Just a little more - oh, I'm not sure what the word is - polished?

SJ And he never lost that good, well-mannered Southern boy thing.

WJ I don't think so, no. I think to anyone who ever knew him, in the latter years even, he remained kind of a private person. But a very nice gentleman.

SJ Where were you when you heard that he had passed away?

WJ I was with my husband and our two children, and we were coming back from a weekend on the lake. And we had the radio on. And it was ... you know, I felt that there must have been some mistake. This can't be the singer Elvis Presley, it had to be someone else. Of course, we all know it was.

It's very hard to accept, even now.

SJ So what do you think it is about Elvis Presley that, 30 years after his death, we're still talking about him? He's making more money than a lot of living celebrities and he's more popular than ever today.

WJ The quality of his voice, the performing. He was just one of a kind. I don't think that anyone has come up in the ranks since him to equal him. He changed music, he changed that way teenagers dressed, he gave identity. He just changed a lot of things. He turned the music industry upside down, and all of that was going on in his wake. He didn't realize, I'm sure, all that he was doing. But it's just a fact that he's even more popular, I guess, now. Of course with our computers and all the media that we have today - and a lot more people in the world - everyone just continues to love his music.

SJ What do you think was the ultimate cause of Elvis' demise? Was fame just too much for him?

WJ No, I don't think that. But I do think that, because of his fame, he lived such an unusual life. It was beginning even on the last few tours that I worked with him. He couldn't go out among people, and he was a people person. So to have to live such an isolated life probably caused him to do the things he did. He made bad choices and ruined his health, but I certainly don't think it was done just to be 'doing it'. I don't know. Never having lived through it myself, I just don't know. I can only imagine. Unhappiness probably. It's too bad. He made a - he was a monster, and he had to live with that then. It's sad.

Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley
Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley.

SJ Indeed. So tell us about your new album, I Remember Elvis.

WJ Well, I'm happy to have made it, finally; I'd been looking to do it for quite a few years, and finally the right record company came along, and I felt like it was time. Because, as we're doing here on this interview, every interview that I've done in the last 20 years, I've mentioned or talked about Elvis. So it seemed like the right thing to do, and my way of saying thank you to him.

SJ So what about the selection of tracks for the album. What were the reasons behind your choices?

WJ It's just the songs that he was doing when I was working with him.

SJ What's your favorite Elvis track of all time?

WJ (long pause) Well, it's a bit hard to say.

But I do like the early Sun and the early RCA songs that he did. Maybe it's because that's the way I knew him, singing like that. He went on to show that world that he did have a great voice. No doubt about that.

SJ Yeah, he got better as he got older, I always thought.

Even towards the end, he had a magnificent vocal range.

WJ Yeah. It didn't matter what he was doing to his body, it never affected his voice.

Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley.
Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley.

SJ And I presume you liked his version of your hit song, (Let's Have A) Party?

WJ Yeah, I do. I didn't know his version very well when he sang it. He did it before me for one if his movies, Loving You. I'm not sure if it was released on a single or not.

SJ So, after this tour of Australia, what's next for you?

WJ From here, we're going to Paris, France. It's kind of unusual, but a special occasion. It's for the Cartier jewelry people. They have an exhibit hall, and the latest exhibit they're opening is called The Roots of Rock'n'Roll. And they're having Little Richard and myself. Little Richard's the only one performing. I might do one song with him, I don't know.

SJ Are there any thoughts of retiring, or is music still too much of a great love for you?

You're sounding better than ever, I think.

WJ Well, I don't know about that. It's still my passion. People say I still sound like I did then. You mentioned earlier, as we age our voices mellow. So I don't have quite as wild a sound now, I'm sure, as when I was 18. But I still sing in exactly the way I recorded my songs.

SJ Finally, Wanda, is there any message you'd like to give the Elvis fans who'll be reading this interview?

WJ The only thing I would say to them is that I'm doing my part; I want them to do their part, to keep Elvis' music alive.

SJ Beautiful. Well said. Thank you so much, Wanda, for speaking with us, we really appreciate it.

WJ Thankyou, Scott, I really enjoyed talking with you.

Interviews with or about Elvis Presley More articles by Scott Jenkins

Wanda Jackson owes a debt to Elvis Presley

'I just want you all to know that without the encouragement of Elvis Presley, I may never have even recorded rock 'n' roll or rockabilly'. Wanda Jackson

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 Presley 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 gave me the courage to try this new style'.

Wanda Jackson
Wanda Jackson.

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 Las Vegas.

Interview with Wanda Jackson by Alanna Nash

Wanda Jackson is the first lady of Rockabilly. 'The nice girl with the bad voice' appeared on the same bill as Elvis on the Hank Snow Jamboree in July and August 1955, and a two-week tour that travelled from Abilene, Texas, to St.Louis, Missouri, in October 1955 and again in early 1956.

Wanda Jackson : In July '55, I'd just graduated from high school. I already had a couple of hit songs in the country music field, and Bob Neal, the talent agent who also managed Elvis before Colonel Parker, said, 'I'm booking a young man named Elvis Presley who is getting popular real fast, and we could use a girl on the show'. I had no idea who he was. I met him at the radio station in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, that afternoon, and I was quite impressed -- a real handsome guy. He was dressed a little flashier than the guys dressed back home in Oklahoma City -- yellow coat, for example -- and when he left the station I saw him get into a pink Cadillac. That was before the days of Mary Kay, and I had never seen a pink car before. We worked together that night. I was in my dressing room, and Elvis was going on, and all of a sudden my dad and I started hearing this screaming. My daddy said, 'I wonder if there's a fire or something. Let me go look'. I started getting my things, and he came back and said, 'No, relax. But you've got to see this for yourself'. He took me to the wings, and there was Elvis singing and moving and gyrating, and all these girls standing at the foot of the stage, screaming and reaching for him.

It was quite an unusual sight for those days. And when the rest of the nation started giving him havoc, it really upset him. Mostly if they said anything too bad, he got mad, because in his mind he was having fun. I don't think he was trying to be vulgar. He was just being flirty with the girls.

We dated off and on for a little over a year on the tours. If we could get in a town early, and it was large enough to have a movie theater, we'd go to a matinee, and then after a show we'd go out to eat, usually with the other musicians and my daddy. Then sometimes we'd get a hamburger and just drive around the town and talk. We had a lot in common. He was a little older, and his career was beginning to blossom, and mine was, too. He was just a fine person. He loved to have fun and he laughed all the time. He didn't take himself seriously. What was really sweet was the fact that he wanted to see me do good in my career. And he was just really eager that I try this kind of music like he was doing [rockabilly]. I'd say, 'But Elvis, I'm just a country singer. I can't sing songs like that'. He said, 'You can, too. You've just gotta try'.

Queen Of Rockabilly album.
Queen Of Rockabilly album.
In the early part of '56, he gave me one of his rings, a man's ring. It had little chipped diamonds. He wasn't very rich at that point. We were in Shreveport, Louisiana, and we'd done a matinee show, and he asked me if I'd step outside. We stood by his car, and he asked me if I'd be his girl. He'd just turned 21, and I was still 18. I had a crush on him, and being able to know him and know his heart made me admire him a lot. So I said I'd be his girl, and he gave me his ring. I wore it for about a year. Of course, this was before he met Priscilla. The last tour I worked with him was in January of '57, and after that he went to Hollywood to start his movie career.

I think his head was just in a spin.

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Elvis Presley Video Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD

Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever. + Plus Bonus DVD Audio.

This is an excellent release no fan should be without it.

The 'parade' footage is good to see as it puts you in the right context with color and b&w footage. The interviews of Elvis' Parents are well worth hearing too. The afternoon show footage is wonderful and electrifying : Here is Elvis in his prime rocking and rolling in front of 11.000 people. Highly recommended.

Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD Video with Sound.