A Queen Called Wanda

Wanda Jackson took 15 minutes of fame and turned it into 68-year career.

At 80 years old, Jackson is known around the world as The Queen of Rockabilly. At the tender age of 12, Jackson won a talent contest in her native Oklahoma City, and got a 15-minute radio spot every day on the local station. The show was extended to a half hour, and soon young Wanda was off and touring with the likes of Elvis Presley—with her father as chaperone. What followed would go down in music history. The country scene in the ’50s was rife with traditional clothing, flat hair and gender roles. When she hit the road in 1955, rock and roll was not yet named, and women were definitely not part of its plan. Jackson changed the game for good with a little hairspray and fringe, her electric guitar and trademark high, honeyed gravel voice ringing across the airwaves and around the world. (614) got the honor and opportunity to interview Jackson before she graces the capital city with original rock and roll.

You’ve broken down a lot of walls for women in music. Is there anything you see today that’s the same as it was back in the ’50s and ’60s for women?

Little things. But I think the pure talent always comes to the top. The cream always comes to the top. Whether you agree with it or not, some people have the charisma, they have good songs and great voices and they also are entertainers. So all that remains the same. That will never change… I don’t think.

Who are some young artists you like to listen to?

I don’t listen to radio, really. They don’t play a whole lot I can relate to. Some of the stations go back a few years and play good country things. I listen to Tanya Tucker, Brooks and Dunn, and Garth Brooks. They might not have a string of hits going right now, but they are so talented.

People say you were the first woman to bring glamour to country music. Are your sound and your style related?

Who can say? They came along about the same time. But I changed my dress before I started doing rockabilly and rock and roll. I had already gone into silk fringe dresses and the sweetheart neck and halter straps and high heels and earrings and kinda big hair for those days. It wasn’t really what you call “big” now [laughter]. But most of them were just real flat. I tried to put some glamour into country music. I think I was successful in that. [laughter] So I’m proud of that.

You’ve been called country music’s first sex symbol. What advice do you have for young women who are going into music?

That was kind of my intention, but I didn’t know I was a sex symbol at the time. I designed my clothes and my mother always made them so they fit me beautifully. I worked my shows and all the other is just a natural… Just charisma. Something about some people, when they walk into a room, people will turn, and kinda notice. Where other people can do it and it doesn’t affect people the same way. I can’t take a lot of credit for that. I was doing my job, not thinking about being a sex symbol.

I have to ask about Elvis. When you guys were touring together, did you ever get to play alone together? What was he like during rehearsal and offstage?

Well I never did see him rehearse. I didn’t rehearse much either. Hardly anybody did. It’s crazy when you think about it. We did these one-nighters for two and three weeks. We just kinda worked it out as we went. I was used to working with different bands almost every night. I’d hear him singing in the guys’ dressing rooms. Of course, I was never allowed to go in there. My dad traveled with me and made sure I stayed a lady and that my reputation was intact. But I could hear the guys in there singing, and once in awhile after shows, somebody’d say “Hey, listen to the song I just wrote,” and they’d grab a guitar and others would join in. Just spontaneous things.

Elvis took me to his home once when he was trying to encourage me to sing this new kind of music that he was doing. It didn’t really have a name yet. It wasn’t rockabilly or rock and roll, it was just Elvis’ kind of music. I told him, “I love the songs that you do; I could listen to ‘em all the time. But I’m just a country singer and I’m a girl and I can’t do what you do.” And he said, “I know you can.” And he was pretty adamant about it. So he took me to his home and played records for me. Then he’d take his guitar and say, “See if you just do it like this…” And he’d sing a verse. So I was getting the hang of it at that time. Of course I was a 17-year old kid. And he was something so fresh and new. And I had a crush on him just like his whole audience did. I thought he was great. We got to date a little bit when we were on the road, go to movies and go out to eat, and go get a Coke and things. We were good friends. But he wanted to see me successful and I thought that was so generous of him. To take the time with an artist like me. To take the time and show me, and I got to watch him perform every night on these long tours. So I guess you could say I had a very good teacher.

Jack White approached you and asked if he could produce an album with you. How did things change after you worked with him?

Well, my popularity certainly shot up. I’d always had good crowds, because I work an audience and I meet people. But after that album, there was so much publicity about me and the album and Jack that the crowds were just unbelievable. They were sold out, standing room only, I had to stay an extra night because so many people didn’t get to see the show. And I hadn’t really experienced that on my own and it was a darn good thing—it really was. When I recorded with him, he had the ability—don’t ask me how—of pulling out this young girl that was still in me, I guess. I said, “Jack, you want me to sing like I did when I was 18, and I don’t think I can do that anymore.” And he said, “Yeah, she’s still in there, we’ll get her.” So he worked me hard, but it was very, very good for me to be with someone so talented, with so much energy. He took his complete band with backup singers and everything on the road to introduce this album to people. We did Letterman in New York City, We went to California and did… Oh.. What’s his name? The red-headed guy?

Conan? Conan! Yeah, we did his show, and Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. But he just went out of his way to help this record, and it did wonders for it. It truly did, and it was one of the best-selling records I had in many years.

Was there a moment in time when you knew things were changing for women in rock and roll?

could see that the music was changing. I would try to incorporate in my show some of the newer songs and things. But I found out it really wasn’t what the people wanted from me. They wanted to hear me sing the songs that they have on record, and that they play when they get together with their friends and they dance to. I didn’t have a chance to experiment much with the new things. I know I quit writing songs during that period because they just seem so different. I couldn’t really get a handle on them. Recently I’ve gone back into Nashville and written with some of the top writers in Nashville. So I’m kind of getting back into the swing of things—so never say it’s too late. •

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