The Queen of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson is back on her throne. Bowing at her feet, Jack White pays his respects.
As rock and roll hit the conservative Fifties like a meteor, a generation of youths picked up guitars, hammered on pianos and swivelled their hips to the horror of the American public. Imagine the outrage if into this heinous boys club entered a demure seventen-year-old country girl.
Wanda Jackson’s career took a dramatic turn from hillbilly to rockabilly at the suggestion of Elvis Presley – the pair toured together and dated – before sparking the first female rock and roll revolution with hits such as ‘Fujiyama Mama’, ‘Mean, Mean, Mean’ and ‘Let’s Have A Party’.
Though her career declined in the late Sixties as rock and roll’s popularity waned, Wanda entered the Seventies as a gospel singer. Rockabilly’s comeback in the Eighties brought Jackson back to the world’s attention, and she hasn’t stopped since.
Her new album, ‘The Party Ain’t Over’, was produced by Jack White, at his request. The White Stripe hand-picked songs to cover (from Bob Dylan to Amy Winehouse), provided his own studio and stellar backing band, and is releasing the album on his Third Man Records. It’s a debt he’s repaying for the years of pleasure her music gave him.
Similarly honoured, Clash was granted an audience with the noble queen – bright, vivacious and still rocking at seventy-three…
How are you enjoying London? Have you been here a while, or are you staying a while?
Well, no. Half and half. (Laughs) One question at a time: I haven’t been here long and I’m not staying too long. We leave Thursday.
Will it just be press and interviews while you’re here?
No, we’re recording the Jools Holland…um…
Yes, for New Year’s Eve. I’m on it. But I’ve been on a strictly promotion tour that started in Paris and then went to Hamburg and now we’re here. Then we go back for Christmas at home, then we do some of this kind of work in America too.
What’s Christmas like for you? Where do you celebrate?
We make our home in Oklahoma City. Well, most people are pretty traditional. I know our kids are! Whether we want them to be or not, they are traditional! They want the Christmas tree, the outside lights, the Santa Claus. I say ‘kids’; our kids of course are grown – we have four grandchildren that we’ve had the pleasure of being with and seeing them growing up. And then we have Christmas Eve at our house and everybody opens presents together, and on Christmas we get with my husband’s family – the Goodmans – and most of our kids come to Christmas dinner, which we usually have around two o’clock. The family’s gotten so large now – all the kids have grown up, they’ve got kids, and now those kids have got husbands and wives. So, we have a club house in our area and we rent that every year. They cook their dinner at home and transport it and then we warm it all up. It’s always fun. That’s a whole day of just all family.
You were born in Oklahoma in the 1930s. When people think of that place and time, they imagine the Great Depression and the dust bowls. Do you think people from that era were born with an inbred desire to succeed or to better themselves?
That’s a pretty interesting question. I don’t know about anybody except myself – I wanted to be successful, but it wasn’t for that reason. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard anyone say this, but as a child growing up, most of us, we didn’t know we were poor, because everyone around was also poor. We had all of the necessities of life and we were quite happy. I’m an only child, so I probably had it easier than families that had a lot of children. We didn’t know times were hard! (Laughs) It was harder on our folks.
You were certainly the first generation of teenagers; the youths of the Fifties were the first generation to want better for themselves.
Oh yeah. Well, the parents all wanted something better for their kids than what they’d had, and so maybe there was a little more push and drive to get out there and be successful. I know my father was intent on my having at least a High School education, and he would have preferred probably if I’d gone on to college or something, but he was the one who taught me music, and he sang himself when he was younger, in a band. He understood that fire that was in me, that desire to sing, so he understood why, when I got out of school, I wanted to go on the road. I had already had two hits in country music while I was in High School on Decca Records, so I already had a bit of a name built up in some areas. So he just decided that since this was what I wanted to do, he would just go with me and help me do it. So Mother stayed at home, kept a full-time good job with the government, and therefore he could go out and travel with me. I wasn’t making enough for anything – working for $50 a night, and we were paying out own gas and hotels and food, so there wasn’t a lot left. But there again they just sacrificed that; they sacrificed their time together and any home life that they could have, and social life, just so that my dreams could come true.
Was that something you appreciated at the time, or is that something you’ve come to appreciate since learning what they sacrificed for you?
No, I knew what they were doing then, and I was most grateful.
Was your father’s music your first exposure to music? Can you remember your earliest memories of music?
As a young girl it was probably just at home, maybe the radio. I guess there were radios in the cars… I was pretty young! (Laughs)
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You started off as a country artist. As a genre it really became successful and popular in the Forties and Fifties. As a new genre, was it exciting to be a part of for you?
Oh yeah. It was just what I lived a for; a new record I could buy and listen to it over and over and over, learn to sing it, learn to play the chords on the guitar – anything to do with music, I loved it. By the time my parents moved back to Oklahoma – let’s see, I was in the fifth grade, which would make me about nine years old, I guess – I had a lot of friends from the church – my mother being a very good Christian woman, she saw to it that I was brought up in church, and we joined a Baptist church there in Oklahoma City. My friends in the church were daring me to go up to a radio station that had local talent and just try out, you know. So, when they double dared me, (laughs) I had to do it! So I went up and tried out for that and from that point on I was on the radio quite a bit. And then in ’54 I signed my first recording contract with Decca…
And there was no looking back!
No looking back!
It’s well documented about the impact that Elvis Presley had on you in terms of the direction your music was going. 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.
Did your parents feel the same way about rock and roll as other parents did?
No. It didn’t bother them at all. They liked it. My dad, it made sense to him, so he was all for it, and even helped me to start writing some of the songs myself. Because there weren’t any songs for girls being written, so I started writing some.
Just to find your own path?
Mm-hmm. That’s why I was the first one to record it. I was quite young – it was ’56 when I first started recording.
The first big hit was ‘Let’s Have A Party’…
In America it was the first.
When did you first come across that song?
The Collins Kids had it recorded, and I worked with them in California on the Ranch Party show. They were doing it, it was their new record, and I thought, ‘Boy, that’s a cute song’. So I learned it, and started opening my shows with it, and gosh, people loved it. It’s a perfect song for it you’re at a dance or you’re out for the evening – let’s have a party! And then I recorded it eventually.
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. It was a small window of time, but we made quite an impact in that amount of time.
What about your impact? You were a girl following in the footsteps of these controversial male rock and rollers. Was it more controversial for a girl to be playing that kind of music?
Well, apparently it was. I didn’t think about it. I mean, it didn’t bother me or my folks, so I didn’t think about it much. It’s just music; I wanted to try it. But I couldn’t get airplay in America, so I think that was the problem; they didn’t want to accept Elvis and Jerry Lee [Lewis] and those, but the public demanded it, so they had to play it. And then, here comes this teenage girl singing it! (Laughs) And most people say I sing it as well if not better than some of the guys. But they wouldn’t help me by playing my record. And so I recorded for about four years, and then I just stopped. I gave up, because I hadn’t had a hit, and my record sales were dropping. That’s why all that’s happening to me now is so amazing – that this whole body of work is just now being appreciated. It’s amazing.
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You became a Christian in 1971, and started singing only gospel music. Did that make you look differently at the music you’d recorded before? Did you regret making secular music?
Oh, I thought about them; I kinda analysed it after I became a Christian, but no, I didn’t feel bad about them. That’s why even today I can still sing them without conviction that I’m singing something bad. I think they’re very innocent little songs – especially if you compare them to today’s stuff! But even not considering that, it was when America was more innocent. They say the Fifties was the last generation of the innocent years for America. After that, here comes the protests and the wars, so everything changed so drastically then.
Let’s fast-forward to your new album. You sound so excited and enthusiastic on the album; you really match the instrumental fervour built up by Jack White.
Was it a surprise to you that you’d fit in with what Jack White brought to the table?
Yeah, actually I was. Because when he told us he was interested in doing a single and possibly an album with me, well of course it was exciting news, because he’s about the most popular artist there is right now, or one of them for sure. And I thought he wants to take all this talent he has and his time and effort, and actually he’s trying to help me by presenting me to a new generation. He’s just so unselfish in that respect. I knew he’d recorded Loretta Lynn and she’d had a very successful record that he produced, so that sounded interesting to me. But I was a bit apprehensive about what he was gonna want me to record, and I thought, ‘If he’s wanting me to do this new style that the girls are singing, I can’t do that! I don’t want to do it!’ But he convinced that no, he wasn’t gonna try to change my style. See, he is a big fan of mine!
Did he know more about your songs than you did?
I think so, probably! We were told he even had a poster of mine up on his bedroom wall when he was still going to school. So he was a fan, and he didn’t want to change my style, but he wanted to hear that eighteen-year-old girl, that energy, that growl, that attitude.
I think ‘attitude’ is a good word for you on this album. Because you cover Amy Winehouse’s ‘You Know I’m No Good’ – that’s a song originally sung by a cocky twentysomething; here’s you singing like you’ve lived a whole life of misbehaviour.
Yeah, you know I’m no good! (Laughs) That’s good. See, that’s the way Jack was thinking. Because I didn’t want to record that song; I just thought it was a bit explicit, and I wasn’t sure if my fans would want me singing that. But he changed a verse for me and made it less explicit. Then he helped me learn it. I didn’t even think I was going to record it, so I came to the session totally unprepared – I had not learnt it. But he didn’t say a word about that. He just taught me the melody and the phrasing and everything and was very patient with me, and got me into the song and it just kind of exploded. And now, I really love to sing that song. It’s one of my favourites on the album.
This album is bound to see you achieving great success and will send you around the world, keeping you busy for the next few years. Sounds like there’s no chance you’ll be retiring any time soon?
It doesn’t look like it! (Laughs) I don’t want to retire. I still love what we’re doing and our crowds are bigger now than I’ve ever been able to draw, and being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame was a real shot in the arm – for me, personally, even. Hey, I think I’m ready for round two – here we go! (Laughs)
Words by Simon Harper
Photo by Jesse John Jenkins
Read Clash’s review of Wanda Jackson’s ‘The Party Ain’t Over’ HERE.