Interview: Garth Cartwright meets Wanda Jackson, queen of rockabilly

Presley dated her, McCartney covered her, Costello worships her. As Wanda Jackson hits Britain, Garth Cartwright finds the queen of rockabilly finally getting her due

A curious scene is unfolding at a packed-out north London club. A petite pensioner is being helped on to the stage, big of hair and dressed in a powder-blue trousersuit, looking both dazed and fragile beneath the bright lights. The audience, ranging from teenagers in vintage leather and Levi's to grizzled teddy boys, roars approval. For a moment, it seems that an American tourist in search of Buckingham Palace has got very, very lost. Then she steadies herself, nods to the guitarist and whoops something about a mean, mean man. This is no tourist - this is Wanda Jackson, the undisputed queen of rockabilly.

That was September 2006. Back home in Oklahoma City, Jackson seems like a conventional pensioner again, talking of prayer meetings and grandkids. Then she notes that, having once dated Elvis Presley, she now has Elvis Costello campaigning to have her included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "Not many gals can say that," she says. Indeed, not many gals or guys find bestselling writer Stephen King listing their 1960 hit Let's Have a Party as one of their all-time favourites. Even fewer get flown to Paris to appear alongside Little Richard and Tina Turner. And only an elite find their music receiving regular salutes from DJ Mark Lamarr on his Radio 2 shows.

"I'm now getting recognition as the first woman to sing rock'n'roll," Jackson says. "I never realised that what we were creating then would have such a big impact, and go on to be listened to decades later. Elvis, Buddy [Holly] and I - we were just kids having a good time. Now I have the Cramps and Paul McCartney singing my songs. Finally I can say, 'I was right!'"

Jackson is now, finally, being recognised as the pioneering female rocker. More than a decade before Janis Joplin rasped her way to international stardom, the teenage Jackson was out there, on rock'n'roll's front line. Jackson's run as a rocker in the mid-1950s produced fierce, sexy music, yet Eisenhower's America proved unwilling to embrace a young woman who rocked with such confidence. "Audiences loved my rockabilly tunes, but we could not get radio stations to play 'em," she says. "They just weren't used to hearing a girl singing this stuff."

Country music proved an easier option: throughout the 1960s, Jackson had a string of country hits, and thus found herself written out of rock's pages. Her rebirth as a rocker came in the mid-1980s, when US rockabilly trio the Stray Cats took twangy guitar licks and greasy pompadours to the top of the charts, inspiring a rockabilly revival across Europe. Suddenly European promoters wanted real-deal, original rockabillies. Jackson's phone began to ring and ring. "Scandinavia was where they first wanted me," she says. "We went there and I couldn't believe it - all these young people calling out for my rockabilly songs. I'd forgotten some of the words."

Rockabilly, that febrile hybrid of white country and black blues music, exploded out of Memphis's Sun studios when producer Sam Phillips let the tapes roll as an 18-year-old named Elvis racially integrated the genres in the segregated south. The resulting sound was a call to arms for adolescents - and Jackson, whose music-loving father had raised her on Hank Williams, understood instinctively. Her songs, as London audiences will find out at two gigs later this month, effortlessly match all her male contemporaries in sheer drive and excitement, with Jackson's hiccupping vocals both sassy and sexy.

In his book Unsung Heroes of Rock'n'Roll, author Nick Tosches called Jackson "the greatest menstruating rock'n'roll singer the world has ever known". Let's Have a Party - Jackson's biggest pop hit and since covered by McCartney, among many others - finds Jackson growling: "I never kissed a bear! I never kissed a goon! But I can shake a chicken in the middle of the room! Let's have a party! WOOO!" Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad has the 19-year-old proclaiming proto-girl power, while Fujiyama Mama is simply bizarre: Jackson tells a lover that what she did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki she can do to him. Equally bizarrely, it spent six months at number one in the Japanese charts in 1959.

In the pre-MTV age, Jackson scored hits around the world, singing in Japanese, Czech, Dutch and German. Her version of Fever remains a masterclass in seduction. "A writer described me as 'a nice lady with a dirty voice'. That's about right," she says. "I can still hiccup and sing rockabilly just as we did it back then."

Japan and Australia followed Europe in embracing Jackson. Then American roots singer Rosie Flores took Jackson on tour in the US, and soon she was in demand back home. "It's good to be working the US. Not so much travel. But we don't push it now like we used to. Back then, it was drive and perform and sleep and eat. Living in a Cadillac. I guess I've worked every little crossroads across the US. I was popular in Vegas; I'd play The Golden Nugget or The Showboat, five shows a night - 45 minutes on, 15 off. Real hard work. Still, Vegas was beautiful then, a little oasis. It looks like Disneyworld now."

Jackson claims that ever since her fiddle-playing father put a guitar in her six-year-old hands, all she's wanted to do is sing and entertain. Aged 15, she won a talent contest. A daily radio show, record contract and live gigs followed swiftly. Then, in 1955, she opened for a slightly older adolescent: Elvis Presley. "He wasn't too famous when I met him. Elvis was a real nice guy and encouraged me to start making rockabilly records. He told me, 'It used to be adults buying records, now it's teenagers and they want this new music.'" Jackson and Elvis dated. "I wore his ring but nothing ever happened between us. My father was on the road with me."

Instead, in 1961, Jackson married computer programmer Wendell Goodman. Rather than retiring, as many female singers did on getting married, Jackson suggested Goodman join her on the road. "He thought it looked glamorous," she says, and they both laugh. Forty-six years on, they are still together, despite a rocky point in 1971, brought on by the pressures of life on the road.

"He'd only ever given me a couple of months off to have a couple of kids," she says, "and we were drinking too much and exhausted. The Lord came into our life just in time. We were both saved. I spent the next 18 years singing gospel. A very fulfilling time."

But Jackson still felt the desire to rock. Then Scandinavia called, and she was yet again born again, this time as queen of the rockabillies. London's Ace Records issued two majestic compilations - Queen of Rockabilly and Very Best of the Country Years - and long overdue international recognition finally followed. In 2005, she received the US government's highest accolade for artists, the heritage fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, carrying a $20,000 cheque. Jackson enjoys her iconic status, but admits touring at her age can be tough.

"Travelling certainly gets harder as we get older. That's the great thing about being managed by Wendell. He knows just how much I can take." Still, Jackson finds her youthful audiences bemusing. "Fashions certainly change. In general they change for the worst. These days, everyone has tattoos and they look so awful, especially on the young women. I keep thinking, 'What's that going to look like when the skin gets looser?' Think about it, darlin'!"

· Wanda Jackson plays the Luminaire, London, on July 27 and 28. Box office: 0871 332 4664.

Contributor

Garth Cartwright

The GuardianTramp

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