‘I couldn’t be tied down!’ Wanda Jackson, rockabilly’s raucous queen

She dated Elvis – then made him look tame with her growling, high-energy rock’n’roll. And at 83 years old, she still can’t quite embrace retirement

In 2019, Wanda Jackson announced her retirement from performing. She had been on the road for 65 years, during which time she had variously been a country star, a rock’n’roll pioneer, a gospel singer and a grande dame hailed as either the Queen of Rockabilly, or its First Lady. It was a career that had taken her from touring with Elvis Presley just as his career took off to collaborating with Jack White, but she was ready to stop travelling: she had suffered a stroke, “problems with my knees and such”, and Wendell Goodman, her husband and manager of 55 years, had died in 2017. She was, she says, “glad of the rest”.

And yet, here we are, two and a half years on. Jackson is peering out of my laptop screen from her home in Oklahoma: 83, sharp as a tack, fully madeup, elaborately coiffured and brushing aside queries about what happened to her retirement with a chuckle of “it’s hard to get a good girl down”.

She is not returning to touring – “It just got too much for me” – but she does have a new album, her 32nd: Encore, a collaboration with Joan Jett. The former Runaway is the latest in a string of artists a fraction of Jackson’s age to work with her. Besides White, who produced and played on 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over, she has variously recorded with everyone from Elvis Costello to the Cramps and the late Justin Townes Earle, all of them clearly in thrall to the ferocious string of records she released in the late 1950s: hard, fast, raucous rock’n’roll of a kind no other female performer of the time recorded, their latterday reputation far outstripping their commercial success at the time. “Sometimes I kiddingly say: ‘Well, they finally found the good music,’” she smiles. “They looked in the garbage pail and they found a sandwich!”

Jackson began life as a country singer – she had a record deal with Decca while still in high school – but it was touring with Elvis that altered her approach: he convinced her that she was a natural fit for rock’n’roll. “My daddy, who was my first manager, wanted me to be open to new things that come along; he thought Elvis was right. We could see his crowds were young people, the excitement they had for his music, and then it got to where you turned the radio on, you couldn’t find anything but that, so we said: ‘Let’s give it a try.’”

Her first attempt at the new genre sounded tentative – 1956’s I Gotta Know kept switching from sugary country ballads to tough rockabilly – but, thereafter, Jackson carved out a pioneering and unique niche for herself among rock’n’roll’s first wave. Black female blues artists – Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Maybelle among them – had fed into her sound, and there were other female rock’n’roll singers: Sparkle Moore, Janis Martin, Connie Francis and Brenda Lee. But none sounded remotely like Jackson, who sang in an astonishingly raw, filthy rasp, that she says came about as a reaction to being told by a producer to sing more softly.

“I was trying, but I didn’t want to,” she says. “And my daddy, he saw what was happening, he called me out and said: ‘This is your song and this is your record, you sing it the way you want to sing it – forget what he’s saying.’ That’s the best advice he could give me, because I just went back in, kind of mad and determined. I reared back and out came the growl!”

Belting it out in the studio, circa 1970.
Belting it out in the studio, circa 1970. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Then there were her aggressive lyrics. Jackson’s songs variously had her dallying with bad boys; catting around and telling her horrified partner to “take it or leave it”; boozing and smoking; and “leaving the dishes on the kitchen sink” in order to party with a disreputable-sounding character called Beefsteak Charlie. Her glamorous look was big on fringed dresses run up by her mother, and apparently deemed too scandalous for Nashville’s most famous venue, the Grand Ole Opry. “I was ready to go and [country musician] Ernest Tubb saw me: ‘Are you Wanda? Well, get ready, honey, because you’re on next.’ I said: ‘I am ready.’ And he looked at me and said: ‘You can’t go on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry like that: you can’t show your bare shoulders. You’ll have to cover up your arms.’ So I went back and put on the jacket that I’d been wearing, wore it on top of my brand new dress that I’d designed just for the Opry. Went on there in tears, tried to sing my song and when I got off, I found Daddy and said: ‘Let’s get out of here, I’m never coming back.’ I understand Elvis did the very same thing. But later on, I did go back,” she chuckles. “Went back with Jack White, with drums and horns and back-up singers and the fringe on my dress a-flyin’!”

The voice, the lyrics, the clothes: it all gave the impression that Jackson had seen rather more of life than her peers. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth: chaperoned everywhere by her father, she was, she says, “a sweet girl with a nasty voice”. Even a brief romance with Elvis consisted of chaste dates at drive-in movies and hamburger restaurants and strictly “no hanky panky”, which hasn’t stopped it looming large over her legend: when Elvis Costello successfully lobbied for Jackson to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, her husband was heard to dolefully remark “just what I need – another Elvis in my life”.

Nevertheless, the rockabilly tracks she recorded in 1957 and 1958 – Hard-Headed Woman, Honey Bop, Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad; the self-penned Mean Mean Man and Rock Your Baby – still sound extraordinary, 60 odd years later. If you want a point of comparison, listen to her cover of Jessie Mae Robinson’s Let’s Have a Party next to the version Elvis cut for his 1957 film Loving You: with the greatest of respect to the King, Jackson’s take on the song makes his sound distinctly polite.

Performing in 2016.
Performing in 2016. Photograph: Harmony Gerber/Getty Images

And for all her protestations about her sweetness, there was a steeliness about Jackson’s attitude. She toured 1950s America with her racially integrated backing band the Poe Kats, fellow Oklahomans who featured African American pianist Big Al Downing, a defiantly ballsy move in a world where the Coasters or Chuck Berry could be turned away from venues who had booked them in the mistaken belief they were white. “We were booked into a military base, an officer’s club or something up in North Dakota, I believe,” she says. “Apparently the manager of the club hadn’t noticed the band before I got there, then he saw Big Al, so he immediately comes up to the stage, calls me over and says: ‘Wanda, you’re going to have to get that black boy off the stage.’ I said: ‘Huh? Why?’ He said: ‘We don’t allow any blacks on stage.’ I said: ‘Oh, are you sure about that?’ Then I turned around and said: ‘OK guys, tear down, we’re not doing this show here.’ The manager says: ‘No, wait, the rest of you don’t have to quit.’ I said: ‘Well, look, he’s a member of my band; if he can’t play that means the band can’t play, and I can’t play without the band, so we’ll call it a night.’ He said: ‘Oh, well, go ahead!’”

Perhaps predictably, her forthright approach did not always go down well. “I didn’t hear much, but I understand there were comments,” she says. “Capitol Records didn’t know what to do with me because they had signed a country artist, but I was doing things other than country. So they kept trying to pigeonhole me but I couldn’t be tied down. Disc jockeys would hardly play my rockabilly songs because I wasn’t country; I was breaking out of the shell, they weren’t going to help me. But I hung in there and kept doing it anyway.”

If the US proved resistant, she found unlikely success in other countries. Her 1957 single Fujiyama Mama – written by Jack Hammer, best known for co-writing Great Balls of Fire – was a huge hit in Japan, which seems extremely sporting of the Japanese given its lyrical approach to their country’s recent history: “I’ve been to Nagasaki and Hiroshima too, the same I did to them baby, I can do to you.” “I know,” she nods. “Americans were having trouble playing it, and we won the war! But the Japanese loved the American ways … anyway, it was No 1 the whole summer of 59. I went on a two-month tour over there. I got the star treatment and I wasn’t used to that. I’d go out to shop or whatever and, before long, there’d be a whole bunch of people following me. I didn’t know what I’d gotten into. Every time I go back to Japan, that song is still like a standard.”

But by the time she actually scored a belated US rock’n’roll hit – the two-year-old Let’s Have a Party made the charts in 1960 after being used as a radio show’s theme tune – she had already resolved to return to country, dispirited by her lack of chart success. It proved a commercially successful move: she had a string of 60s hits, before becoming a born-again Christian and shifting to releasing gospel, largely performing in churches and at evangelist meetings. She assumed her dalliance with rock’n’roll had been forgotten – “People thought I’d either gone just strictly gospel or I’d died” – until the early 80s, when she was invited to Sweden to tour and record a rockabilly album. “After prayer and thought and speaking with our minister, we decided that’s the way God wanted to use us … That’s why we did it, and then people found out I was still alive.”

Thus began Jackson’s rockabilly renaissance, which not even her retirement seems to have stifled. She thinks Encore might be her last album, but then again, perhaps not. “Like so many things in my career, you never know. If I’m able to do something I still want to. I go to concerts of other people around our area and they always introduce me. I look forward to those times, to get to visit old friends, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, people like that. Maybe I could do a duet with someone, or make an appearance somewhere.”

She sounds enthused, then remembers she’s supposed to be a lady of leisure these days. “But I’m happy either way,” she smiles. “I’m enjoying the rest, I really am.”

Encore by Wanda Jackson is released 20 August on Big Machine/Blackheart

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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