ROCKABILLY QUEEN STILL REIGNS SUPREME
By Paul Freeman
Wanda Jackson, the first female rockabilly star, has just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There she joins former tour mates, including Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Jackson’s fans include Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen.
Her husband/manager, Wendell Goodman gave her the news that she had finally received the overdue honor.
“My husband waited until the whole family was over,” said Jackson, whose terrific new album is titled “I Remember Elvis.” “I didn’t know what was going on. He said we had to have a toast to the newest inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We all exploded, jumped for joy. One of my granddaughters walked in with three dozen, long-stemmed, pink roses. So he really did it up right. I’ll never forget that.”
At age 15, Jackson, an Oklahoman, won a talent contest, which led to her own radio show. Country great Hank Thompson became her mentor.
She toured with Presley in the mid-’50s,, seeing him perform at his most electrifying. “I stood in the wings and watched every night. The reaction was amazing. We had never seen anything like that. We’d heard about girls fainting and swooning when Frank Sinatra sang. But that wouldn’t hold a candle to what was going on with Elvis.”
Jackson dated Presley when they toured. Her father chaperoned her on the road. “My Dad traveled with me until I was married, in order to help me and to keep my reputation intact. He liked Elvis a lot. Elvis and I would go to a matinee movie or go out to a drive-in or something after the show.
“When we were appearing in Memphis, he took me to his home. We played guitar and played records. He sang for me, to give me a feel of how this music had come into being, how he felt, singing ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ and things like that.”
Presley encouraged her to sing rockabilly. “I didn’t have the courage, but he made me promise to try. I was always open to learning more about my trade, still am. I like to watch other performers, study them.
“From Elvis, I learned to have a good time on stage - don’t take yourself too serious, just have fun with the audience. He did that better than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Switching from Decca to Capitol, Jackson recorded such rockabilly classics as “Mean, Mean Man,” “Fujiyama Mama” and “Let’s Have A Party.” She learned to put country tunes on the flip sides for stations that wouldn’t play a girl rock ‘n’roller.
Her natural sweetness muted potential outrage. “I was always a lady, first and foremost. I wasn’t trying to copy Elvis and do those gyrations. I did wear sexy little dresses with the silk fringe that shook pretty good when I walked and when I tapped my foot to sing. And I was feisty on stage. But everyone says they just remember me as being cute.”
A bare-shouldered outfit caused conflict at the Grand Ole Opry. Ernest Tubb, Opry stalwart, came backstage to tell Jackson that she was on next, so she’d better get ready.
“I said, ‘I am ready.’ He said, ‘Oh, no, honey, you can’t go on the stage of the Opry like that!’ I said, ‘Like what?’ I looked down. I thought maybe I’d forgotten to put my shoes on. He said, ‘You can’t show your shoulders on the stage of the Opry. You’ll have to cover up.’
“So I had to go back and get my leather fringe jacket to cover the top of this beautiful new dress that I’d just designed and my mother had made especially. When I went on stage, I was practically in tears. When I came off, I took my Daddy by the hand and said, ‘Let’s get out of here and I’m not ever coming back.’ I found out later that those were the very same words that Elvis said when he played there once.”
When the British Invasion nudged the original rockers off the charts in the mid-’60s, Jackson again made country records.
When she found Christ, Jackson added gospel to her repertoire, expressing her faith. “It was important to me that I get that our there to the world, through my music.”
In the ‘80s, Jackson was invited to play rockabilly dates in Europe, where she had a strong cult following.
“You certainly can’t second-guess what God’s doing in your life, the doors he’s opening for you. Before long, I could see that he was using my testimony in a broader, worldwide arena.”
“Secular music might not provide the deep, lasting spiritual stirrings that gospel does. But you can certainly see people light up and, if they have problems, they’re going to forget them for that evening. I like to see to it that they have a good time. There’s a lot of hurtin’ people out there. So I do my best to minister to them, however I can.”
Performing revitalizes Jackson, a rock pioneer. “Waves of love and energy flow back to me from these audiences. They esteem me quite highly. And most of them could be my children. It’s a unique relationship that I have now with my audiences. It keeps me feeling young.”