Wanda Jackson, The First Lady of Rock and Roll, set the record straight. Last Friday, it was my honor to chat with Ms. Jackson. She was sweet as tea and gave me a little lesson on the history of Rock and Roll. We also talked about how she got started, her Oklahoman contemporaries, Jack White, and how the young folks love her so.
With a career revival in tow, a new album and tour—she’ll be in DC tomorrow at 9:30 Club, and of course we have a pair of tickets for you to win—The First Lady is set to bring you back home, to your roots. Because, the “party ain’t over.”
Did you know she sings in German, too?
Details for the ticket giveaway after the interview.
So you are known as the Queen of Rockabilly or the First Lady of Rockabilly—
[Corrects me] First Lady of Rock and Roll.
Oh, Rock and Roll. Thank you for clearing that up. So you do mind that moniker?
Oh no, I don’t mind at all. I just wish everybody would stop using the word “rockabilly.” You know, [rockabilly] just refers to the first rockers. So, I just prefer to be called, if anything, First Lady of Rock and Roll.
I’m the first woman to record [rockabilly]. The word “rockabilly” came from—if you want the real history—the [so-called] country people. If you’re saying, “it is country style,” you were known as “hillbilly.” When the word “rock” began to be used a little bit more, because of the association with Bill Haley and Elvis, it became known as rockabilly because [the musicians] played guitars. It was a new kind of music.
So, tell me a little bit about your earlier career and how you got into the game?
Well, I just started out singing like most kids at church, the youth parties and gatherings, and then at school assemblies. And then my friends dared me to go to a local radio station and tryout with what they called “Local Talent.” That’s kind of my beginning. Then I won a contest on the same radio station. [The rules were] if you won the contest, you got your own fifteen-minute show or [so]. But [my show] did really well. The folks at station told me if I would keep it sponsored, like buying sponsors, I could keep that timeslot.
And let me guess, you got sponsors?
Yes, I got a lumber company and a furniture store, and I got a little timeslot. You know, I am not sure how long I had that show, but it was through the… show that Hank Thompson heard me singing… and gave me a call. He was very much my favorite singer.
He was inviting me to come and sing with his band at the Dan’s Place here in Oklahoma City the coming Saturday night, and I said, “Well, Mr. Thompson, I would love to do it, but I will have to ask my mother first. I think I was like 15. And, Hank Thompson, he became my mentor.
So what label first signed you?
Decca Records in 1954. I was a junior in high school. And by the time I graduated high school in 1955, I had two country hits under my belt, and I was ready to go on tour. But that is how that kind of unfolded. After I was finally out of school, I was able to do some tours with [Hank] and his band.
Give some names of musicians you could tour with over and over again.
So Hank’s would be first and then Elvis. It was fun being with him especially in ’55, ’56, and to a little bit of ’57, when I did tours with him. Of course, it wasn’t exclusively, but I was doing television and my own shows too. It wasn’t long before I would do package shows, so I have a lot of buddies you know, in both fields, Country and Rock. I also like touring with Jerry Lee Lewis.
And you paved the way for some well-known contemporaries from Oklahoma, your home state.
Yeah, nowadays, you have got out of Oklahoma alone Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, and of course, the list goes on with movie stars and everything.
I read somewhere just a couple of days ago that you’ve recorded in other languages.
I have. I have recorded, and very successfully, in German. I had a number one song in Germany, back in 1965, but that’s in the German language. So, I’m a darling of Germany. I wound up having eighteen songs in [German].
What’s the [rockabilly-style] scene in Europe like?
Oh, yeah, very [alive]. In fact, until ’95 when I was kind of re-introduced to this new generation of Rockabilly fans you know, I was working. I was making four or five trips a year to Europe and Scandinavia. They always embraced Rock and Roll from the very beginning. They did never go into a dead period, you know.
And in the States you’ve found a whole new fan base, right?
I’ve had fans from every generation, you know. I have old fans, and I’ve made a lot of new ones. It’s something you know you don’t think about a lot of what you do. There are people of all these different ages who love my singing. It’s just an awesome feeling.
And I’m really enjoying performing nowadays to this younger generation for a few years. With [the younger crowd] I’ve gotten used to that screaming and hollering. They sing along with me and stand up right up next to me on the stage, you know, and that’s what I love.
So, what are some of your favorite American cities, besides DC?
Oh, there is a bunch. There’s Austin, Texas. Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hollywood… the Knitting Factory. I have really great turnouts and enthusiastic crowds.
Wanda and I were just about to start talking about the song “Thunder on the Mountain” from her new album when her manager and husband Wendell called to ask if she wanted to see Bob Dylan. He was touring through Oklahoma last week.
When she finished, we got down to brass tacks about Jack White and their collaboration The Party Ain’t Over.
So you worked with Jack White. How did that come to be?
Oh, we found out that Jack was a fan of mine. He was a friend of Wendell and my publicist. We had thought about, maybe on the next album, whenever someone wants to record with me, we had in mind, “Wanda and Friends.” This other acquaintance of ours lives in Nashville, and she said, “Well, hey, if you do that be sure you contact Jack White because I know he is a big fan of yours, as well as the whole fifties genre.” So, my publicist turned right around and got a hold of him, asking whether he would be interested in doing a duet on my album with me. And Jack said, “No. Thank you very much. But no.”
But he said, “What I would be interested in, is to record her, to do a single and possibly an album.” Then things started getting exciting.
So, he—shortly after that, he called and talked to Wendell and I, and you know, told us kind of what he had in mind and that he would be having to work long distance because I live in Oklahoma.
So there was no in-person meeting? It was just over the phone?
I didn’t really meet him until I went in to start the record. We had a good relationship. He has just done so much for me and for this album and bringing me back in to the forefront, you know. [Jack] aided me so to speak to a newer generation. And you know he took his whole band, the horn section, the backup singers, himself… and we got the David Letterman Show. He publicized that album. When it came out, we did a concert in New York—sold out. We did the Grand Ole Opry. We did Conan O’Brien and two sold out houses in Hollywood. And you know, just the thought that he took that much of his time and money. I don’t know about the money. They worked it out ‘cause I don’t get into business. I don’t know a thing about it. (Laughs) I just want to sing. Just book me somewhere.
[She laughs some more, then finishes her thought.]
Jack and I are kind of kindred spirits, you know.
Is he a charming guy?
He is a young man with an old soul.
Everybody in the spotlight has that moment when they say, “I’ve made it.” Care to share with me your I-made-it moment?
Elvis encouraged me to keep my music up. He showed me how and everything, and gave me the confidence to try it: Rock and Roll, instead of just doing Country. He felt that I should stretch myself, you know, and he was right. So, Rock and Roll was really my aim. I wanted to be a Rock and Roll singer. And somehow, I’ve made it. But, the real moment would have been in 2009 being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I said, “Man, I found a home! I love it.” I finally made it as a Rock and Roll singer.
To win the pair of tickets to see Wanda Jackson tomorrow night, tell us in the comments below, your favorite artist or band who has made a comeback, besides The First Lady of Rock and Roll. The deadline is tomorrow (7/26) at noon, and the winner must confirm the tickets via email by 3pm!